Factory contracts for teachers unions

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As the discussion about public sector unions gains traction across the country (the short list I know of includes Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and now Maine) what often seems to be missing is the main point of public education—making sure that all kids, including the 100,000 poor and minority MA students stuck in failing schools, have access to a good education. It’s not about the benefits and needs of the adults in the schools.

In Massachusetts, public sector employees as a whole receive higher salaries than those in the private sector doing comparable work (especially in the eastern part of the state). That’s an issue worth discussion. But people in the teaching profession are not making a killing–and the fact is that they start out too low. That is, the way the “step” system and collective bargaining work, you only make a good living after many years in the profession; at which point you also get overly generous benefits–benefits that are far more extensive (and far more expensive) than in the private sector. In a world of finite resources, there is an argument to be made that the generous benefits for veterans often come at the expense of younger teachers.

If as a state we engage in a broad public conversation about collective bargaining, there are even more important debates to be had about the impact of unionization on teacher quality and educational opportunities. If it is to be an adult conversation, we have to avoid easy equations such as “unions = bad schools,” for the fact is that you can’t correlate unionization with lower quality schools. Massachusetts is a good example of a state where high percentages of unionization have not led to low quality outcomes; our students outperform those in states with Right to Work provisions.

The other fact that adults would have to recognize is that our teachers’ unions have a long record of opposing key reforms that have proven critical to our students’ success in interstate and international comparisons. The unions have fought the implementation of the MCAS test. They have fought to water down the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL), seeking to install the lower quality Praxis tests used in so many other states. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, like its parent organization the National Education Association and unlike the American Federation of Teachers (national and state), has sought to weaken academic standards in Massachusetts by advancing the soft skills agenda of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. And they aren’t big fans of Commonwealth (non-unionized) charter schools.

The bigger problem with teachers’ unions is that they have, over time, taken on a very industrial feel. The contracts they have negotiated put a priority on protecting those already in the profession. Union leaders have insisted on highly specific work rules, and they unfortunately often lose sight of the larger enterprise—in this case, a great education for students.

Consider that most contracts are negotiated in such a way as to emphasize salary increases rather than higher up-front salaries for new entrants. They ratchet up benefits after multiple years of service. They provide protections and additional rights to teachers based on seniority rather than merit (no, they are decidedly not the same thing).

Consider a recent report that my research firm (Pioneer Institute) did of 25 contracts from rural, suburban and urban districts. What we found was the highly rule-bound factory-style labor contracts, which provide very little flexibility for managers and teachers to make decisions, are in place in most of our larger urban districts.

We are talking about operating some city schools under contracts that are a whopping 250 pages in length. These contracts include provisions that limit the number of minutes before the school day that teachers can show up, how often a superintendent can meet with teachers, how ineffective teachers are dealt with (they’re usually not dealt with), and how good teachers are rewarded (under factory models, they are not rewarded). They give teachers with lots of years in the system the right to bounce younger teachers in a downturn—or to determine which teachers teach in what school or what class.

Consider the New Bedford contract, which is hardly an anomaly. Even though the city has a low percentage of students scoring “advanced” or “proficient” on MCAS, it is not focused on raising performance. Rather, its textbook factory-style contract treats all teachers the same. Like widgets.

  • Teachers are to report to school five minutes before the start of instruction. There are rigid limits on time spent after school.
  • Common planning time for elementary teachers is limited to 30 minutes on the first and third Wednesday of each month.
  • The superintendent is limited to one after-school meeting per year; principals can hold one a month.
  • Meetings are limited to no longer than an hour and never longer than an hour and 15 minutes.
  • Few contracts are like Leominster’s, where weak-performing teachers work with an administrator and sometimes a union representative to develop a corrective plan and a timeline for improvement.
  • Teachers with seniority can choose the schools they work in.

Strict seniority provisions are vestiges of the industrial revolution. Seniority does not equate with high-quality instruction. And teachers are not like assembly line workers—they are not interchangeable. So seniority does real damage when layoffs come, as is happening in a number of districts now. In places like New Bedford, no tenured teacher can be laid off if there is a non-tenured teacher for whose position he or she is qualified.

Now, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Paul Toner, and other leaders of local teachers unions will tell you that it is the fault of the managers—that it takes two to tango. And I agree in theory. But not in practice. As Andy Rotherham makes very clear in the latest Time magazine issue, collective bargaining means different things for teachers as opposed to, say, steelworkers:

We keep hearing how there isn’t any difference between collective bargaining for steelworkers or autoworkers and bargaining for public-sector workers like teachers. Not exactly. While steelworkers can’t pick the boards of directors for steel companies, teachers’ unions have enormous influence in elections for school board members and state legislators. And while car and steel factories can go bankrupt — providing a real check on what kinds of demands labor can make — there is not the same constraint in the public sector, because while states can go broke, they can’t go out of business.

There have been a number of sensational reports about local unions in suburban districts (e.g., Wrentham/King Phillip and Chelmsford) going into lockdown mode when they did not get hefty raises they sought (initially ranging from 20-25 percent over 3 years). If it wasn’t in the contract, they did not do it: No letters of recommendation for seniors, no online homework assignments for parents.

But places like King Phillip Regional and Chelmsford, while they have issues, do not face the challenges of populations (often immigrant and poor) in our larger districts. The New Bedford contract is a recipe for teaching and therefore student failure.

And, anyone who cares about teaching has to recognize that these contracts aren’t helping bestow any additional dignity on the profession. We know that teacher quality has more impact on student learning than any other variable, and we are not keeping the best and brightest in the profession. The 2008 “TeLLS” survey of Massachusetts teachers show they often don’t feel valued. Salaries matter in feeling valued. So collectively bargain on that. But tying the hands of principals and teachers in our schools is not making any smart teacher feel valued.

So a challenge for Paul Toner and Governor Patrick. They have both voiced openness to so-called “thin contracts.” Let’s take health care benefits and other benefits off the table and provide teachers the high-quality health care options already available to state workers. Let’s do the same for retirement health care benefits, which only a handful of the 300-plus districts have begun setting money aside to pay for. And finally, let’s have a real conversation about giving managers flexibility to run the schools, while raising starting salaries and implementing merit-based incentives for teachers.

Does anyone actually think restrictions on the number of times that a superintendent can meet with teachers, or really any of the handful of examples noted above, is for the good of the students?