We are currently negotiating the most important labor contract in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
It can’t come as a surprise to anyone that the district faces serious challenges. Money is extremely tight, and providing the students in our diverse district with the best possible education requires change and reform.
On the plus side, we are seeing enormous energy for change within the schools. Talented teachers and administrators have come together to explore new methods of reaching students, and they are seeing results. It’s crucial that we maintain this momentum.
To continue moving forward, I believe we must make some groundbreaking changes to our collective bargaining agreements. In the end, the changes I advocate would free excellent teachers and administrators from constraints on using their knowledge, skills and wisdom. They would put more power into the hands of teachers and administrators to determine how best how to serve the students at their schools. And they would enable the district to reward excellent performance.
Here are some of the contract components I think are essential to vastly improving our schools — and to giving our respected and valued educators the power to do their jobs well.
•Mutual consent in hiring. Currently, schools with open positions find themselves obligated to hire teachers who have been displaced by other schools, even when those teachers aren’t good fits. The contract needs to guarantee schools that they will not be forced to hire teachers or administrators simply because they are in need of being placed. Schools should have the right to choose all their staff.
•A robust and meaningful evaluation system. Teacher evaluations are currently inconsistent from school to school and not helpful. They can be haphazard. We need a standardized system for evaluating teachers that is based on multiple measures. Student achievement must be included, along with evaluations by trained observers and parent and student survey feedback. A teacher’s contribution to the school and the community should be considered too.
•A better process for granting tenure. State law requires that tenure decisions must be made after two years. In my opinion, this is much too short a time frame to be sure that a teacher is worth being granted the long-term job protections of tenure. But it is the time frame we are stuck with. To make the awarding of tenure meaningful, we must provide timely and effective support to teachers, then collect and analyze detailed and comprehensive evidence of how the teacher is doing. Tenure must be a high bar and a meaningful event in a teaching career. We must enforce high standards, and then, when tenure is granted, it must be celebrated and accompanied by a significant salary increase.
•Compensation reform. The most successful teachers and administrators should be rewarded with significant raises, and these raises must come early in their careers so as to encourage them to stay in education. Additional compensation should also be awarded to employees who successfully take on challenging assignments in underperforming schools. We should refocus our fiscal resources in this direction and stop awarding raises simply for additional degrees earned, years of service and salary-point credits. Raises should be granted for results.
•No cap or limits on teacher-led reforms and innovations. Recently, a few schools have been allowed the freedom to design a curriculum, to employ teaching methods tailored to students at a particular campus and to make all their own personnel decisions. These teacher-led reforms and innovations are highly supported.
Unfortunately, we are restricted by the current contract to only a limited number of these kinds of schools. We must do away with such restrictions on pilot schools and allow successful models to proliferate across the district.
Elect-to-work agreements. Such agreements spell out what is expected of a teacher who elects to work at a given school. They can require additional hours of preparation or other kinds of involvement in the school community. And they spell out what the philosophy of the school is. These are already being used in some schools, and I would like to see the contract guarantee that any school whose staff votes to have such an agreement would be allowed to. Teachers have the option of transferring out of a school rather than signing on to a philosophy and an instructional model in which they don’t want to participate. But the agreements can be excellent ways of ensuring that the teachers at a given school are committed to its model of instruction.
Performance before seniority. As much as I wish we didn’t ever have to lay off employees, the state budget crisis of the last several years has required staff cuts. When such cuts become necessary, we need a better way of making them.
Currently, seniority determines who gets laid off: It’s last hired, first fired.
Instead, we should consider performance in making these difficult decisions.
Among the aspects that should be considered are evaluations, contributions to the school and community, special training, degrees earned and demonstrated success. Only if two staff members are performing equally well should seniority be used to determine who goes and who stays. Failure to consider a teacher’s contributions and skills is demeaning. In addition to advocating for this change, nothing prohibits us from going to the state and seeking an exemption from its rules governing seniority. Seniority should be a tiebreaker, not a deal-breaker.
The contract under negotiation covers teachers and professionals who serve our community. As such, it’s imperative that the community get involved, and not treat this as a spectator sport.
The provisions outlined above would honor the great teaching and leadership that go on in this district every day. They would be good for students. And they would be good for teachers.
John E. Deasy is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.