The vote of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) rank-and-file to approve a new nine-year contract with New York City is clearly a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools chancellor Carmen Fioriña, and UFT president Michael Mulgrew.
The thorniest issue—back pay for raises foregone during the years after the Bloomberg administration withdrew from contract renewal talks—was resolved through a sensible set of compromises that are fair to teachers without busting the city’s budget.
But much more important for the future of the city’s public schools and the prospects for its students are the quite radical but largely overlooked contract provisions affecting how administrators and teachers will work with each other.
Those changes are intended to build trust among all the stakeholders in public schools, provide teachers with new opportunities to influence decisions beyond the classroom, and create systems for improving the quality of teaching day-in and day-out.
That approach is the inverse of the top-down, improve-or-else philosophy pursued by former mayor Michael Bloomberg and former chancellor Joel Klein, as well as the leading advocates of the so-called reform movement associated with former Washington, D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee.
The new organizational practices embedded in the ratified UFT contract emulate strategies that have improved student outcomes, according to mounting research published over the past decade.
Other urban school districts, such as Cincinnati, Ohio; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Union City, New Jersey, have pursued a similar agenda while experiencing significant and sustained gains in test scores and graduation rates relative to counterparts.
What are these seldom-discussed innovations that hold so much promise?
The central pillars, supported by studies from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the National Center for Educational Achievement, and McKinsey & Co., include:
Enabling teachers and their union to be formally included in decision-making about most aspects of school operations.
Providing teachers with influence in such matters as curriculum development, budgetary decisions, school safety, and disciplinary issues has demonstrably enhanced their sense of ownership about the overall performance of the schools, rather than just their immediate personal concerns. In contrast, the top-down imposition of operational decisions— the “factory” model that has dominated public schools for more than a century and has been a central practice of the recent reform movement—tends to alienate teachers on the front lines while neglecting their own knowledge and expertise. The new contract’s school innovation provisions empower a joint Department of Education-UFT panel to approve proposals from up to 200 schools to redesign their mission and organizational practices in ways that principals and at least 65 percent of UFT staff develop and approve.
Creating opportunities for teachers to receive ongoing advice from peers and other instructional experts, much as athletes are coached on how to improve their performance, often aided by video study.
While the reform movement emphasizes student test scores combined with administrator classroom visits as the basis for determining teacher quality and compensation levels, successful districts concentrate on team-based processes for lifting the game of all teachers. The creation of higher-paid “master teachers” to coach peers, the reallocation of substantial time in the school week for professional development, and changes in the teacher evaluation process that allow for peers to be involved in conducting reviews of their colleagues are three examples in the new agreement in New York City that emulate practices that have proven to be effective in other districts.
Strengthening connections between teachers and parents.
Abundant research has demonstrated that students are more likely to succeed when their parents are well-informed about what they are doing at school and involved in providing support like help with homework. The new contract allocates forty minutes on Tuesdays for teachers to concentrate on parental engagement, as well as two additional evening parent-teacher conferences each school year.
The overall goal of this new reform agenda is to build a culture in which all of a school’s stakeholders gain trust in each other as they work together toward the shared mission of improving the learning experience for every student.
The Consortium on Chicago School Research, in its sophisticated study of more than 400 elementary schools over a fifteen-year time span, concluded that the degree of “relational trust” among administrators, teachers, and parents was the single most important predictor of whether student performance would improve.
Because the market-oriented reform movement relies so heavily on rhetoric and practices that try to “incentivize” better performance through threats, penalties, and individual rewards, it inherently creates fear, resentment, and divisiveness rather than a sense of community.
The entire tone of the new contract emphasizes collaboration between administrators and teachers in a way that was unthinkable during the Bloomberg-Klein years. That fully 77 percent of the UFT membership voted to ratify the contract is a strong signal that a new sense of trust is beginning to take hold.
Beyond the new contract, Chancellor Fariña has also been quietly pursuing a number of complementary changes consistent with what recent research shows about the characteristics of successful schools. One initiative focuses on making much more constructive use of testing data to identify problems that require attention, adjustments, and additional support—for both students and teachers—rather than just handing out sanctions and rewards. In school districts showing improved results over time, administrators and teachers monitor data to check whether lesson plans are sinking in. When the evidence indicates a particular student or teacher is struggling, they receive more help—not the threat of negative consequences that drives the incentive-focused reform movement.
Both de Blasio and Fariña have also strongly endorsed the concept of “community schools,” which welcome service providers such as medical, dental, and vision care clinicians; tutoring and mentoring support; and sports and arts programs to actually set up shop on site or otherwise coordinate more closely with school personnel.
In cities such as Cincinnati, where schools pursing those initiatives have been given time to work out the kinks, both administrators and teachers have found that the additional support for students helps them succeed in the classroom.
With the approval of this contract, New York City is now positioned to become a model for an entirely new approach to school reform—one based on evidence of success, as opposed to an ideological mindset. Improved results won’t happen overnight, but the prospects that the city’s students will experience better outcomes have never been better.