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Working In These Times

Monday, Oct 22, 2012, 11:09 am

Newark Teachers Union Embraces Performance Pay, Wins Peer Review

BY Josh Eidelson

In response to uproar over 2010 budget cuts to Newark public schools (above, a March 2010 student protest), Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the school system--which, under a new tentative contract, would fund merit bonuses for teachers, based on peer review.   (Lee / Flickr / Creative Commons)

NEWARK, N.J.—At a Thursday press conference, the president of the city teachers union and the superintendent of schools signed a tentative agreement on a path-breaking new contract. Both sides touted the deal’s key compromise: The district will begin to peg teachers’ pay in part to evaluations, but teachers will have a role in evaluating each other.

The agreement has the blessing of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and of national American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who calls its provisions “a system of the future.”

“It values both experience as well as the work that a person does during the year,” Weingarten said in a Friday phone interview with Working In These Times. Under the new contract, she said, “Newark teachers actually have more voice than they ever did before.”

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch offered a more critical take. "[Performance bonuses are] not going to make them better teachers…Exactly how does this help kids?

Teachers are expected to vote within the next few weeks on whether to ratify the deal. It includes changes in teachers’ pay scale that the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) says will improve teacher retention by providing more money earlier in teachers’ careers and helping to cover the costs of earning a master’s degree. Like the old contract, it includes “step increases” that pay teachers more based on their years on the job (though those raises can be withheld from teachers who receive poor evaluations). But the agreement also includes “pay for performance” bonuses that will be provided to the teachers who are evaluated as most effective.

The evaluations will be overseen by a joint committee with equal numbers of union and management representatives. Teachers serving as “peer evaluators” will be tasked with independently assessing other teachers’ performance. Those ratings, along with management evaluations and student test scores, will play a role in evaluations.

“I’ve been wanting this profession to become a profession for a long time,” NTU President Joe Del Grosso said Thursday. “Who disbars lawyers? Other lawyers.”

“This is not a merit pay system,” said Weingarten. “This is a full compensation system where the work you do and the compensation you have are tied in together.” She said the new contract is “aligning the evaluation system with experience” while offering “significantly higher salaries for teachers all throughout their experience. … When you have all of those components, that’s a professional compensation system."

During negotiations, said Del Grosso, management suggested performance pay, he countered with peer review, and “we bantered back and forth until, as Governor Christie said, I got off my street and they got off their street, and we came on the boulevard of compromise.”

NTU’s last contract expired in 2010. Full details will not be available until after ratification. According to a three-page summary prepared by the NTU, the agreement provides $31 million in back pay, creates a new sick leave bank, allows workers and management to jointly seek waivers to some contract provisions in certain schools, and lets management impose different expectations on teachers in up to ten struggling schools.

The negotiations were shaped by the education reform bill signed into law by Governor Christie in August, one of many such laws encouraged by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program. That law transformed teacher tenure, easing the firing of teachers who receive two consecutive poor evaluations. Along with limiting union teachers’ job security, the law required that student test scores compose a portion of teachers’ evaluations beginning in 2013.

Del Grosso said that he had offered to support the new law on the condition that it included an option for union contracts to include peer review as part of the evaluation system. Del Grosso also said that a provision increasing (to four) the number of years teachers must work before qualifying for tenure had been his idea; he described it as another way of treating teaching like other professions.

The Newark deal was also shaped by a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg designated for Newark schools. Under the tentative agreement, step increases will be paid for with taxes, but the performance bonuses will be paid for with Zuckerberg cash. Del Grosso said that at first the Zuckerberg money “didn’t really motivate me, because they offered it in the way of ‘merit pay’…I said well keep the money.” But on reflection, “I said what happens if I don’t use the money? I bet some charter school will take it.” Instead, with the new contract, said Del Grosso, “I figured out a way” to put it to use.

“If we are to place very high stakes, including pay, on evaluations,” said Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson, “then we must be committed to doing so in a way that is fair and accurate. And in order to do that, that requires collaboration with our union partners and the teachers themselves.”

The Newark schools are controlled by the state, not the city. Both Mayor Booker and Governor Christie have at times been at odds with teachers’ unions. Booker is among the key supporters of “parent trigger” laws that would allow parents to vote for a unionized public school to be replaced with a non-union charter school. Keynoting August’s Republican convention, Christie told the crowd, “They believe in teachers’ unions. We believe in teachers.”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office declined a request for comment on the agreement. In an emailed statement, Christie’s press secretary Michael Drewniak called a deal “a critical milestone” which “increases accountability, stresses performance and above all, puts students first.”

“This is a win-win for everybody in the climate that we’re in,” Mike Dixon, a 20-year veteran teacher and a member of NTU’s bargaining committee, said by phone on Friday. Unlike other merit pay proposals, said Dixon, the new performance bonuses will be “above and beyond” workers’ “regular salary,” and so “it’s not punitive at all.” Dixon said he supports the concept because “you have educators that really do their jobs, and this is a way of rewarding them. And then you have educators that are close to being where they need to be, and this may give them the incentive to do that little bit extra.” Dixon predicted that members will ratify the deal by a wide margin. After years without a raise, he said most members he talked to say, “Tell me about the money.”

Ravitch, a prominent critic of the mainstream education reform agenda, offered a mixed take on the deal’s reported contents. She said there’s “a very good possibility that the Newark Teachers Union, and Randi Weingarten, is taking Chris Christie to the cleaners,” in that “a lot of money is going to flow to the teachers in Newark.”

Ravitch also described the introduction of peer review as a union victory, and as the best way of actually evaluating teachers’ effectiveness. She said that the union appears to have extracted hefty raises from the school district as the cost of introducing performance pay: “The ideologues win one thing, and the union wins $100 million dollars.”

But Ravitch expressed concern that, once the state law requirement that test scores shape evaluations kicks in, this contract will mean that test scores play a role in shaping teachers’ pay. Paying teachers in part based on test scores, said Ravitch, is “treating them like donkeys rather than professionals.” She cited a three-year study by Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation that showed no difference between teachers paid under merit pay and a control group.

Ravitch, who keynoted AFT’s national convention last year, said she’s already heard from teachers in other school districts who say, “How are we going to be able to fight this off if they agreed to it in Newark?” In cities without Zuckerberg philanthropy, or in future Newark contracts, Ravitch noted, performance pay is more likely to come at the expense of other raises. She also faulted NTU for not taking a page from the Chicago Teachers Union and using their contract fight to push broader education issues like class size and integration.

Asked what happens in the next contract, after Zuckerberg’s donation runs out, Del Grosso said, “Let’s pray that there’s another Zuckerberg out there.”

Weingarten said that improved achievement will demonstrate the need for greater government investment: “If it increases confidence in public education in Newark, then what will happen is there will be more public funds available.”

“No one is afraid of responsibility and accountability,” said Weingarten. “But we have to do it in a way that is fair and that gives people the tools to do their jobs.” She called the deal “an honest compromise,” and said it offers an example “that collective bargaining really works.”

Historically, said Del Grosso, “We were one of the first to go on strike, and we were very militant about getting contracts. We are equally militant today about student performance and our own achievement.”

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: "jeidelson" at "gmail" dot com.

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