Posts Tagged teachers contract

A Statewide Teachers Contract Will Not Achieve Peace

Published by — Whether one or many, minimalist contracts have a better shot at turning the attention to the kids.


‘Tis the season to celebrate peace on earth.  Since the world is what it is, we celebrate peace as an essential ideal, however much honored in the breach.  So how do we consider, very seriously, ways to reduce obstacles in the way of peace?  Humans fighting with each other always has fall-out, from irresponsibly angry behavior to full-on world wars.  We’ll never eliminate conflict, nor should we try.  But we can work hard to create the conditions that allow conflicts, even heated ones, to be resolved with little to no collateral damage.

Currently, the state of Rhode Island is toying with the idea of a statewide teacher contract.  Besides the fantasy that it will save money — RI has a horrible record negotiating contracts of most kinds — the hope is to reduce the skirmishes in the districts.  Little RI has 36 school districts, which means 36 of most everything, including labor contracts for each of various bargaining units — secretaries, janitors, teacher assistants, teachers.  Contract negotiations, their maintenance, breaches, grievances, and other manner of labor/management beefs are a misery for all concerned.  At its worst, public education can get so consumed with fighting among adults that the kids hardly matter.  Quality, schmality.

So the statewide contract needs to be commended, at least as a sincere effort to reduce fighting.  The issues argued between labor and management are often substantial.  The tensions could generate a truly healthy, evolving conversation.  But alas, they usually don’t.  So the idea of one frontline battle instead of 36 is laudable.

Right impulse; wrong solution.

No evidence shows any magic to the oneness of a teachers contract, though.   The one state that has a statewide contract, Hawaii, has a middling education system.  Ambitious educators are certainly not studying the virtues of its contract.  The students’ performance on the NAEP exams is nothing to write home about.  And while state law prohibits strikes per se, teachers in that very high-cost state feel forced to the streets anyway.  The single contract isn’t helping.

Conversely, RI’s enviably high-performing neighbor, Massachusetts, has roughly 400 school districts and only 6 times RI’s population.  Many of that state’s strategies are studied like crazy because of their excellent results on the NAEP and elsewhere.  Rarely do you hear much about their labor/management skirmishes.  Both city and rural districts have disagreements of course, but that news is usually overwhelmed by news of the state’s success as a whole.  The silly number of districts isn’t disturbing their peace, or at least not much.

Getting to a Peaceful, Child-Friendly Contract

One contract versus 400 doesn’t seem to matter.  What matters are the results.  Do the kids thrive?  By any standard?  Do they learn what will make them successful, including the social and emotional skills that the workplace depends on?  Do they graduate, find work, contribute to their communities?  How does a contract identify school goals towards which the adults agree to cooperate, and as such keeps the peace?

To my mind, the problem with contracts is that they often devolve into straight-up head-butting — over money, of course, but also spaces in the parking lot, grievance procedures and endless minutia.  Here I’m channeling Common Cause’s Phillip Howard, whose best-titled book is the Death of Common Sense, but whose most recent is the Rule of Nobody.  His point is that we’re drowning in laws that make human judgment impossible.  Collective ideals might give us a lifeline out.  What does it look like when we’ve got it right?  Can we agree and sign?  Often in the name of settling fights, contract provisions work to nail down endless details, which then provoke wrangling and resentment once the thing is settled.  The very specificity assumes a lack of willing cooperation and as such can create the conditions for endless fighting.

A contract should at least begin with a few over-arching principles.  School mission statements often proclaim lofty goals about nurturing children’s minds, bodies and curiosity.  And charter-schools contracts, for example, try to capture the spirit of the school community’s ideals, and then follow with a simple salary schedule and benefits.  By putting as little as possible into a contract, school adults must figure out day-to-day agreements cooperatively.  Even the best tended culture of cooperation doesn’t always work, of course; people still disagree, get mad, even raise their voices.  But only as a last resort do they turn to lawyers, courts, or passive-aggressive bullying, all of which makes the school climate worse.  Instead, disputants must hear one another out, modeling and practicing the very aspects of cooperation that schools teach to kids, or should.

A minimalist contract has a better shot at turning the attention to kids and their outcomes.  If a proposed decision doesn’t pass the child-friendly test, don’t do it.  I’m betting that the local contract culture contributes to RI having highest teacher absenteeism in the country.  I could be wrong, but it’s not a stretch to say that teacher consistency is not a collective ideal.  Inconsistency is legal, perhaps, but not ideal.

It’s our job as adults to avoid adding to the strife in these contentious, frightened times.  Labor and management’s adoption of child-friendly ideals might contribute measurably to peace on earth.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Seniority and Tenure, the Absence of Human Decision-Making

Published by —  The only big surprise regarding the Vergara v. California decision is that it took so long.

I first read a teachers contract 20-ish years ago.  A group of parents who were furious about their kids’ schooling had organized an advocacy group.  Of its several subcommittees, I joined the one examining the contract.  Cluelessly, I thought the meetings would be like a book group, where smart, funny people reflected on what they’d read.  Well, the people were smart, funny and reflective, but the contract itself was terrifying, the meetings upsetting.  My darling twins were in kindergarten at the time.  This contract was governing their education?  My family was in no position to start funding a couple of lifetimes of private school.

But suddenly I did understand how those kindergarten teachers could saunter in 5, 10, 15 minutes after the bell, still chatting and sucking down iced coffee.  Tenure made them virtually untouchable.  When I complained to the principal, he shrugged and said he had to pick his battles.  At least they weren’t bad teachers, he assured me.  But making a stink about their tardiness would sour the teacher atmosphere in the building; vengeance would rain on him torrentially.

Then a Teacher-of-the-Year was laid off, aka “bumped,” out of his teaching position for lack of seniority.  Despite the wealth of evidence about his effectiveness, the Last In, First Out, or “LIFO” rule applied.  No one could stop this insanity?  Well, no, LIFO is still a problem, all over the nation.

During the annual summer ritual called “cattle call,” teachers bidding on open jobs wrote their date of hire on placards so as they bid, holding up the cards, administrators could determine seniority.  This was the process for giving college-educated professionals the responsibility for educating children.  Teachers were “excessed” because a program got cut or enrollment dropped got preference for hiring, so “consolidations” in another district school sent four utterly incompetent teachers into one of my kids’ 9th grade.  The year was disastrous for him.

Over my 20 years as an education columnist, the kids inside the public education industry grew ever more invisible behind a dense thicket of district, state and federal rules, on top of contractual provisions.  Students were trapped in environments designed to serve the adults, first and foremost.

Then last week my inbox was flooded with press releases from myriad organizations, hailing or decrying the Vergara v. California decision.  In brief, Judge Rolf Treu agreed with nine student plaintiffs that laws and labor agreements cementing teachers’ rights to tenure and hiring by seniority did constitute a violation of the students’ civil rights.  With refreshingly dramatic flair, he compared his decision to that of Brown v. Board of Education which exposed racial segregation in schools.  His point was that like segregation, teacher tenure and seniority adversely affect kids.  So why, pray, do we keep these horrible practices in place?

The only big surprise regarding this decision is that it took so long.  Many court challenges have already failed.  And this one might still fail, as it winds its way through layers of court systems.

On the upside, diverse advocates are out banging drums, pots, pans, anything loud, begging other states to mount similar challenges as soon as possible.  They hope to fashion a rational decision in the court of public opinion long before the U.S. Supreme Court takes their shot.  Honestly, the decision entices my now-jaded self back into close observance of education’s legal morass.  It could be fun to see the kids win a few.

But here’s the downside: in the big picture, seniority and tenure are merely two trees in a large, dense forest shrouding kids’ opportunities.  The charter school movement has taught us that even the ability to hire and fire based on merit is far from a panacea.  By definition, charters are free from a number of similarly-bad local and contractual regulations, but still even the successful ones struggle.  Local, state and federal ordinances and regulations are still in force, many of which are specifically hostile to charters.  The regulatory forces affecting schools are by no means laser-focused on doing right by the kids.

Teachers unions assert that contractual provisions are no biggie.  The problem is that kids and their families are getting worse.  You can’t make great cars, clothes, buildings without good materials.  Increasingly, dysfunctional families send emotionally chaotic or even feral kids to school.  And it’s true that all too often home support is thin, if not completely lacking.  Kids’ addictions to electronic sitters, sedatives and time-wasters are undermining their ability to read, never mind pay attention in school.  The unions are not wrong about this.

But to use the troubles of the kids themselves as an excuse for the failures of the education industry is wrong.  Education’s problems are many and across sectors.  Every single issue needs to be addressed.  But we can certainly start with the glaringly obvious places where we see contracts, policies or laws serving adult interests, not the students’.

So celebrate the Vergara decision as a small, important victory.  But don’t think for a moment that the kids are even remotely out of the woods.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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