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Teachers say frustration marks first year of landmark contract

UnionsConcertsJustice System

Pointing to an unprecedented partnership between Baltimore's school district and union leaders, officials signed a new teacher contract last year that they said would revolutionize the city's teaching profession by implementing a pay-for-performance plan.

But union and school system officials have struggled to work out critical details of the three-year pact that replaces a pay structure tied to tenure with one that gives teachers the opportunity to earn six-figure salaries.

The contract stipulated that the city schools would devise how to carry out the reforms by the end of June, but the district is still working out critical details, such as criteria for how teachers can advance and a credit system intended to provide incentives and reward teachers for doing more outside the classroom. Those details could allow some teachers to earn more money. Already the union has won a grievance against the district over pay raises teachers received after signing the contract.

Some city teachers say that as a result, the first year of the union contract — hailed by some as the most innovative in the country — has been marked with missed deadlines, misinformation and missed opportunities.

"They painted this picture that this contract was going to improve the educational opportunities for kids and our quality of life as teachers," said Peter French, a city social studies teacher who campaigned against the contract. "I'm failing to see these opportunities. I would love to take it to a vote now."

City school and teachers union officials acknowledge that it's been easier to make history than write it.

"It's all new, so there's no research on the kind of work we've done, and that's been the most frustrating part," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "You're up against a timeline, and you can't find anyone — no consultants or anything — to help you because it's never been done before."

English said two committees composed of union and district representatives have been writing new policies and procedures stipulated by the contract and have encountered problems, as both entities try to agree on new professional standards.

"We underestimated how much time that would take us," English said. "But we still believe in this contract."

Some teachers believe that the district is smart in taking a slow-and-steady approach to ensure that the goals of the contract are met. The union added the deadlines after teachers complained about the lack of details in the contract, English said. She said she anticipates that most details will be worked out by the end of the year.

"It's not going to revolutionize everything right away," said Campbell McLean, a city history teacher. "A lot of teachers have been waiting to be recognized, and they finally have a chance to do that. It still gives people a lot to hope for."

The new pay-for-performance system comes as teachers statewide will soon be under a new evaluation system.

The state education department will establish a new evaluation system in 2014, which will tie 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to student achievement. The state committed to establishing the new evaluation system as part of the federal Race to the Top grant awarded last year. The system is being tested in seven districts this year.

The city contract's lack of a clear evaluation system was at the center of debates last year during the tumultuous voting.

Evaluation "is the linchpin of all of this," said Emily Cohen, an analyst with the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan organization that supported the contract. "Until you have all of that in place, it's a little premature to start talking about tying compensation to something that's not totally worked out."

Cohen said she believed that the contract was a "big step forward" and that teachers still stand to benefit from it. She added that "it was too early to judge" the contract's success, "but the pressure should be on the district and the union to make sure the contract is successful, and that they maintain the trust of the teachers."

"There was a lot of attention given to this, and for it not to work would be unfortunate for Baltimore teachers and unfortunate for reform," she said. "Ideas only go so far as the capacity to implement them."

The new contract replaced automatic pay raises based on tenure or the number of degrees acquired with a four-tiered career ladder based on teachers' proven effectiveness in the classroom. Each tier comes with a pay increase, and on the new ladder, an elite corps of teachers would be earning up to six-figure salaries.

More than 300 teachers will vie this year for "model" status, one of the highest tiers that puts teachers at the top of the pay scale. They were required to have a portfolio completed at the beginning of the school year and were due to be notified of their status by Thanksgiving.

But district officials have told teachers that the interview process won't begin until this month or next.

Teacher Sean Martin amassed a portfolio of testimonials, test scores and videotapes of his classroom lessons illustrating why he should be classified as a model teacher.

"It's just frustrating because I worked so hard on this," Martin said. "It's hard to map out what I want to do in my professional practice when there are so many strings yet to be attached, so many uncertainties. That's this contract in a nutshell."

However, some teachers said they believe that the reward for obtaining model status is worth the wait.

"The system that they designed is there for teachers to own up to their own development, and financial benefits come with that," said Nathan Carlberg, a language arts teacher. "Getting those benefits or not doesn't change the fact that I want to teach, that I want to work in schools — and it shouldn't for anybody."

The contract also introduced a system designed to reward teachers with credits called "achievement units" that would factor into teacher evaluations and compensation. Immediately, under the contract, teachers were able to bank graduate credits and evaluations from previous years.

Once teachers obtain 12 achievement units, they move up a pay grade.

Under the contract, teachers were also supposed to be awarded the achievement units for starting clubs, planning field trips and pursuing professional development opportunities.

However, the district is grappling with what extracurricular and professional activities merit the credits, and frustration is mounting as teachers say activities they thought would earn them credits have been rejected or are still being debated.

English teacher and baseball coach Mark Miazga said that he voted for the contract last year because he liked the idea of rewarding teachers for their pursuits beyond taking graduate classes. But he has yet to find out whether his athletes' study hall or his attendance at a national conference for English teachers will count.

"We feel that they're 'abstraction units,' because no one really knows what they are or how to get them," Miazga said. "They sold the contract to us as a way to reward teachers who were going above and beyond, and we're not really being rewarded at all."

School officials acknowledged the frustration surrounding the achievement units but said the purpose is to encourage rigorous and innovative practices linked to student achievement. They said the system has to be judicious in awarding the credits because it affects a teachers' life earnings.

School and union officials maintain that many of the contract's goals have been realized.

Under the new contract, for instance, teachers immediately saw a pay raise for the first time in two years and a signing stipend.

However, the union won a class action grievance last month against the district, resulting in some teachers getting additional pay. District officials said they were willing to give teachers raises and that the grievance was over the timing of when they would be paid.

English said she has also seen the contract encourage teachers to become more engaged. Every teacher received a placement on the new career ladder last year, though the standards for how some teachers can move up the ladder is still being debated.

She said those who were "waiting for retirement" or who were "out of the game, are now involved in the work" that will move them up the career ladder.

Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the district, said teachers "have a right to be frustrated because we set up timelines that were not realistic," but added that it was important for them not to judge the contract's success after only one year.

Edwards said the district has demonstrated its ability to carry out the contract.

"The biggest lesson learned is that when you are starting something really bold, you need to give yourself more time," Edwards said.

"But the only way that we can have a contract that positively impacts our children and raises the bar for our teachers is to make sure that it's done right in the long term, and that we don't succumb to the anxiety of the short term."

erica.green@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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