Head of the class

The proposed new contract for Baltimore teachers represents a massive step forward for education reform efforts in Baltimore, not only because it will tie teacher evaluations and pay to growth in student achievement but also because of the significant flexibility it gives to individual schools to tailor their structures to students' needs. The fact that it has been achieved in cooperation with the city teachers union is all the more impressive and increases the likelihood that it will lead to lasting gains for students.

Political conditions, the leadership of schools CEO Andrés Alonso and the consensus among teachers, administrators and civic leaders that the status quo was unacceptable have made the city ripe to be a national leader in education reform. But other Maryland districts should not look at this contract as some sort of Baltimore aberration. There are plenty of troubled schools in other districts, notably Prince George's County and some rural jurisdictions, and significant gaps in achievement between schools even in places like Baltimore County. The need to get good teachers in every classroom is universal, and the rest of the state should pay attention to the steps Baltimore is taking.

The proposed contract, which still must be ratified by the city teachers union and the school board, contains three major elements. The first, which has been most controversial nationally and in Maryland, provides for a radical shift in how teachers are paid by tying teacher compensation to evidence of effectiveness in the classroom. Instead of the present stepped system of salary increases based on how many years a teacher has served, the new compensation plan assigns teachers to four career pathways or "ladders" — one for beginning teachers, another for tenured teachers, a third for highly effective teachers as determined by evaluations, and a fourth for master or lead teachers who have demonstrated extraordinary ability in boosting student achievement.

The goal is to reward the very best teachers in order to keep them in the profession and — more importantly — in the city school system, rather than risk losing them to other districts. The plan will allow teachers on different "ladders" to progress at different rates and to be compensated accordingly, since growth in student performance on test scores will be reflected in their paychecks. The new plan will also make it easier to identify teachers who aren't doing a good job and either get them extra help or weed them out.

The second element of the proposed contract will allow teachers to tailor their working conditions to student needs. Under the proposal, teachers and the principal at a school could, for example, decide to extend the school day, increase the number of prep periods or make other instructional changes in the same way that currently only charter schools are allowed to do. So long as a majority of teachers agreed to the changes, and certain safeguards were in place, individual schools could adopt a wide variety of instructional models in order to get the optimum benefit for their students.

The final elements in the new contract are mechanisms to work out issues that come up in implementing the changes, including a governing board made up of equal numbers of union representatives and school administrators to resolve questions such as how the evaluations of teachers in subjects that aren't tested on standardized exams — such as science or art — can be tied to growth in student performance.

All these changes are designed to meet the Obama administration's Race to the Top goals of tying teacher pay to student achievement and ensuring a good teacher for every classroom. That's the bottom line for any meaningful reform, and we applaud Baltimore Teachers Union president Marietta English for having the courage to recognize that the changes embodied in the present proposal are absolutely necessary to continue and expand on the significant progress city schools have made in recent years.

The contract took union leaders and Mr. Alonso eight months to hash out, with each side bringing its ideas to the table and negotiating a deal that is good for teachers and also in the best interests of city schoolchildren. That degree of cooperation hasn't necessarily been evident in other cities that have tried reform — most notably, Washington, D.C. — sometimes with disastrous results. Although the contract gives up the kind of uniform pay raises that have long been a hallmark of union contracts, it's clear that teachers stand to benefit.

Under the plan, exceptional teachers can earn up to $100,000 a year, and lower-level teachers who demonstrate unusual effectiveness in the classroom can move rapidly from one career ladder to the next. That certainly gives all teachers a powerful incentive to keep seeking greater improvements in student achievement; at the same time, students will benefit from having highly motivated instructors whose top priority is boosting their performance. It is now incumbent on Mr. Alonso, who has previously focused on macro-level governance issues in the schools, to make good on his promise to devote his attention to classroom instruction and providing teachers the kind of support they will need to thrive under this system.

The Baltimore Teachers Union was one of only a couple of teachers' unions in the state that fully embraced the Race to the Top goals, and if the contract is approved it will become one of only a handful of unions in the nation to agree to such sweeping change. Teachers unions have been criticized recently — and sometimes unfairly — as resistant to reform and interested only in guaranteeing their members' employment. With this agreement, Baltimore teachers have acknowledged that they have an important stake in moving the system to the next level, one that rewards excellence and encourages innovation. After decades of lagging behind the effective school reform efforts other cities and states have put in place, Baltimore has finally moved to the head of the class.

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