Keep talking

Baltimore teachers' rejection of a proposed union contract that would have tied advancement — and pay — to effectiveness in the classroom was disappointing but by no means reason to despair of meaningful school reform. Many of the teachers who voted against the contract objected to the short time they had to digest a wholesale change in the way they would be compensated, and they complained that many of the details of the evaluation system that would be key to making the contract work remained unspecified. Those are reasonable objections, but they are not insurmountable.

The final vote was 58 percent against the contract and 42 percent in favor, with less than half the district's 6,500 teachers turning out. That's a solid but not overwhelming rebuff of the proposal negotiated by union leaders, and the fact that most teachers didn't turn out to vote might suggest that many of them may had simply assumed the contract would be ratified without their input. One crucial piece of evidence for that is that although the vote stirred passions, it did not bring out the kind of animosity that has characterized similar reform efforts in other cities, notably Washington.

So what happens next? The teachers union and administration will return to the bargaining table, still committed to a contract that will provide greater flexibility and opportunities for advancement for educators. But this time they're going to have to figure out in more detail some of the hard questions about how teacher effectiveness will be tied to student achievement and exactly what will be expected of teachers who want to advance their careers.

The contract rejected Thursday failed to specify how many of these issues would be handled, and teachers have every right to know how each element of the proposal would affect them before they sign off on it.

Part of the problem is that the state education department hasn't figured out these problems either. A law passed by the General Assembly earlier this year aimed at boosting Maryland's chances of winning federal Race to the Top education grants requires 50 percent of teachers' evaluations to be based on growth in student achievement. But the law doesn't say exactly how that should be done, leaving those details to be worked out between State School Supt. Nancy S. Grasmick and local school jurisdictions.

The problems aren't trivial. One important question is how can teacher evaluations be tied to student achievement in grades and subject areas that aren't tested. Another deals with getting the data management systems up and running that would allow educators to track the progress of thousands of individual students and correlate that with the effectiveness of individual classroom teachers. The Maryland Department of Education is working on a set of guidelines to resolve such issues but may not be finished until the end of the year. In the meantime Baltimore teachers and school administrators don't have any statewide model of what the new evaluation system should look like.

Such uncertainty is surely a factor in city teachers' reluctance to fully embrace the new contract proposal. To get a majority of teachers to agree, negotiators for the union and the city need to provide at least the outlines of how the new evaluation process will work in practice but also how other proposed changes will affect them, such as the provisions allowing teachers to get raises for mentoring other teachers or for serving as community liaisons.

Some teachers may oppose this contract no matter how many changes are made to clarify its provisions and despite assurances that it won't allow principals and administrators to fire teachers without cause. But many others appear ready to embrace reform, so long as they know what it entails. The union and the city have been working for months to balance teachers' interests with the aim of creating an environment in which students can excel, and doing so in a way that rewards good teachers and attracts new talent to the system. On that there should be no turning back. So long as each side continues to recognize that the other shares the goal of providing the best possible education for Baltimore's children, Thursday's vote ought to result in no more than a minor delay in coming to an agreement that can be a model for the nation.

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