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September 24, 2013 at 10:45 AM

Missed opportunities in Seattle teachers union contract

Seattle Public Schools teachers exit after  voting for a new teachers contract. Marcus Yam/The Seattle Times

Seattle Public Schools teachers exit after voting for a new teachers contract.
Marcus Yam/The Seattle Times

Initial response after the Seattle Public Schools inked a new two-year contract with its teachers was relief. A strike had been averted and the new school year started without a labor-related hitch. As this Times editorial noted, the contract did not have everything both sides wanted, but it had enough to cinch the deal. Now comes a useful analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Don’t take the review as an after-the-fact rebuke of the contract, but rather much-needed accounting of missed opportunities and areas to double down on next time.

“The recently adopted contract between the Seattle Public Schools and Seattle Education Association is clearly a document of compromise that seemed to leave both parties content, but neither completely successful in achieving their goals,” the report begins.

It is short and covers important ground around the district’s efforts to close the achievement gap and improve educational opportunities for special education students and English Language Learners. And here’s a nugget I did not know about: to improve its recruitment of top-notch teachers the district will give exiting teachers $300 if they give the district timely notice of their departure.

Beyond the contract’s provisions about workers’ rights and benefits are critical nudges and wholesale changes to improve teaching and learning.  The NCTQ reviews them offering brief analysis and solutions derived from comparing the contract language to the district’s bargaining platform and the platform by the Our Schools Coalition.

Staffing ratios for special education students contain necessary flexiblity but assume special education kids are in self-contained classroms rather than in general education classes. Solution: Base staffing needs on students and their Individual Education Plans. This is important. Special education students and English Language Learners often perform at the bottom of the achievement gap. Accelerate their progress and the gap narrows.

The contract’s six pages on discipline read like students and their parents are objects to be feared rather than engaged, the NCTQ cautions. It is worth a reminder that dangerous students are the exception, not the norm. On a positive note, the new contract includes alternatives to school suspensions and specifically for special education students.

The review warns the district to avoid overemphasizing collaboration at the expense of action. Solution: limit the number of groups and committees. The national organization reviewed these, comparing them to the district’s bargaining platform and one by the Our Schools Coalition, a broad group of Seattle parents and community leaders.

Back to that $300 for exiting teachers. High turnover rates in teaching cause districts to constantly scramble to fill vacant positions before the start of a new year. The district is offering $300 to teachers with five years of experience who notify the district of their plans to leave by February 1. Some will argue the district, and education over all, must do more to retain teachers. That is true. But for those who plan to leave, in some cases for another district, the early notice allows the district to advertise and take its time choosing top-notch replacements.

 

 

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