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New Haven Education Experiment Could Be A Leading Light For Schools Around Nation

Rick Green

October 30, 2009

New Haven, increasingly a model city for the state, is about to begin an education experiment that could lead school reform efforts around the nation.

Teachers will be evaluated, at least in part, on how well students perform. Classroom teachers who struggle will be asssisted and bad ones may be given the boot. It's also possible teachers will get bonus pay if students perform well. Failing schools may close and new ones could open. The union will not be able to block school reforms.

And teachers, for a change, will play an active part in making decisions.

This isn't just happy talk: The city and the New Haven Federation of Teachers have signed a four-year contract, promising to make this happen.

So remarkable is this deal negotiated over months of difficult, frank discussions that top officials from the U.S. Department of Education and the American Federation of Teachers came to the city to praise the agreement this week, hoping that it will become a model in districts around the nation. School officials, not surprisingly, want the Obama administration to reward them handsomely for their work. This is a strong possibility.

At a time when we still see tiresome, endless union-administration bickering in Hartford, and Connecticut still has the country's biggest school achievement gaps between the haves and have-nots, New Haven deserves a standing ovation.

"It's going to do something that is outlawed in most states make student performance a factor in teacher evaluation. That's for tenured teachers," New Haven Mayor John DeStefano told me. "It's also tied to more support for teachers. It allows us to change work rules in certain schools."

"We are not doing this in an antagonistic fashion," said DeStefano, an eight-term mayor who worked closely with his long-time superintendent of schools, Reginald Mayo, to make this happen. "This is well worth the investment."

It doesn't hurt that there's a generous golden nugget tucked inside the contract, which was approved by a 842-39 vote two weeks ago.

The deal will bring teachers 3 percent annual raises in each ofthe next four years in addition to the automatic increases that come with each year of seniority.

Significantly, local, state and national union leaders were part of the negotiating, an unusual step. The city also brought in a highly regarded negotiator from Chicago.

"People attempted to solve problems, not win arguments," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten at a public forum in New Haven earlier this week, "... as opposed to screaming about the contract issue on the front pages of the New Haven Register or any other paper."

Through the spring and summer, teachers, school administrators and labor lawyers met to hammer out a deal.

"There were certainly times when things got edgy. But we were committed. We recognized from the beginning that this requires compromise. The truth had to be somewhere in between," New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella told me.

"It's not fair to base a teacher's reputation and career on things that are outside of their control," Cicarella said. But "we are going to look at student achievement in relation to a teacher's evaluation. Unions just don't do that.

"We are willing to be accountable. We are willing to look at the performance of teachers. We want it to be fair."

Sure, it's a feel-good moment and the beginning of what Connecticut Federation of Teachers President Sharon Palmer told me will be a very difficult journey. But it's also something very different for urban education: unions and management finding common ground.

Outdated contracts with work rules designed for a factory floor don't have to get in the way anymore. The many factors that affect learning from home life to the classroom teacher will be considered. Teachers who need help and mentoring will get it.

"The perception is that we are the people who just want the status quo," Palmer told me.

In New Haven, that may not be the case anymore.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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