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New Directions in New Haven II: The District Perspective

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Yesterday, we shared our interview with David Cicarella, the union president who helped broker an historic agreement between teachers and the New Haven, Connecticut school distict.

Today, we'll hear from two district officials who were instrumental in the deal. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries and Chief Operating Officer William Clark describe the groundbreaking collaboration that made the agreement possible.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of attention given to the new contract in New Haven—a lot of it praise. What you think are some of the most groundbreaking provisions of that agreement?

Clark: I think the first big groundbreaking piece was how we approached it. Historically, due to Connecticut’s Teacher Negotiations Act, you are really forced into a very tight timeline of negotiations that is specifically identified by statute. Certain pieces have to be done by certain dates; otherwise you hurtle towards arbitration. So with the leadership of [Superintendent] Dr. Mayo, [New Haven] Mayor DeStefano and Dave Cicarella from the [New Haven] teachers union, what we really did was try to chart a different way and a different approach.

What we set up was essentially parallel tracks. On one track you had reform discussions and on the other track you had the classic negotiations. The reform discussions were specifically separate so as to not fall prey to the trappings of negotiations. We began by sitting around the table with the best intentions in mind: What could we do—what are the possibilities that could exist—if we look at this as a collaborative approach? That really opened a lot of doors.

We started, under Garth’s leadership within that committee, by coming up with a belief statement that both parties signed on to. So then even when we had some fits and starts and [questions about] where we were going and how we would get there, we could come back to that belief statement. [That statement] was centered around a focus on student achievement, a focus on collaboration, a focus on professionalism and what we can do to increase student achievement as professionals. That statement really helped guide discussions so that eventually reform discussions became the norm, not the exception. They became the rule and eventually merged with the more standardized negotiations, which allowed us to put those two pieces together.

I think once the AFT recognized that we were serious about the collaboration and about doing something differently, they were invested. State and national AFT were at the table. We had some national help and support. We also had a facilitator to help with those conversations and keep them on track.

So that was really the first big piece—the approach we took. I will turn it to Garth here for the second big piece, which is what we did with that approach.

Harries: I think Will is exactly right that a big part of this was the approach we took. What that enabled was a series of provisions that helped to push forward the transition of teaching from sort of an industrial conception to professional conception. The implications of that in terms of hard-core provisions are…One, a deep look at and an agreement around the architecture of how we will do teacher evaluations. Evaluations will include measures of student performance. Evaluations will include differential rating scales. We expect evaluations in some circumstances to include peer input. And evaluations will be timely, fair and consequential. That all harkens to the idea that in a profession you focus on the results in a timely and professional way, as opposed to just on the actions are that are taken.

The second big category of changes in this contract involves increased flexibility at the school level, which is designed to highlight the need for collaboration among adults to support the learning of students. That has different flavors at different school performance levels. In our higher performing schools the administration and staff can come together to waive work rules. In our lower performing schools, management has more discretion to adjust work rules, including length of day. But in all those circumstances we are careful to ensure that teachers have the ability to opt in to those learning environments.

The last significant substantive set of provisions is differential compensation. The contract includes provisions whereby the school district can pay school-based bonuses. Not individual bonuses, because we recognize that the task of education is a team, collaborative effort. But school-based bonuses. It also includes the ability to create teacher leadership positions where eligibility is based only on the teacher’s demonstrated performance and not on seniority or other factors. Because we really wanted to ensure that New Haven is a place that celebrates the profession of teaching.

Public School Insights: Let’s get to the question of differential pay. You mentioned that this would not be individual recognition, but school-wide bonuses.

Harries: They are both ways to encourage what the teaching profession is all about: Student learning. The difference is that what we are not doing is singling out individual teachers and saying “You are going to get paid bonus of whatever it is--$500, $5000--because you alone have achieved disproportionate results for your students this year.” What we are instead saying is that the task of improving student performance is one that all the adults in the school are involved in. So to the extent that we are paying a bonus it is a collective bonus. The schools may make their own decisions on how it gets allocated, but we are not singling out individual performance in that respect.

That said, our teacher evaluation system will include a host of different metrics. Over time we do expect it to identify truly superlative teachers, partially on the basis of student achievement gains but also on the basis of classroom practice, professional values…on the basis of a fairly comprehensive look at what that teacher does. And as we identify high performers, we want to be able to recognize them as leaders in their profession.

Public School Insights: You also mentioned increased flexibility at the school level. I’ve heard that, particularly in low-performing schools, administrators will get a bit more flexibility to change those schools to improve them more quickly. Does that include a reconstitution provision?

Harries: It does. There are turnaround provisions in the contract.

In situations of low performance, it is typically not the fault of an individual adult. But it is that institution. That group of adults isn’t, for whatever reason, functioning effectively together to accomplish the progress we want with students. In those circumstances, the board has the ability to designate a turnaround. All the staff are guaranteed a job in the district, but they don’t necessarily continue to have a job in that school. They have to make a decision to apply and the leadership of that school, whether it's us or a third-party operator, would make the decision as to whether to rehire them or to hire folks from other places in the district or out of the district.

What is fairly distinctive about our agreement is that in the context of those turnarounds, work rules in particular and to some extent compensation essentially become a function not of the overall contract, but instead of what we call an “election to work” agreement. So the person who's managing the turnaround school, or the people who are leading that school, would say, “In this turned-around school, this is how we expect to operate. This is how long our school day will be. This is how programming will happen during the day. This is how we’ll do professional development.” That sort of thing. An individual teacher's decision to go work in that environment constitutes his or her agreement to those conditions. Essentially what we came together with the union around is the idea that we wanted to be able to create situations where you could really have a “whatever it takes” mentality and you could build a team that has bought into that approach, even if the work rules were different than they are in the standard New Haven public school system.

Clark: I think it goes back to flexibility. What this recognizes is that there is no silver bullet. There is no one-way to do it, particularly in an urban environment, where there are lots of dynamics at play and it may not be fair to look at things in an individual perspective, based on any given year, or any group of students or any group of staff that would be assembled. You have to look at it from a broader perspective of the panoply of issues that are being faced and then similarly look at it from a broad perspective of what strategies and initiatives might work, and also have the flexibility to alter those if they are not working. So the agreement as a whole leaves open all those possibilities for collaboration and adjustment. And one school may be a turnaround in which a dramatic change of hours or instruction is required whereas another may need a more slight or subtle adjustment to the day or to how services are delivered or whatever. So the contract and the plan allows for various degrees and models of intervention and direction.

Public School Insights: So you are not being prescriptive here. You are looking very closely at context and the actors involved in what could create the best way forward for all concerned.

Clark: That's right.

Some people have suggested that some of the voting thresholds [to accept new teacher contracts] are too high, and that in other areas [of the country] the voting threshold of staff is lower to achieve or to affect certain changes in things. We require seventy-five percent agreement. But the way we look at that, in collaboration with the union, is that you want to have as much buy-in, collaboration, coordination and cooperation as possible. If you have simply a top-down mentality, or one faction or another controlling the outcome for some other large percentage of the staff, you may lose that buy-in. So the way this is structured is that changes would be made, they would be noticed and then they would go into effect.

This gives people have time to make their feelings known through collaboration or vote. Or make their feelings known by seeking a transfer or moving to a different place if that particular set-up doesn’t work for them. But it is not set up as “This is the way it's going to be whether you like it or not.” There are options. There is built in collaboration and coordination, and there are also built-in ways to get that buy-in. To recognize that the most important aspect [of education] is the school and what they are doing in the school. And that we are system of great schools versus great schools in a system.

Public School Insights: There is one other issue that has been in the news a bit. What happens with teachers deemed ineffective? There seems to be some level of agreement in New Haven on what happens when teachers are persistently underperforming.

Clark: Right. There is specific language that was put into the contract that defines the process.

Under Connecticut law there is a statute – 10-151 – that describes teacher tenure rights. Once teachers reach tenure, they have certain rights with respect to their employment, including when it can be terminated and under what terms. That statute specifically describes a number of reasons for termination. It also has a number of procedural means and methods that [administrators] have to follow to terminate a teacher. The frustration that some districts have is that this is a long onerous process without a lot of real definition and distinction. On the other hand, the union would say, I think, that there is a lack of focus and clarity to what the rules of engagement are with respect to evaluation and competence decisions.

So what we did in the agreement was define what the process should be and would be. That gave clarity both to the administration and to the teachers. Essentially, these are the rules of engagement. You are to be a high-performing, high-quality teacher focused on student achievement. For those who do not hit that mark, there is the prescription that dismissal be a fair process, with a fair evaluation based on an evaluation instrument that is transparent and fair. There will be an opportunity for improvement through professional development to address any areas of weakness. But if there is a poor evaluation, the teacher has a chance to improve but doesn’t, and administrators have followed the appropriate steps, then the union would then the union would support a finding of incompetence. And one of the statuary areas of potential termination is incompetence.

What this does is set the bar. Teachers coming in know that this is the expectation. You are going to be evaluated through this instrument. You are going to be given opportunities and chances to improve if you are deficient in any area. But if you don’t, within a short timeframe—a year, with the possibility of an extension if there's been some improvement or extenuating circumstances—a decision will be made and you will be out.

Harries: I think it is important to say that no one thinks a massive number of teachers would go through this. And this is one point of our conversation with the union. Teachers, as professionals, have an interest in the performance of their peers and collaborators. And most teachers do in fact acknowledge that there may be teachers in a school, tenured or not, who are not as effective as they should be and that if they can't improve they shouldn't be part of the school or the profession.

That is a hard edge to the conversation, but frankly not doing anything about it is a diminishment of the professionalism of the work. It is important to keep that frame in mind, both in terms of celebrating high-performers and in terms of taking action on lower performers. It’s all in the context of viewing teachers as professionals.

Public School Insights: Is there anything I should have asked you but didn't?

Harries: One question may be, where to from here?

I think it is important to say that we recognize, and I think the union recognizes, that there's a huge amount of work [left to do] here. Collaboration isn't an event, it’s a process. I think we managed to collaborate around some of the most significant issues in the district--both its reform strategy and its union contract--and to make sure that those things were put into alignment.

We obviously have a lot of work to do both to design the particular substantive pieces and then to see how these actually roll out in the field. And [we also have] to be able to come back together and revisit issues, and continue to talk about the best interest of kids first when there are disagreements.

We have managed to do it to this point and that's exciting. And I think we are all both excited about the attention and recognize that expectations are high for us to continue to do this.

Now that the contract is in place, these things are really just creatures of a working relationship. So the committee work that Garth will be engaged in will involve the teachers union, will involve the administrators union, will involve central office staff, will involve parents and so forth. And these conversations will take place at virtually every school and in neighborhoods, and we will be seeking more partners as we continue. But those will be open, transparent conversations that we will be having.

It is a collaborative model, but it is still very, very clear where the Board of Education makes the decision. We have reserved those historic management rights and we will make those decisions. But again, as I said earlier with respect to the voting percentages, we don't want to do these things in a vacuum. Teachers are professionals. They are out there in the schools. They know what they're seeing and the challenges that their students face. So their opinion and input into this process are extremely valuable, and we would be fools not to work collaboratively. We are all in this to improve student achievement. What can the adults do, together, to bring that about? Everyone is on the same page as we begin this process right now.