Union Contracts Stymie School Hiring Decisions

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A new study details obstacles in union contracts that schools in big cities face in terms of being able to hire and fire teachers. In as many as 40 percent of teacher openings in five large districts, the study says, school administrators had no say in the selection process.


When it comes to hiring the best teachers, school principals often find their hands are tied. A new study out today looks at teacher hiring in five big-city school districts. It finds that contract rules often dictate that the most experienced teachers get plum assignments, and bad teachers get shuffled around from school to school. NPR's Elaine Korry reports.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

The New Teacher Project, a non-profit group, analyzed hiring in places like New York City and San Diego. It found that in four out of 10 hires, principals had virtually no control over which teacher wound up in which classroom. The result?

Secretary ALAN BERSIN (California Department of Education): Those children and classrooms most at risk typically don't have the benefits of the very best teachers.

KORRY: Alan Bersin is California's secretary of Education. Bersin, who until recently was superintendent of schools in San Diego, says big-city contracts are shortchanging children.

Sec. BERSIN: It is not an accident. In fact, it is a predictable outcome of the way in which we manage human resource processes in the large urban districts.

KORRY: At a teleconference today, Michelle Rhee, president of The New Teacher Project, said the study shows that for too long teachers have been treated as if they're interchangeable.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (President, The New Teacher Project): Every teacher has specific strengths and weaknesses. And there has to be much more thought to making a good match between particular teachers and the position that they're going to fill.

KORRY: In the New York City public schools, it used to be that principals couldn't even interview teachers with seniority rights who wanted to fill a vacant classroom. The situation was so bad that principals would hide their vacancies rather than get stuck with someone they didn't want. Instead of firing problem teachers, principals would just dump them on other schools. New York schools Chancellor Joel Klein says it was an impossible situation.

Mr. JOEL KLEIN (Chancellor, New York Schools): It undermines accountability by saying to people that, `We're holding you accountable, but you are forced to work with these people, whether you think that they can contribute to your school or not.'

KORRY: Labor groups are quick to point out that two sides negotiated these rules and that teachers are also hurt by them. New teachers can lose their jobs to co-workers with more seniority. And when jobs are cut, more experienced teachers are forced to transfer, often to places they don't want to be. Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents many big-city teachers, agrees that hiring should be voluntary, but she says this report sidesteps another big factor in helping teachers succeed.

Ms. ANTONIA CORTESE (Executive Vice President, American Federation of Teachers): If you're trying to raise student achievement, what you really want to do is to make sure you give a lot of support to the people who are there.

KORRY: Now the rules are changing. New York City just negotiated a contract with the United Federation of Teachers. It says every hiring decision must be voluntary, and principals get the final word. Cortese can name other big cities, including Boston and Philadelphia, where contract language is more flexible. Kati Haycock is with the Education Trust, a non-profit group in Washington. She says the new contracts reflect a better understanding of the profession.

Ms. KATI HAYCOCK (Education Trust): The fact of the matter is when these rules were put into place, we actually didn't really know how much teachers matter. We really did think that teachers were sort of interchangeable. That just turns out to be dead wrong.

KORRY: Haycock says good, experienced teachers need better incentives to go to the troubled schools where they're needed most. Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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