A charming contract?

This piece first appeared in slightly different form on the National Review Online blog, The Corner.

If ratified by union members on October 14, Baltimore's new teacher contract will move the "Charm City" a modest distance into the 21st century; but it's nowhere near "monumental"—as school system CEO Andres Alonso has termed it—and much of it depends on decisions that haven't yet been made. The most important of these is exactly how to link teacher evaluations to student academic achievement, which is supposed—under Maryland's Race to the Top commitments—to count for half of those evaluations. A vast, lumbering statewide committee of educators has just begun to ruminate on how this is to be done. The state's weak testing system makes it a major challenge, however, as does the commitment to apply it to all teachers even though no useful test data are available for many of them. 

Supposing that somehow gets worked out and put into practice within the term of this three-year contract, Baltimore's teaching workforce will earn considerably more—money that a hard-pressed city and state may or may not be able to find during these lean times—and the ancient lock-step "salary ladder" will be replaced by a "career ladder" that individual teachers can move up on the basis of their performance. Top pay will rise above $100,000 and a few decisions previously made downtown will be delegated to individual schools.

Not bad—and yes, these changes were "bargained" by labor and management, not forced down anybody's throat. But those who would claim monumentality for this contract aren't telling the full story. Nothing in it undoes the seniority system or "last hired, first fired." Nothing empowers principals to select, deploy and compensate those teachers best suited to a particular school. Nothing extends the school year so Baltimore's many poor kids will have the sort of learning opportunities that are becoming standard practice in the best charter schools. And nothing interferes with teacher tenure or rids the system of incompetent instructors.

Sure, it's a start, and Alonso, a serious reformer, will wring all he can from it. But on a scale from zero to one hundred, it moves Baltimore from five to about thirty-five—where it stays only if the state really gets its own act together, the prospects for which are anything but certain.

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