The D.C. Public Schools and the Washington Teachers Union just reached an agreement on a new teacher contract. Reformers are calling it the boldest of its kind. Hailed by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein as a “game-changer,” the contract would install a voluntary merit-pay component (with salaries some call “eye-popping” – $140,000 or more a year), remove forced hiring and transfer of teachers and require “mutual consent” hiring, and reduce seniority’s role in layoff decisions to just 10 percent of the equation. DC’s effort to fundamentally re-work its teacher contract could not be timelier. As districts and schools across the land are being forced to lay off thousands of teachers, many are rethinking the cost effectiveness (and common sense) of existing teacher policies.

In fact, a broad coalition of national education groups – Children’s Defense Fund, Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, Democrats for Education Reform, Education Equality Project, Education Reform Now, The Education Trust, The Mind Trust, National Council on Teacher Quality, and The New Teacher Project – recently came together in support of eliminating “last hired, first fired” policies. The coalition, which represents a broad swath of the political spectrum, argues that the proposed $23 billion federal “Keep Our Educators Working Act of 2010” (which would help stave off the tidal wave of teacher layoffs) should be paired with a requirement that states and districts put an end to seniority-based teacher layoffs.

Such a change would be an important step toward freeing up struggling school districts to manage their fiscal nightmares with the least negative impact on student learning. As pink slips paper the state (Cleveland says it will need to lay off 545 teachers; Columbus, 164; Parma, 50; Dayton, 46; Youngstown, 29; and the list goes on), superintendents ought to have the ability to keep their best teachers, regardless of whether they are outstanding novice educators or high-performing veterans.

Meanwhile, as Cincinnati and other Ohio districts embark on contract negotiations, DC’s contract should be seen as a common sense model for replication. It unties hiring, professional development, compensation, and antiquated regulations and replaces them with systems that are aligned with the district’s new evaluation system (IMPACT), all of which are rooted in performance-based incentives. Specifically:

  • Teachers opting into the performance-pay program can earn up to $146,000, nearly twice as much as the current ceiling. The additional compensation would be linked to improved student achievement or teaching in high-need schools or in high-demand subjects. Performance bonuses would also include school-wide team awards.
  • DC would join the ranks of Chicago and New York in implementing “mutual consent” hiring, which would eliminate forced transfers and hiring, and require dismissed teachers to interview for new positions, rather than automatically fill open slots.
  • The contract wouldn’t abolish tenure, but teacher layoffs would be based more on performance than seniority. The district would use a “performance-based rubric,” of which seniority would make up just 10 percent.

DC’s new teacher contract is in stark contrast to what is, or rather isn’t, happening in Ohio. Take for example the recent announcement from the Ohio Department of Education about what the state’s Race to the Top application does not do. It does not:

  • Implement nor require a statewide or local system of merit pay for teachers.
  • End tenure.
  • Mandate involuntary transfers.
  • Override local decisions about compensation.

DC’s bold plan faces challenges. It is intertwined with a new teacher evaluation system that took much energy and time to develop (and which figures in student performance data, a point of contention in Ohio). Further, there are serious questions about whether the political will to carry out the contract would dissolve if Mayor Fenty loses re-election and if Chancellor Michelle Rhee were to get the boot.

All politics aside, the contract is revolutionary because it fundamentally re-alters the way the district recruits, compensates, and retains its most effective teachers. Such reforms are also needed in Ohio, and the sooner the better.

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