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Report Says Teacher Union Contracts Are Holding Schools Back

November 17, 2005|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Teacher union contracts are thwarting efforts to improve schools in big cities by placing seniority rights and other teacher protections ahead of the needs of schools and students, said a report released Wednesday by a national research organization.

The study of five large school systems nationwide, including the San Diego Unified School District, found that union staffing rules often allowed veteran teachers to transfer to new assignments without giving administrators a say in the matter.

And because it is difficult to fire poorly performing teachers, principals often move such employees from school to school, the report by the New Teacher Project found.

As a result, urban schools are forced to accept teachers they don't want, a practice that undermines attempts to raise the quality of teaching and student achievement, the report showed.

"Without changing these rules, urban schools will never be in a position to sustain meaningful school reform," said Michelle Rhee, president of the nonprofit New York group that conducted the study.

Union leaders dismissed the report as a misguided assault on teachers that ignored the true obstacles to learning: inadequate funding, large class sizes, campus violence, outdated technology -- and, perhaps most important, they said, a dearth of credentialed teachers.

"I think it's another smoke screen to blame union rules for our society's lack of commitment to children," said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Assn. "This diversion gets us away from the responsibility we have collectively to make sure that no children are left behind."

The researchers studied five school districts, focusing on union contract rules that applied to teachers who voluntarily sought transfers between schools, and to instructors whose positions were eliminated because of budget or enrollment changes.

The researchers found that administrators in the five districts had little or no choice in hiring teachers for about 40% of their vacancies.

They also found that poorly performing teachers were transferred from school to school instead of being fired, and that novice teachers were treated as expendable -- meaning that they were the first to be cut if budgets changed or they could lose their positions if more senior teachers wanted their jobs.

The researchers recommended eliminating the practice, however rare, of veteran teachers transferring to schools without consent, and they called for an end to the "bumping" of less experienced teachers by classroom veterans.

Teacher quality has become a front-burner issue in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sought unsuccessfully to change the rules for hiring and firing teachers with Proposition 74, the statewide initiative that would have lengthened probationary periods for new teachers and made it easier to fire poorly performing instructors. The measure was defeated Nov. 8.

Schwarzenegger's education secretary, Alan D. Bersin, said improved student achievement would depend in part on revamping union contracts, adding that the changes were necessary for schools to meet the expectations that accompanied new state and federal accountability measures.

"This is not about union bashing or removing due process protections from teachers," said Bersin, who clashed with the San Diego teachers union during his seven-year tenure as superintendent of California's second-largest school district.

"It gets an important issue out on the table.... The children who need the best teaching often don't get it."

Union leaders said Bersin was pushing the wrong agenda.

"We don't need to change our contract to provide quality at all of our schools. What we need is quality leadership that will provide a safe, well-maintained, supportive learning environment," said Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Assn.

The president of the California Teachers Assn. echoed Pesta's sentiments.

"Nothing in this report is going to help students," Barbara Kerr said. "It just stirs up a lot of hysteria, but it doesn't change anything."

Researchers promised anonymity to the five school districts surveyed, but San Diego and the New York City schools chose to be named.

The Los Angeles Unified School District was not on the list. But Supt. Roy Romer said his district had struggled with many of the same issues as those cited in the study, particularly underperforming teachers being moved from school to school.

"We need more flexibility," Romer said. "We need a different balance."

New York schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said his district and the teachers union had struck a better balance through a new contract that changed several work rules, including one that allowed senior teachers to bump junior colleagues in school assignments.

"I have little doubt," Klein said, "that it will lead to a more equitable distribution of teachers."

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