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The teacher gap

May 26, 2006

IT'S TEACHER CONTRACT TIME AGAIN, and the first proposal from the Los Angeles teachers union is full of the pie-in-the-sky demands typical of early stage negotiations. This year, with the mayor vying for control of the district, the school board has more reason than ever to show it puts student needs before teacher demands.

It would be wonderful, funding permitting (which it won't), to reduce class size to 27 students and to give hardworking teachers a 14% raise, to name two of the union's demands. But whatever gains United Teachers Los Angeles makes in these areas must be accompanied by more accountability and flexibility by teachers. And nothing would be more helpful than scrapping the provision that allows teachers to pick the campuses where they'll work based on seniority.

No one blames teachers for craving jobs at schools where there are no gangs or lunchtime fights and where students come from enriched home lives prepared to achieve. But the result is a concentration of experienced, higher-paid teachers at middle-class schools, while low-paid beginners who are still learning the tricks of classroom pedagogy teach the students who are poor and still learning English.

This isn't always bad. New teachers often have creativity and energy, and principals don't always want the more experienced teachers that seniority forces them to "hire." But decisions about where teachers teach should be made by district managers, in consultation with principals, based on where teachers are most needed. Some classes at hard-to-staff L.A. schools -- mostly math, science and special ed -- are still taught all year by substitute teachers who have no expertise and often no credential.

Yet there has been no real will to end this state of affairs. The district and union have agreed on one-time bonuses for teachers who join low-performing schools, but these aren't nearly enough. The district has to have the kind of authority that's taken for granted in most of the work world: the ability to assign employees to jobs that match their skills and contribute to the overall success of the operation.

Such authority must be used wisely, of course. There is no benefit to having bitter, unhappy teachers in low-performing schools. But more teachers might be willing to serve in these schools if the district could control personnel assignments and offer incentives.

Boston and New York schools -- both under mayoral control -- have won concessions from their teachers on the seniority rule. Rather than trying to ward off mayoral control with a $20,000-a-month image consultant, the L.A. school board would be better off showing that it can break through the inertia and bring about change that will improve the education of the poorest students. Let the negotiations begin.

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