A diverse group of parents, teachers, students, business people, ministers, nonprofit heads and other civic leaders have joined together to work for major changes to the current Boston teacher’s contract. Taking advantage of the current and ongoing contract negotiations, the coalition is seizing a rare opportunity to make profound changes to a system that is failing too many of Boston’s children, especially students of color and a growing percentage of English Language Learners.
Called Put Students First: Coalition for a 21st Century Contract, the group includes the parents of Boston school students as well as a diverse number of organizations, including Black Leaders for Excellence in Education, the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Boston Foundation, Boston Leaders for Education, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, La Alianza Hispana, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, the National Black College Alliance, Stand for Children and other organizations that want to see some real results emerge from the contract negotiations.
The current teachers’ contract is 255 pages long, which makes it cumbersome and confusing for administrators and teachers who want the freedom to adapt to meet the changing needs of today’s students.
“We believe that a new contract, while providing fair wages and benefits for teachers, should be simplified and accessible to every resident of Boston, including individual teachers and parents,” said Ralph C. Martin II, former Chair of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a member of Black Leaders for Education and Leaders for Education.
Tomás González, Lead Boston Organizer for Stand for Children, added that the negotiations for the new teachers’ contract present Boston with a “rare opportunity to make critical changes that will improve our schools and put our students first — especially those students with special needs and English Language Learners.”
On the national, state and local level, the atmosphere is ripe for change. President Barack Obama has made education a top priority of his administration and United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan is encouraging innovation in public school systems, urging educators to learn lessons from the success of charter schools, which have been producing remarkable results for students. President Obama is making millions of dollars in federal “Race to the Top” funding available to states that present a compelling case for the funding and Massachusetts is among the finalists for that funding.
The Put Students First Coalition is backed by powerful research that has been released in recent years, which shows that the time students spend in school and the way that time is spent are the critical factors to their success.
The current Boston teachers’ contract calls for just a six-and-a-half hour work day, one of the shortest in the country. The Put Students First Coalition wants the new contract to be flexible enough for schools in Boston’s system to take advantage of recent research and adopt some of the practices of charter schools, including longer school days.
“We have learned that the strategic use of time can be a high leverage tool in improving student performance,” said Carol R. Johnson, Boston Public Schools Superintendent.
The coalition would also like the new contract to reflect increased flexibility in teacher hiring and placement — and more powerful teacher involvement in school planning and curriculum development. This would put the right teachers in the right classrooms and engage educational professionals in all areas of schools, which the members of the coalition believe would benefit students immeasurably. In addition, the coalition believes that students and parents should have the opportunity to participate.
“In the new contract and in the school environment, we want parents to be respected as the partners they are in their children’s education and for student and parent voices to be heard and part of decision making,” said David Wright, executive director of the Black Ministerial Alliance.
Other contract changes sought by the coalition include: holding principals, headmasters and central district officials accountable for regularly evaluating teacher performance and effective professional development; creating a strong link between student outcomes, teacher evaluation and promotion, including tenure; and providing incentives for high-performing teachers who assume the most challenging posts and show demonstrable results. The latter would encourage the best teachers to take additional responsibility, further professionalizing the teaching cohort in Boston and bringing talent to most needy students.
“Boston was home to the first public school in America,” said Gail Snowden, CEO of Freedom House and a coalition member,” justly earning a reputation as a national education leader. We all must put the needs of students first in everything we do and then we will be in a position of national leadership once again.”
In addition to renewed national efforts to improve education, there are state-wide and local efforts to shore up public education. Gov. Deval Patrick signed a sweeping education reform bill in January of this year that will help to level the playing field for thousands of children of color and immigrants struggling in the Commonwealth’s schools. Among other innovations, the new bill doubles the number of charter school seats in the state’s worst performing school districts. It allows for at least four in-district charter schools to open in Boston — all without union approval — and establishes new Horace Mann charter schools as recommended by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
In early March, the Boston Public Schools took advantage of new powers gained through the legislation when it announced that staff at six underperforming schools would have to reapply for their jobs and five principals would be replaced. In addition, the district was authorized by the legislation to allow for longer school days and flexibility in staff assignments and curriculum development. If the district and the state both agree that these strategies can strengthen underperforming schools, they should be available to every public school in Boston.
The coalition sees the new contract as an opportunity to push for a major reduction in the high school dropout rate for Boston’s public schools. Currently, only 62 percent of students graduate from high school in four years. And the coalition wants to see schools that help all children achieve at the highest levels, including English Language Learners, who represent the fastest growing population in the Boston Public Schools. The coalition thinks that allowing schools to adopt the kind of successful practices and programs that many charter schools and pilots schools have will help to ensure student success. Pilot schools are part of the Boston Public Schools but enjoy many of the autonomies of charter schools.
“While Boston’s public school system is considered among the very best in the United States, with a proud record of achievement and promising new initiatives, being the best is no longer good enough,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO if the Boston Foundation. “Already, Greater Boston’s dependence on important talent to replenish the local workforce has created a widening mismatch between the skills of available workers and the skills needed for jobs. With a declining birthrate, an aging population and mounting global competition for highly skilled workers, the city’s future depends on offering a world-class education to all who live here.”
For the parents of Boston’s children and for other members of the coalition, the imperative to improve the public schools is not just a personal one — but a practical approach to building the future vibrancy of Boston.
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