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Breaking News: Weingarten Weighs In on Klein's Take on the DC Contract

Readers who were still beavering away Friday afternoon and checked in at RHSU saw Joel Klein ding me for understating the significance of the new D.C. contract. Klein argued that I was distracted by D.C. having given up on the "red and green" schedules, and that the final agreement represents a dramatic breakthrough, largely because it slays the "three dragons" of tenure, seniority, and lockstep pay.

Joel's take prompted reaction from some equally serious folks, including AFT chief Randi Weingarten. Randi shot me a thoughtful note on Saturday, rejecting Joel's take and arguing that it constitutes an effort to "misrepresent what was done in D.C." so as to move the bar for contracts across the land. Having given Klein a chance to make the case for the D.C. contract, it only seemed fair to give equal airtime to Weingarten, who actually helped negotiate the contract. Plus, hard to think of a better way to judge the contract than to let these two smart lawyers debate their respective cases.

Contrary to Joel's vision of a smashing DCPS victory, Randi argues that in the final contract, "The divisiveness of red and green is gone. As to performance pay, the Union wanted to give all [teachers] the opportunity to participate in the individual pay plan—which is on top of the existing (Joel would say 'lockstep') pay plan. And tenure, which was always supposed to be about due process and not about a lifetime job guarantee, remains intact. The contract also includes many checks and balances, including measures to ensure that employment decisions are made based upon the rubrics negotiated in the contract and not for reasons that are arbitrary, capricious, or based on issues of age or personality. That was a huge shift away from the more arbitrary power that principals had had in D.C., and that principals have under Klein in N.Y."

She says, "The contract is a good one—full of compromises that were based on what was good for students and fair to teachers. It will lead to real academic success if it's implemented smartly and with a real commitment to getting it right for kids. You might also have noticed that, in D.C., no one tried to cast the contract into the old-line, adversarial view of who won and who lost. Only the Blame the Teacher crowd, like Brill and Klein, are doing that."

Randi believes the changes are less dramatic than Joel had argued. She says, "As to seniority, D.C. law has allowed layoffs and RIFs regardless of seniority for years. I don't believe that fact, in and of itself, significantly changed the D.C. schools for the better in the last decade. The seniority issue is a Trojan horse, and Joel knows it. You wouldn't go into a hospital and fire the most experienced doctors. Nor would you go to a commercial airline and fire the most experienced pilots. And, as Joel knows, evaluation—which is a key to teacher quality—has been entirely a provenance of the DCPS Chancellor. So IMPACT (the D.C. teacher evaluation system) was imposed, not negotiated. And as all of us in management and labor have often said, until we get an objective, fair, and comprehensive evaluation system, we will never be able to fully and accurately measure the performance of teachers. That is why the AFT has spent a lot of time, energy, and effort trying to work with districts to overhaul evaluation systems."

Weingarten also offers a big-picture rebuttal, arguing that, "[Klein's] view of teachers and contracts—that reform means eliminating lockstep pay, tenure, and seniority—fundamentally misunderstands what is needed to turn around schools. For example, accountability should be reciprocal, not simply top down, and teachers' voices, along with the supports they need, must be embedded in a contract. That was done in D.C. It was also done, in a systemic manner, in New Haven."

Finally, Randi says, "This relentless push-one Joel and others do in the guise of "performance" is to repose all responsibility on teachers yet give them no authority or support. This must stop. It may take superintendents off the hook but won't help kids in the long term. Bottom line, we tried to change the tone and turn the page here in D.C. to do something different. What we did was take what Michelle Rhee first proposed—which was essentially a compensation plan premised on a view that you can hire and fire your way to a great teaching force—and transform it into the contract that was negotiated, which is ultimately an education plan that included both compensation and tools for both sides to do their jobs. If implemented well, collaboratively, and fairly, the kids will be the winners."

Interesting stuff. Some of the disagreements are predictable, such as those over the value of eliminating tenure or lockstep pay. Others focus on different takes on what D.C.'s Chancellor Rhee already had the authority to do under the old contract and what new authority the agreement grants her. On Friday, Klein characterized the contract as a dramatic win for reformers. Weingarten paints a picture of a good-faith compromise where no one is calling out winners or losers. Of course, opinions can change. How implementation works in practice, and how much it changes management practice in DCPS, will have a lot to say about how Joel or Randi feel about the contract a year from now.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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