October 26, 2007

UFT President Weingarten: Voluntary schoolwide bonus program

Source: UFT President Randi Weingarten

Speaking at this morning's plenary session, "What Raises Achievement and Closes Gaps in Schools?", United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten referred to her recent New York Teacher column on the UFT's contract settlement. The complete column follows.

Turning negative to positive

By now you’ve heard about the outcome of our negotiations with the city on two issues left from the 2005 contract: 55/25 and other pension improvements and a voluntary, schoolwide bonus pilot program.

Unable to reach agreement on these at the time, and with a contract already two years late, we agreed to place-holder language on both issues (see Articles 8L and 4C). Good thing, because without that language we never would have secured a retirement benefit at age 55 with 25 years of service and we would be facing the same fierce battle on individual merit pay as is being waged in DC and across the country right now.

There will be little debate within our ranks about 55/25, the pensionability of coverages and the other pension improvements. I have been trying since 1995 to secure 55/25, only to have victories in the Legislature twice turned into defeats by governor vetoes. That’s why we knew 55/25 would go nowhere without an agreement with the mayor. We negotiated the lowest cost feasible for our members, equal to or less than what members of any other union are paying, particularly for our veterans closest to retirement.

So let me focus in this column on the more controversial part of the agreement: the voluntary schoolwide bonus program.

First, as you know, we, led by the AFT (and the NEA), have been battling for months even against Democrats over the reauthorization of NCLB. More than 10,000 of you, in New York City alone, sent faxes to Speaker Pelosi in the last few weeks about the section that requires districts to have an individual performance pay program in order to receive federal funds. So far we have delayed the introduction of that bill in the House, but we are far from winning this war.

Underlying the push for these radical and unproven solutions — like individual merit pay tied to student test scores and limitations on collective bargaining — is the frustration Americans feel about their schools. Even though they support universal access to a free public education, they don’t understand why universal achievement seems always beyond our grasp.

Second, before this agreement, Mayor Bloomberg, along with Chancellor Klein, pushed aggressively and publicly to pay teachers like private sector employees, most recently championing “merit pay” as “Management 101” in a national speech this summer to the Urban League.

Klein, for his part, didn’t let a day go by without advocating moving more experienced teachers into “high-need” schools — first by raising forced transfers, then by proposing the initial school funding changes that squeezed money from successful schools — both of which were rebuffed by us — and most recently, incentives.

Against this background, we have been working on a strategy similar to what we did with charter schools: crafting a response that would turn a negative into a positive. With charter schools, we took the best characteristics of successful schools — teacher voice in decision-making, freedom from micromanagement and bureaucracy, the ability to innovate — and eliminated the potentially harmful things, such as the lack of rights and protections for employees — and built our own showcase charter schools.

This strategy helped quell the vile anti-union, pro-privatizing rhetoric around charter schools and demonstrated that you could run a successful school with a strong union and under a union contract. This experiment has shifted the national debate on charter schools.

And that’s exactly what we are seeking to achieve with this new agreement on schoolwide bonuses. We have tried to reframe the debate and control our own destiny. Rather than being pilloried as an obstacle because we oppose divisive, counterproductive individual merit pay schemes (which have never worked anywhere they have been tried), we created a program that may promote the collaboration and respect that are necessary for great schools, but are all too often missing in this “age of accountability.” We have taken a negative — individual merit pay — and come up with a positive alternative that makes it a plus for educators and kids.

By taking this risk, we have now shut the door on individual merit pay, and if the program is successful, we have paved the way for others to see working together as a team and respecting teacher voice and professionalism as the keys to successful schooling.

Let’s look at how this plan for schoolwide bonuses accomplishes that.

It fosters teamwork

As a union of educators, we have always believed that the best schools are the ones where people work together as a team — developing models and sharing successful strategies. By definition, individual merit pay does not foster or reward that collaboration. In fact, as we’ve seen in other districts, it sets up competition and secretiveness among teachers, often encouraged by administrators.

Schoolwide programs encourage cooperation, not competition. The entire staff works together — even the principal — because if they succeed, everybody “wins.” Research shows — and we all know — that’s what makes great schools. Research shows that collegial, collaborative schools:

  • attract experienced applicants even in tough neighborhoods
  • produce higher job satisfaction and lower teacher turnover
  • are more likely to try innovative instructional approaches with the support of their colleagues
  • have a positive school climate and spirit, which conveys to students

It is voluntary

No school is forced to participate; 55 percent of UFT-represented staff must agree, and they must reconsider that agreement every year. There is no penalty for not participating or for participating and then failing to achieve the benchmark. (In other words, no one loses, as is too often the case in many individual merit pay plans.)

It is empowering

This is the only program of its type where the staff is completely co-equal to the principal. Staff representatives, elected by their UFT colleagues, have an equal voice with administrators on how to distribute the bonus. I suspect most committees will distribute the funds equally or differentiate by title. Some may want to recognize those who take on the most challenging students. If the committee deadlocks and is unable to reach consensus, the money is forfeited.

It’s not just test scores

While schoolwide test scores play a role in decisions on which schools get bonuses, other factors like attendance and the parent/

teacher surveys will be included. Equally important, decisions on the distribution of funds within a school will not be made by the numbers; they are made by the people who know best what’s really happening in the school.

Everybody participates

Unlike individual merit pay programs based on test scores, in schoolwide programs everybody in a school can feel part of the team and be recognized for their contributions. That includes early childhood teachers, teachers of subjects other than math and English, paraprofessionals, counselors, special ed teachers, cluster teachers, secretaries, etc.

It has checks and balances

These include the annual votes on whether a school should participate and, the election of UFT members to the compensation committee. Members may also vote on the distribution plan and, if they don’t, they have the right to appeal the committee’s decisions right up to the chancellor and UFT president.

For all these reasons, when pundits call this “merit pay,” they are just plain wrong. I find it hard to imagine a program more radically different from the traditional merit pay schemes where someone gets a raise based on the boss’ personal preference or their students’ individualized standardized test scores.

Schoolwide bonuses are much more than a way to sideline individual merit pay. This plan is a proactive way to change the national debate on how to assess, acknowledge and model good teaching. It gives voice and equal standing to frontline educators. And if it works, it is a powerful tool to create the collaborative spirit that will turn some schools around.

In that case, everybody wins, especially our kids.

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