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Is It Time For Teacher Free Agency?

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On September 7, 2007, I read the USA Today editorial debate on how to improve No Child Left Behind. One idea stood out: make sure good teachers stay in schools that need help. This included, in the editorial words: ''offering substantial bonuses to teach in struggling schools and exposing the fatter payrolls in better off schools.''

This is business thinking: pursue the best talent from outside your walls if you need a quick fix, and you do not have the time to develop the talent yourself. It is an example where business think might make sense for public schools in a climate of testing and raised hurdles in the pursuit of 100% proficiency by 2014. Those who teach fourth, eighth and 11th grades, as well as special education are the front-line foot soldiers because of standardized testing and reporting. Success, staying off “the lists,” and failure, remaining on them to the point of sanction, is in the hands of these troops.

It is only fair that these teachers, who have to take the most risk and responsibility, be the most rewarded if they succeed by the numbers. Like it or not, they will have the statistics to prove their value, while their peers, who teach other subjects, will not.

This places more significance on the tests, but teachers work in a climate where a single bad mark in language arts or math renders an entire school “in need of improvement.” This is overly harsh, but even if the reporting is toned down, there will still be a demand for ratings; we are a rank-conscious culture; people want to feel that they are on top and deny that they’re at the bottom.

Within New Jersey, my home state, there were 122 public school districts in teacher’s contract negotiations as of September 4, the first day of school in some quarters. These teachers work under their current contract, until they get a new one. Previous contracts were signed before teachers and school boards had enough time to know the true effects of No Child Left Behind.

School boards are asking teachers to work longer school days and to increase time devoted to language arts and mathematics instruction, as well as test preparation. This means less time for other subjects as well as recess. No doubt, concerned parents do not want to see their children short-changed, so a longer school day, or school year, will come with a price tag. So will increased non-classroom responsibilities, such as meetings or progress reports.

Voters served by districts with no schools in need of improvement would have the continued luxury of turning down school budgets. They would not be forced into paying their teachers more money; good schools will always attract good teachers willing to work on the district’s wage scale. Other districts, and the voters, are not so lucky. Their shared motivation would be to get their schools “off the list” as soon as possible. The best way to do it is to target experienced teachers.

USA Today, along with other sources, have pointed out that the least experienced teachers in floundering schools receive their first assignments in the poorest performing classes. The less experienced are often the front line; that makes no sense in a climate where a teacher has to post the numbers, and teacher attrition has been a long-standing problem.

I just finished one book, Only Connect, by Rudy Crew, former chancellor of the New York City public school system and current superintendent for Miami-Dade Public Schools; Dr. Crew says that one-third of entry-level teachers leave the profession after three years, and one-half of them are gone after five. I have to believe that forcing more accountability on the shoulders of the least experienced teachers will speed up their departures and do nothing to take a truly troubled school “off the list.”

I would like to raise a thought: create an option free agency for teachers, somewhat similar to professional athletes, whose value is also judged by statistics. Teachers and professional athletes are not too different: they’re paid professionals tested annually and are members of a strong union. They’re also unlikely to make their world, their sport, their life’s work. The major differences between athletes and teachers, besides wages, are that teacher’s unions are local, and teachers can earn tenure. Those are also major weaknesses in our status quo.

While professional athletes work under a Standard Player Contract, they also have individual agreements with their teams. Those agreements are performance-based. As an agreement comes close to expiring, the player tests his value. They look for a team that is willing to pay more for their talents or that better fits their style of play.

How come we do not offer a similar option to high potential teachers? Right now, a teacher’s job is tied to an employment contract; he or she cannot leave for a school system that might pay better or that would provide more resources unless he or she wants to forgo tenure and start at the bottom. This works vice-versa; a great teacher in a district that performs fine but pays poorly cannot pursue an incentive to take on a challenge.

Testing is unlikely to go away, and neither are teacher’s unions and tenure. However, the system should be tweaked so that the best teachers have more career mobility.

Therefore, here is a proposal for the free agent teacher.

Here is how limited free agency might work: areas in need of improvement or investment, such as science education, fourth grade reading, or special education would be labeled as “strategic need” positions. They could be filled from within the system, or outside. Tenured teachers from the outside carry their tenure into their new job. An untenured teacher with a strong resume receives automatic tenure. They would also receive bonuses. Teachers within the system would earn the bonus and keep their tenure.

This business thinking keeps the best teachers in the profession with no negative impact on tenured teachers who prefer to avoid the risks; they still receive the raise that is stipulated in their union contract. The negative impacts fall on untenured teachers who do not want to fill a “strategic need.” They risk losing their jobs. But are those jobs secure now, if they’re in a poor-performing or financially plagued school? I doubt it.

Blasphemy, some might say; this will turn teachers into job jumpers. But continuity is worthless if a teacher is tied to a contract in a failing school system (and I mean a financially failing one) which prevents them from testing their worth. It is worthless if a good teacher has personal reasons, such as relocation of a spouse’s job, to seek a new position. America has become a nation of job jumpers; private sector employers have pulled back on pensions and benefits. Why should teachers be stuck in bad jobs when other professionals are not?

I know I will be told that the tenure system is a “third rail” in school politics, but limited free agency is more achievable than some other solutions, such as breaking larger schools into smaller units, paying vouchers to send children to private school — or setting up for failure our least experienced teachers by putting them into our poorest-performing schools and into a grade that’s subject to testing. It is less expensive to move teachers than it is to move kids. There are fewer people to move, and the teachers have a lesser need for subsidized transportation.

Could limited free agency lead to a return to segregated and unequal schools? In a sense, yes. Market forces would help drive teachers to new jobs. However, all schools, emphasize all, can compete for the best talent, depending on the incentives they want to offer. It is up to superintendents, principals — and maybe parents — to know which incentives will work.

This is business thinking that has pervaded since there have been businesses. I know that school districts and teachers unions can make it work.

About the Author

Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy, and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as a writer. His first novel, The Sex Ed Chronicles, earned a coveted “Publishers Choice” selection from iUniverse. He operates, a blog on education politics, policy, and technology.
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