Clock's ticking, but students can't wait

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It's been nearly two years since Boston Public Schools and the Boston Federation of Teachers began talks to renew the contract for the city's teachers. The storyline is a now familiar one--stalemate. Negotiations are at an impasse over pay raises, of course, but perhaps more importantly, over some common sense proposals for improving student learning: Extend the student day. Make teacher evaluations meaningful. Give principals a say in who works in their buildings. Reward teachers for getting results with students.

If they ever were, these policies are no longer on the cutting edge. They are basic strategies for building an effective teacher workforce--and Boston is behind the times. Even the Massachusetts State Legislature, famous for being heavily influenced by teachers unions, has taken up many of these reforms.

State representatives have called on Boston Public Schools and the Boston teachers union to sort out their differences. Boston parents and administrators have spoken out in frustration about the current hiring and retention practices in the city, decrying the system for being disrespectful to students and, ultimately, outstanding teachers. And most striking of all, Boston teachers are asking for more substantive change. Increasing student instructional hours, providing school leadership with flexibility to match their responsibility, and developing evaluation systems that honor the teaching profession aren't reforms coming from the top down anymore. At a Boston City Council meeting, teachers testified and called for changes in their own labor contract, despite their union's steadfast opposition. One of the teachers was Adam Gray, the 2012 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, who lost his teaching position under last-hired, first-fired rules.

During these many months of bickering over the new Boston teacher contract, a lot has changed about the education landscape. Across the country, states and their school districts have seen dramatic shifts in their policies. Today, three times as many states meaningfully include evidence of student learning in teacher evaluations as did in 2009. Thirteen states make ineffectiveness grounds for dismissing a teacher--up from just one in 2009. And 11 states now require that teacher performance be considered when deciding who must go when teacher positions must be cut.

Reform has not just been state driven. Many school districts have stepped up to the plate as well. Baltimore, Washington D.C., New Haven and Pittsburgh--all AFT affiliated districts like Boston--have all negotiated progressive collective bargaining agreements with their teachers unions. Each one of these districts gave principals more say over hiring, revamped compensation, and elected to factor student performance into teacher evaluations.

With examples in other districts to look to and learn from, and new state policies to support teacher effectiveness, Boston Public Schools and the Boston Federation of Teachers have a unique opportunity to systematically improve how the district identifies, hires, and rewards talented teachers. That is good for teachers--and good for Boston's children too.

Emily Cohen