Fear and loathing in the nation's school districts

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by Kate Walsh

A few weeks ago NCTQ released the first of many planned reports looking at a district's teacher policies. In this inaugural report we examined teachers' rules and rights in Hartford, Connecticut, a struggling district of 22,000 students, where for decades test scores have lagged way behind those in an otherwise high-achieving state. More than 90 percent of Hartford's students are minority and more than 70 percent are poor.

Our decision to take on this work, delving into collective bargaining agreements and other instruments of teacher policy, has been controversial. Indeed it would be safe to say that unions and school districts alike find our offer to come into a district to produce this analysis somewhat threatening. While our intention is only to provide the district with useful data and a set of recommendations that support its teacher quality goals, across the country both district and union leaders have responded nervously to our offer, as if NCTQ was forcing a cut-in between two starry-eyed dance partners--which we all know is not the case. And, since we always extend this invitation with a local partner, it's become quite clear that the anxiety is not just about our D.C. address, just about a bunch of know-it-alls parachuting in to show the inept locals how it's done.

What's so threatening, we ask? At best our analysis might put some useful information at the education leaders' disposal and at worse it's just one more report to be ignored and tossed in the trash can.

Yet there's palpable fear that what NCTQ has to say will cause trouble, that even if the district or union choose to ignore what we have to say that others in the community might not. Maybe the driving but hidden agendas of either the district or the union will be revealed. Maybe, as a result of public knowledge, the usual ways of operating will run off-course.

It worries us that Horace's horrible compromise in the classroom might have its parallel at the bargaining table. What agenda could districts and unions be pursuing that the community should be left in the dark about and that shouldn't at least include an honest conversation about teacher quality?

The Hartford teachers' union took the "no outsiders" sentiment to a new level, describing our report as "illegally barging in on the negotiations process." We were left with a nagging feeling that the local either lacked the political finesse of its national leader Randi Weingarten and/or hadn't even read our report. There was much in there for a union (not us) to take proudly to the negotiating table. The study recommends that the district raise teacher salaries for new teachers. It describes the current program of support for new teachers as existing mostly on paper and recommends that retiring veterans be asked to stay on a few months longer to provide full-time help in the classroom for a couple of months. Any of these points could have been picked out as worth repeating--or at least their merits debated.

For the record, Hartford superintendent, Steven Adamowski (yes, a member of our advisory board), uncharacteristically did not hesitate about having NCTQ and our partner ConnCan produce this analysis. He understood that it was a condition of our analysis that we'd draw our own conclusions about his district's policies, that we weren't there to do the district's bidding. He still thought what we had to say would be useful.

Our interest is drawing lines from policies to their demonstrable consequences. That way, policymakers--and here we include union leaders--are operating in a less opaque environment. If the leaders want to do better by students, our report provides a roadmap. If their agenda is idling at a stoplight, we hope our study will make that apparent too.