The real news, not the gossip, behind the proposed D.C. contract

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After nearly two years of negotiations, DC Public Schools and the Washington Teachers Union reached consensus on a new contract earlier this month. Unfortunately most of the coverage that followed focused on whether the District was or was not making up a big deficit last fall when it laid off all those teachers and whether the District now had a surplus or a deficit that it could use to fund the hefty salaries the new contract proposes. The controversy threatens to not only bring down the tentative agreement, but it could also impact the upcoming union and mayoral elections--both of which could have a major impact on DC ed reform.

There's real reform in this contract. It achieves what no other school district has been able to accomplish: a solution to the 'dance of the lemons.' No longer will schools be forced to take a teacher with the most seniority--or let go a teacher with the least seniority. Teachers whose positions have been cut at one school must apply to vacancies (instead of just picking their position based on seniority).

Principals for the first time have the authority to decide who works in their buildings, a basic function that hiring managers have in most any other field. Teachers not hired by any principal will have three options: a $25,000 buyout, early retirement or a one-year grace period to look for a job while held in a temporary assignment. These options are only available to teachers with a decent track record; teachers whose job record isn't so good would be terminated.

For the first time, a teacher's job performance actually matters. This is a big deal for a profession where a teacher's performance is nearly inconsequential. In most school districts, little turns on performance: not pay, not a decision to provide tenure, assignment, nothing. A teacher is a teacher is a teacher. That's a large part of the reason why in most districts more than 99 percent of all teachers are rated satisfactory. There's no reason to bother figuring out who are the great teachers and who are the really awful ones.

In no uncertain terms, the tentative agreement between the DC Public Schools and the Washington Teachers Union is a huge leap forward.