Stalled: Schools and teachers reach a stalemate

Deadlocked on three big issues, Seattle public school teachers will likely reject their latest contract offer.
Garfield High hallways may remain empty if Seattle Public Schools can't nail a new contract with teachers.

Garfield High hallways may remain empty if Seattle Public Schools can't nail a new contract with teachers. Credit: JoeinSouthernCa/Flickr

"The tone around the table has been very positive," said Seattle Education Association (SEA) president Jonathan Knapp on August 21, after the inaugural meeting of the Seattle Public School (SPS) board for the 2013-2014 school year. "The issue is money."

At that August 21st meeting, Knapp testified about another issue that has emerged as one of three main points of contention in contract negotiations between Seattle Public Schools and the SEA: teacher evaluations. Length of the school day and teacher compensation are the other two areas where the union and the District have not found common ground. Now, both sides have abruptly left the negotiating table without a tentative agreement. On Monday afternoon, August 26, Seattle's teachers will vote on the most recent SPS proposal. The expectation is that they will reject it.

All was relatively quiet on the contract negotiation front until mid-August. That’s when SEA leaders announced their dissatisfaction with an SPS proposal to increase class sizes in grades 4-12. Noting that Washington already ranks 47th in the nation in student-teacher ratios, teachers held a "Race to the Bottom" rally at Franklin High School on August 14 to protest the increase, which SPS had billed as a money-saving, capacity-driven initiative. By August 19, the District had taken the increased class size proposal off the table, an optimistic sign of good faith negotiating on the District's part.

Evaluating teachers

The current system for teacher professional development, growth and evaluation (PGE) was carefully crafted by SPS and SEA over a period of several months and has been lauded for its innovation. PGE establishes a shared set of effective teaching practices and standards, and uses student growth measures (standardized tests) as part of the teacher evaluation process. The sticking point here is timing.

Because Washington State is about to adopt new Common Core standards, which will require teachers to adapt their curricula to a new set of grade-level requirements, SEA wants a moratorium on linking state standardized test scores to teacher evaluations. The state’s new Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessment comes online in 2014.  Why not wait until then, argue the teachers, to link test scores to performance under the new Common Core regime.

At the August 21 School Board meeting, SEA’s Knapp was passionate about waiting. "Careful collaboration has been our hallmark," he said. "Let's take the time to do this right." But after working so hard to craft a collaborative, groundbreaking agreement linking student growth measures to teacher evaluations, some wonder why SEA would want to take a giant step backwards by scrapping standardized tests as an assessment tool for the coming school year.

Scheduling teachers

Another issue on which Seattle’s teachers and schools disagree is length of workday. The SPS wants to restore 30 minutes to the elementary school workday, bringing that total to 7.5 hours. The additional 30 minutes is to be used for planning, teacher collaboration and reviewing individual student progress. Secondary school teachers already work a 7.5-hour day, SPS argues. And extending the elementary school workday is consistent with other districts in the region.

The teachers' union doesn’t have a problem with the extra 30 minutes. But it wants that time used to restore art, music and physical education classes, which were cut during the 1970s when school levies failed and the teacher workday was shortened. Expecting teachers to spend an extra 30 minutes at school with "no real purpose" is "detention," Knapp (at left) argued in a letter to SEA members. One Seattle schoolteacher involved in contract negotiations put it in less stark terms: "Art, music and PE allowed classroom teachers to have preparation time. SPS wants to restore 'teacher on-the-clock' time. We want 'kid' time.'"

Paying teachers

The third hurdle to a settlement is teacher comp. SPS has proposed a 4 percent salary increase over two years and restoration of a 1.3 percent salary reduction which was mandated by the state legislature. SEA says in order to hire and retain good teachers, SPS needs to pay them adequately and at a rate that is consistent with what other school districts offer. Translation: 4 percent isn’t enough.

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Posted Mon, Aug 26, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Two observations:

(1) "some wonder why SEA would want to take a giant step backwards by scrapping standardized tests as an assessment tool for the coming school year."
Who are the "some" who wonder, and what is their motivation for doing so? Who says this is a "giant step backwards?"

(2) The relationship between performance and seniority in determining pay raises is also a sore point within the teaching community, and an issue the community group Our Schools Coalition would like addressed in the 2013 contract.
These "Our Schools Coalition" people need to shut up and get out of the way. They have no standing in these negotiations. They are not parties to this contract, nor to any other contract, between the District and SEA. They are just a pack of rich meddlers, who think they should run everything in this town. Just because they insist on injecting themselves into these rounds of bargaining is no reason to grant them any level of legitimacy, certainly no more than any other citizen or group of citizens. So please stop referring to them as if they were players.


Posted Mon, Aug 26, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's the thing. The very best school systems in the world don't use standardized tests at all. Scrapping them would be the best thing that ever happened to our kids. But if we did that, we would also have to stop infantilizing teachers with incredibly micromanaging contracts.

Here's another thing. Education in this country cannot improve one iota until class sizes come down. You can micromanage all you want, you can adopt common core, you can test the living beebus out of kids. Nothing matters one bit until class sizes are no bigger than 18 at secondary level and 15 at primary level. "No child behind" and large class sizes are mutually exclusive, because in large classrooms many kids inherently have to be left behind.

Here's a final thing. Ivan is right on: the Our Schools Coalition people are irrelevant to the contract being negotiated. They are merely an outside group of activitists and activist businesses; in addition, you oughtn't be including comments from them without providing readers background on their agenda, origin, and financial supporters.


Posted Mon, Aug 26, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

There are forgotten union members when teachers and their negotiations are written about. Both classified staff--office staff, secretaries, and instructional assistants (teachers' aides) don't ever seem to get mentioned. They bargaining units too as part of SEA. I'd like to see their issues mentioned as well when contract negotiations are discussed. Also, they need to go out on strike when the teachers/SEA and the district f*** up contract negotiations. Please be a bit more inclusive when you report on SEA/school district issues.

Posted Mon, Aug 26, 3:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Please, Please, Please let them strike. Let them strike for a long, long time.


Posted Mon, Aug 26, 8:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Teacher strikes are illegal. Way to set an example for students; don't like how things are going? Break the law! Teachers are also looking pretty greedy by rejecting a 5.2% pay increase.


Posted Tue, Aug 27, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't have a direct stake in this fight. However, it is obvious to me that as a society we treat our children like sh/t, including by treating teachers like sh/t. Low pay, stupid administration, stupid legislation and lack of adequate funding, the list goes on. It's not education, but the treatment of foster kids in the article right next to this one is more of the same. For a country and state that thinks they're so special it is truly amazing how poorly our actions reflect our platitudes about children's welfare.

So please don't give us the "teachers are greedy" garbage; it is simply not true.


Posted Fri, Aug 30, 11:19 p.m. Inappropriate

First, there is no reason to believe that teacher strikes are illegal. Courts have not seen it that way.

Second, what are they supposed to do if not strike? Are they just supposed to accept whatever pay and benefits they are offered by the management? Teachers do not surrender their right to bargain collectively just because they work for the government.


Posted Mon, Aug 26, 10:23 p.m. Inappropriate

A teacher's strike. What a novel idea and if the weather continues to be nice, the students will support it. In fact most kids could care less about school and missing large chunks of class time is just fine with them. I suppose the reasoning for the strike will be cloaked in language making it sound like the kids will ultimately benefit from an increase in teacher pay.


Posted Thu, Aug 29, 3:24 p.m. Inappropriate

They will not miss any days. It will just get tacked on to the end of the school year.


Posted Sun, Sep 1, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

The District and the union have reached a tentative agreement.


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