A breakthrough in education reform in Seattle

UPDATED: Teachers ratify a contract that moves the district ahead in teacher accountability. Here's how this surprising outcome happened.
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Is it possible to fully fund the state's public schools?

UPDATED: Teachers ratify a contract that moves the district ahead in teacher accountability. Here's how this surprising outcome happened.

This story has been updated, with new material, on Sept. 6.

All of a sudden, Seattle Public Schools have joined the national parade, if somewhat timidly. In a three-year contract just ratified (Thursday night) by the Seattle Education Association, the teachers' union, Seattle is playing catchup. After a decade or so of foot-dragging by the union and dithering by the School Board, education reform has arrived, albeit less than the district hoped for. And this is a big signal — from the biggest district and the most recalcitrant union — to other districts in the state.

The School Board still has to ratify the agreement, which is expected. A school levy has to pass this November, providing funds for the teacher-evaluation reforms. One key reform — dealing with reductions-in-force (RIF) of teachers — didn't get into the new contract. The strong medicine of the district's proposal turned into a mild dose. And there is the very discordant note of a union vote of no-confidence in Supt. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, whose toughness in the stretch was instrumental in getting the reform package.

Observers of the closed-door negotiations think that something happened about two weeks ago, after which union negotiators got on the reform bandwagon and the district seems to have decided to settle for a half-loaf. Not only was a strike avoided; the two sides made significant progress in finding a way to join the national tide toward school reform. Other school-watchers, such as The Seattle Times' editorial board, were underwhelmed. Complained the editorial: A diminutive version [of value-added measurement] is now part of a new three-year deal allowing the district very limited use of student growth, as measured by test scores, to help rate teachers. The downsides are that the method will not be used for all evaluations. It will only be used for teachers who volunteer for it. Nor will the district be able to use money as a carrot to attract volunteers. The district agreed not to limit raises to just those teachers who volunteer for the system.

Here's some context. A year ago, as a five-year contract with teachers expired, neither union nor school district wanted to face the long-put-off question of how to evaluate teachers meaningfully, particularly when it came to using student-performance as part of the evaluation. A one-year extension of the contract was agreed to, while both sides continued to wrestle with the thorny issues of evaluating teachers.

The pattern of teacher evaluations is easy to see from many other districts: put in place an objective system for evaluating effectiveness in teachers, reward the best ones with more pay, help the struggling ones, and show the door to the poorest teachers. In most reform-minded districts, a part of the evaluation of teachers is pegged to how well students of a teacher are performing, as measured by tests to determine the "value-added" component by the teacher in over several years.

These tests have lots of problems; there are all kinds of external factors that need to be weighed. Here's a particularly incisive summary of the debate, by David Leonhardt of The New York Times. Given the uncertainty and the controversy, it would have been easy for both sides to punt, waiting for more tests of the tests. But this year a unified board, a broad community coalition, and a determined superintendent were bent on facing up to the issue and moving the needle somewhat.

Apparently negotiations went along slowly but well. In early August, the SEA union put its proposal on the table, and it seems to have embraced the philosophy of accountability for teachers, but only in small pilot programs while more studies took place. It's at this point, according to some accounts, that Supt. Goodloe Johnson erupted and made the district's much more aggressive plan public. The SEA cried foul play, tried to make the not-very-popular superintendent the issue, and sought to rally the troops.

Political leaders such as former Mayor Norm Rice and Richard Conlin and Tim Burgess of the city council issued op-eds in support of the district's reform proposal. Other leaders, like Mayor McGinn, stayed mum. Sadly, no reform group of teachers has been formed locally, who might have shaped the reform package more. As it worked out, all the reforms are being imposed on the teachers, with natural resentment. On the other hand, the contract that emerged was to a large degree a product of the teachers' union approach.

The national context also put the unions at a disadvantage, effectively ruling out the strike option. There were many stories attacking the privileges of public employees. Other media stories touted Obama's "Race to the Top" program, which rewards districts that embrace reform (charter schools, tying evaluations to student performance, career ladders based on excellent teaching and not just seniority), and showing how far Washington state lags behind.

So negotiating sessions resumed, and the SEA stripped out much of the district's SERVE proposal but finally moved toward more robust evaluations. In a few ways, the package that emerged early this week (just as school is about to resume) went even farther than the district hoped. One example: The district proposed that teachers could voluntarily opt into the new system of evaluating, earning a small bonus and chances at higher pay; those who wanted to stay with the old lock-step system, with pay rising only based on longevity and graduate degrees, could do so. Under the new contract, all teachers will be in the new system after three years. But this also removed the incentive for teachers to opt into more rigorous evaluation programs, in exchange for a chance to earn more money.

The district was forced to take some steps back from its proposal. Student-growth measures will be used to trigger reviews of teachers who might have otherwise gotten good evaluations, rather than as a key part of all evaluations. Test scores cannot be used to fire poorly performing teachers. The district wanted to limit raises to teachers who volunteer to be part of the new, results-oriented evaluation scheme; instead, all teachers will opt into a watered-down version, and all will get (small) raises. Here's the district's summary of the new contract.

Politically, both sides are able to claim they "won." Practically, a great deal will depend on getting new funding to implement the more robust evaluation programs, and on how well the district implements them and wins trust (or provokes passive resistance). Another factor to watch: How well the reform coalition (largely business interests and parents) holds together, keeps up the pressure, and finds new funding. This coalition has been building for the past five years. It was originally formed to find ways to get more money to schools. Gradually the tradeoff of more accountability moved to the fore. Some reformers may feel all that work produced only modest gains in this new contract.

Reform advocates I've spoken to so far say they are "thrilled." Karen Waters of the Our Schools Coalition, a key group of reform supporters put together over the past year, said, "The agreement is a watershed moment in the history of public education in Seattle, and is an important piece in closing the achievement gap, increasing student learning across the system, and supporting teachers."

These advocates for reform feel the district now has a balanced system of quantitative data and qualitative evaluations by which teachers can know how they are doing, move to improve, or face the music and leave. (In the old system, evaluations barely took place and there were only two levels: satisfactory and unsatisfactory, with 99.5 percent of teachers earning a satisfactory grade.) There are now ways to reward excellent teaching with more pay (not a lot, at least in this contract, but a start). And the district will now put itself in better graces with voters (two levies coming up), nose-holding funders like the Gates Foundation, and federal grants. Thus the old bargain of rewarding real reform with more funding will have a test at last. (Not so easy in a recession, alas.)

As for the RIF (reduction-in-force) policies, which lays off teachers based on seniority alone, the current system angered a lot of parents this past year as excellent young teachers were let go and some dead wood was retained. The school district pressed for a reform, where teacher quality would also count in deciding who gets laid off and how surplused teachers are moved around to schools that may not want them. No progress. Apparently the main problem is state legislation. One source said that even if the Seattle contract had made quality a consideration in RIFs, these state laws would have tied every single such decision into legal knots.

Lastly, the no-confidence vote in the Supe. This rebellion has been welling up in several schools, unhappy with Goodloe-Johnson's militaristic manner and her top-down, unified-curriculum reforms. The district is full of clumsy managers at the top, and it is easy to imagine teachers who might like (or reluctantly accept) the teacher-evaluation reforms but who are deeply and justifiably apprehensive about this regime's ability to execute them with skill. Likewise, one can understand how union leaders, having pushed somewhat out in front of their rank and file on this contract, might want to provide a handy target, other than themselves, for venting anger.

Whether the near-unanimous vote of no-confidence, which is non-binding but plenty wounding, will make Dr. Goodloe-Johnson more defiant, or more conciliatory is hard to say. Judging by her forceful generalship in negotiating this breakthrough contract, I'd bet on more toughness, and more labor-management hostilities.


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