Negotiating Away Barriers to Educational Opportunity: By Involving Principals in Planning for Negotiations, Districts Can Better Address the Important Operational and Instructional Issues That Will Help Schools Meet Their Student Achievement Goals

Article excerpt

There is a paradox in negotiating agreements between the governing board and the unions. After wrangling for months over the terms and conditions, a tentative agreement is reached. Normally, the governing board accepts the tentative agreement, and then by a vote of the membership, the union agrees.

The district now has labor peace for a defined period of time, and there is an audible sigh of relief from the board, the staff and the community. All parties hail the agreement as a boon to morale and clear sailing that will benefit students and the educational program.

There are only two things wrong with this picture. First, it would be a very unusual agreement that addressed any aspect of student achievement and increased educational opportunities. Second, the principals and site administrators who are responsible for the success of the educational program, the increased measures of accountability and the proper implementation of the contract may or may not have been consulted prior to and during the negotiations.

The interim report of the California State Legislature's Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education found that "the large amount of time and energy spent on negotiations of salaries and benefits often leaves local boards and their administrative staffs struggling to adequately address other important operational and instructional issues." Interestingly, this language was deleted from the final report.

A report from American Educational Research Association found that using principals as consultants and seeking their input during the negotiations process caused them to use greater discretion in managing their sites and programs than in districts where their input was not used (DeMitchell, 1996).

The issue of linking negotiations to student achievement and increased educational opportunities was discussed in a previous issue of Leadership magazine (Ingram, May/June 2003). This author stated, "Parents, citizens and elected officials must be encouraged and trained to address the instructional and educational issues that are slighted or ignored at the bargaining table."

The paradox is that in those instances when principals were not consulted prior to settlement of an agreement, it is they who must manage the instructional and educational program within a rigid set of work rules and negotiated processes and procedures that often are real barriers to meeting district goals and accountability measures. Yet, these are the leaders who could tell us at the beginning where those barriers are in the contracts and proposals.

A review of just two studies in two areas helps define those barriers: evaluating low-performing teachers and rigid work rules.

Evaluating low-performing teachers

Suzanne Painter recently asked elementary and middle school principals in Oregon and Arizona to identify barriers to evaluating teachers and improving their school and its programs (Painter, 2001). One of the major barriers identified was in evaluating low-performing teachers. Note that the barrier was not evaluating all teachers, but specifically the low-performing ones. The principals in the study cited teacher tenure laws, time constraints, teacher unions and collective bargaining as the major impediments to doing the job.

In California, the tenure laws are in statute rather than in negotiated agreements. For many years, principals had three years in which to observe probationary teachers and make a decision regarding whether or not to recommend them for tenure. In 1983, SB 813 changed that to two years, and as all administrators know, you are really looking at a year and a half because a decision has to be made in the middle of the second year in preparation for the March 15 deadline for giving notice.

In the last legislative session, AB 954 (D-Goldberg) was passed and signed into law. It allows for principals and competent, experienced teachers to agree on holding performance appraisals once every five years, as long as both parties agree. …