When Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association agreed in 2010 to a new contract governing how the city’s teachers work, they took big steps toward a system that supports the district’s 3,000 educators in the practice of their craft and holds them accountable for the results.
Integral to passage of that contract was the involvement of the Our Schools Coalition, a broad community alliance dedicated to improving educational outcomes for children in Seattle Public Schools. Affiliated with neither labor nor management, the Our Schools Coalition occupies the center ground, where students live. The coalition demanded positive change and a move away from the status quo, and the final agreement between the district and union incorporated nearly all of our proposed improvements, including more collaboration time for teachers, linking student achievement data to measures of teacher effectiveness, and establishing new compensation and career opportunities for outstanding educators.
Three years later, much work remains, both in fulfilling the promise of the current agreement and improving upon it. The district and union will begin formal negotiations for a new contract in the coming months. While our place is not at the negotiating table, as parents, taxpayers, and local employers, we are the district’s constituency and have a voice in the process.
Below we offer some highlights of our platform—a portfolio of changes that are improving teaching and learning around the country. These are proven strategies that will make our schools better. What’s more, they are broadly supported in Seattle. In a recent survey conducted for the Our Schools Coalition, 89 percent of Seattle voters supported this package, and 93 percent of Seattle Public Schools parents agreed. (The full platform and polling data can be viewed at www.ourschoolscoalition.org.)
1) Real measures to close the achievement gap: The current contract calls for the union and the district to form the Partnership to Close the Achievement Gap—a committee to research and recommend measures for closing the achievement gap that separates the affluent, mostly white children of Seattle from their low-income and minority peers. That committee was never formed. We urge its important work to start and consider the below ideas.
The district should provide the means for all new teachers to be endorsed to teach English Language Learners, and it should offer incentives for current teachers to earn those endorsements. More than 129 languages are spoken in Seattle schools, and ELL students need teachers who can help them overcome language barriers.
The district should take steps to end summer learning loss through measures like restoring summer school or extending the school year. Research shows that poor children and children of color suffer most from this problem because they have less access to summer learning opportunities.
The district should find alternatives to the practice of long suspensions and expulsions for kids with disciplinary problems. Students subject to such discipline are much more likely to drop out of school entirely. Seattle can follow the example of cities and states around the country that have adopted alternative measures to keep kids in school while keeping their fellow students safe.
2) Improve professional development for teachers: Professional development opportunities available to teachers now are usually aligned neither to their students’ academic achievement goals nor the teachers’ own evaluations. Properly aligning the enhanced skills that dedicated teachers learn to better themselves will help achieve the goal we all share: a better education for our kids.
3) Respect students – all students – as young scholars: Research overwhelmingly shows that the quality of a child’s teacher is crucial to his or her educational success. A great teacher can catapult a student years ahead, while a poor-performing teacher can leave a child behind or even completely disinterested in school.
Seattle school officials should be allowed to consider teacher effectiveness and content knowledge when making hiring, transfer and layoff decisions. Right now, important staffing decisions are too often based solely on seniority.
Seattle school officials should be allowed to consider teacher effectiveness and content knowledge when making hiring, transfer and layoff decisions. Right now, important staffing decisions are too often based solely on seniority. This can leave talented younger teachers unemployed and underperforming senior teachers in the classroom.
Likewise, principals should have the flexibility and authority to hire the teachers their students need, teachers that fit the cultures of their schools. Too often, principals have teachers displaced from other schools forced upon them (the policy is actually referred to as “forced placement”), even though their qualifications may be a poor fit.
4) Communicate better with families: Navigating the Seattle Public Schools bureaucracy can be trying, to say the least, for parents and guardians, especially new immigrants. In the current contract, expectations of educators and administrators in terms of family communication are made clear. It’s time for the district to get serious about making this a reality.
These are all commonsense proposals, in line with the high expectations, professional development and accountability that professionals in other fields expect as a matter of course.
The Our Schools Coalition has high expectations of Seattle Public Schools to deliver results on behalf of students across our city. Strong implementation, accountability for results, robust tools and support for educators in the practice of their craft, and clear, consistent, transparent communication with parents and families form the bedrock of our expectations.
The district has an enormous opportunity to build on the work already done, to reallocate resources in a smart, effective way and to deliver on the mission to ensure every child in Seattle Public Schools is prepared for success in college, career and life.
Sara Morris is President and CEO of the Alliance for Education and a member of the Our Schools Coalition. She is also a Seattle Public Schools parent.