News: Class Struggle

Teachers' union solidly rejects pay reform

Jymi Bolden

Sue Taylor(center) urges teachers to reject a meritbased pay plan.

"It's not ready yet." That was the phrase members of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) repeated again and again as 96 percent voted against a proposal to link performance evaluations to pay.

About a dozen teachers spoke May 15, the first of two days of voting, at Xavier University's Cintas Center. Many supported the concept of pay for performance, but nearly all said the district's Teacher Evaluation System (TES) hasn't been tested enough to be trusted.

"The main reason is that we haven't had enough time to get this together," said Delores Walker, a 22-year veteran who teaches third grade science at Rockdale Elementary School. "It was just thrown at us."

But for some teachers, a philosophical disagreement with the school administration is also at work.

"We're all dealing with a board and an administration that thinks we're a business and forgets we're teaching children," said Al Rizzo, a science teacher at Western Hills High School.

Nearly two-thirds of the 3,127 eligible CFT members went to Cintas Center to cast ballots.

Rejection of the new pay system is the first significant setback in a district that's been on a fast track for reform since School Superintendent Steve Adamowski was appointed in 1998.

Performance is in the eye of the beholder
Two years ago CFT agreed to a two-year contract meant to radically change the way teachers are evaluated and paid. The old system, widely adopted by school districts after World War II, awarded pay increases by seniority.

"It's based on the assumption that for every year as a teacher, you get better," says Associate Superintendent Kathleen Ware. "(TES) tests that assumption."

The district has used annual observations since 1995 to award annual raises.

While the district emphasized the new plan's logic and fairness, teachers said there seemed too much emphasis on being the first district in the country to approve performance-based pay — and not enough emphasis on doing it right.

The original TES plan, devised in 1999, called for comprehensive evaluations every five years, with five classroom observations in one year. The system grades teachers on 16 standards, such as communication with parents, asking challenging questions and tracking student progress. Teachers receive one classroom observation in off years.

Teachers at step 22 or above — roughly equivalent to 22 years of experience — are exempt from the pay plan.

The CFT contract allowed either the school board or union to opt out of the pay plan by May 2002. Otherwise the plan would take effect this fall.

Teachers didn't like what they saw of TES in the 2000-01 school year, the first full year of the new evaluations. About 350 of the district's 3,000 teachers received evaluations that year.

CFT president Sue Taylor says the district still hasn't provided sufficiently specific examples of the differences between four teacher rankings — novice, career, advanced and accomplished. Furthermore, the hired evaluators didn't have a firm grasp of the curriculum, and some evaluators even asked for advice on Ohio's curriculum, teachers said.

Taylor won the union presidency last year by calling for a slow-down of the pace of reform. CFT negotiated several changes in September, including a four-year phase-in to allow all teachers — and especially experienced teachers — to learn the TES requirements.

The school district also agreed to exempt step-16 teachers from TES and to comprehensively evaluate only new teachers, teachers with skill deficits and fourth-year teachers (see "Reason to Believe," issue of Sept. 20-26, 2001).

Ware cites a study concluding students taught by high-scoring teachers performed better than average on proficiency tests. But she says teachers' concern is understandable.

"Change is difficult for everybody," Ware says. "It is a very big change."

Spare the kneecaps
When CFT members approved the contract changes in September, things seemed to calm down. But Taylor wasn't sure there was time to get teachers comfortable with TES before the May vote.

The school district's administration, eager to keep reform moving, agreed to all union requests except changing the date of the vote, according to Ware. CFT was talking about a two-year delay, she says. Taylor thought it would be better to vote on the pay plan once all teachers were fully acclimated to TES.

Administrators and union leaders kept talking until November, when the Cincinnati Board of Education voted to change the number of tests to prepare elementary schools for state proficiency exams. The change went against the recommendation of a joint union-administration committee.

"It was just a screw-up," says board member John Gilligan.

But Taylor said the decision violated the "spirit of collaboration" outlined in the September contract changes, and she temporarily ended talks. This conflict was resolved in late January.

But then the differences between the union and the school board widened. In early February, Taylor, Ware and others discussed communicating the TES plan to teachers and the public.

The administration wanted to use a Washington, D.C., firm to put together a public relations campaign at a cost of more than $100,000, to be financed by private sources. Adamowski wanted CFT to come up with $35,000, according to Taylor. CFT didn't have it. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) agreed to help, but only wanted to pay for communication with teachers — and only if AFT was in charge of it, Taylor says.

In the end, CFT contributed $5,500 to an $18,000 AFT teacher survey and learned only 9 percent supported the performance-based pay plan. Meanwhile, the district was touting its study of TES scores and student achievement.

In early April, Adamowski offered to make current teachers' participation in the compensation plan voluntary.

"There's no way you could lose," Ware says. "You could only gain."

But by then it was too late to thoroughly communicate the offer to CFT members, Taylor says. The CFT board needed more time to gauge the reaction of its members.

"We couldn't have mobilized to get the information out," she says. "We're following a process of collaborative bargaining which (Adamowski) has no respect for."

The union's executive committee came out against pay the plan in April.

Adamowski sent a memo to administrators April 29, beginning a subtle campaign against the union's stance. CFT quickly filed a complaint of unfair labor practices over the memo, saying it was an attempt to bypass the union leadership and directly negotiate with members.

A last-minute attempt to postpone the union vote failed. Taylor asked Gilligan to attend a May 7 meeting with Adamowski. Both sides agreed not to publicly "shoot out each other's kneecaps," in Adamowski's words, Taylor says.

Attempts to reach Adamowski for comment were unsuccessful. Gilligan says he doesn't remember that phrase.

"There was a general agreement that we wanted to avoid confrontation and adversarial posturing," he says.

Gilligan pledged to introduce a motion that would cancel the union vote by withdrawing the TES proposal for further review. Then he went out of town.

Two days later Adamowski criticized the union in The Cincinnati Enquirer for not taking his last-minute proposals to members. This infuriated Taylor, who then began mobilizing the vote against TES.

Gilligan says he never introduced the motion to pull back TES because he didn't have the five votes needed to pass it.

Waiting for the audio-visuals
Reforming teacher pay is one of two big hurdles the district wants to clear this year; CFT's contract expires Dec. 31. The other issue is a tax levy to finance half of the district's $1 billion school facilities plan.

In the past few years the school district has decentralized its administration, won approval of a 6.0-mill tax levy in 2000 and restructured high schools for more specialized education.

But reforms mean teachers are doing a lot more work, according to Taylor. For example, the state of Ohio keeps changing curriculum standards.

"We're in a huge stage of flux when we're not clear what the standards are," she says.

TES sounds simple, but it's not — especially when it's combined with other ongoing reforms, Taylor says. Under the plan, newer teachers could get raises of up to $27,000 for perfect evaluations, while more experienced teachers could receive pay cuts of thousands of dollars for less than perfect scores.

Of the teachers evaluated last year, 266 would have gained an average of $5,659 in salary, and the other 63 would have lost an average of $3,690, according to Ware.

Taylor refuses to let critics portray the union as a blockade to reform. After spending days fighting off accusatory questions from the media, she's emphasizing how much reform CFT has backed. What other union agreed to a School Accountability Plan that allows the district to close and restructure under-performing schools?

CFT is still waiting to see videotaped examples of what the district considers good teaching — something the district promised last September. Ware says the district is working on the tapes.

CFT also hasn't seen a realistic breakdown of what the TES pay plan might cost, Taylor says. She believes the $1 million the district has set aside won't be enough.

The next several months of talks are crucial.

"We care about the legacy we leave behind for the teachers in the district," Taylor says. ©

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