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Newark Teachers Contract, a Game-Changer for NJ's Often-Troubled School District

John Mooney | October 19, 2012

Pay for performance and peer reviews are radical changes -- but they also show what can be done with $50 million in private funding.

NTU Signing
Credit: Howard Best/NPS
NTU president Joseph Del Grosso and Newark super Cami Anderson.

It is touted as a historic agreement, one that will remake how Newark teachers are judged and paid -- one that may even serve as a model for other school districts around the country.

Announced yesterday, the tentative contract between the state-run Newark public school system and the 3,100-member Newark Teachers Union was hailed by such disparate players as Gov. Chris Christie and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Among its highlights: performance bonuses, peer reviews, and the first steps to end to the salary guides that all but guarantee a raise every year.

That's not to slight the $100 million to finance the ambitious agreement over the next three years, half coming from private funders, including the Foundation for Newark’s Future, which is headed up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

As innovative as it is, however, the contract can't cure all of the Newark school district's challenges.

For instance, it appears to do little about the excess teachers that continue to dog Newark’s billion-dollar budget. And while the mostly private money for performance bonuses may exist now, will it be there in the future?

The details of the deal are trickling out as the union rank and file reviews the contract over the next 10 days, with a vote a week from Monday. In the meantime, it's not too early to assess where it could make a real difference to Newark schools and where challenges are likely to remain unresolved.

Pay for Performance

The performance bonuses spelled out in the contract are the first for a sizable public school district in the state and among only a handful in the country. Unlike broader merit pay agreements, they are directed to very specific standards.

For instance:

  • Teachers who are rated “highly effective” can get a $5,000 bonus for each year they maintain that status.

  • Teachers who work in the highest-need schools, essentially those in the bottom quartile of the district in performance, can earn an extra $5,000 annually.

  • Teachers working in high-need subject areas like math, science, and special education can receive $2,500 annually.

Bonuses are always controversial, and there are some key limits to these. They will be direct payments, not tied to the base salary nor applied to a teacher's pension once he or she retires.

They will also be part of a separate salary guide required of new teachers and those with only a bachelor’s degree, but they will be optional for as many as half of the district’s teachers, those now holding advanced degrees and able to stay on a more traditional salary scale if they choose. That standard salary scale will continue to pay them for experience and credentials.

Other than a few isolated instances, incentive pay is new to New Jersey and provides the first real test of the idea in a state that already pays its teachers as well as any in the country.

Further, this contract will limit pay raises to teachers who maintain an "effective" rating or better. Those who receive the lowest evaluations will automatically be refused a raise. It will be the district’s option for those deemed in the second tier, or “partially effective.”

Administrators already can withhold such raises under current rules, but it doesn’t happen much. This year, the district withheld increment raises to about 25 or 30 teachers total, the union said.

Peer review This is one of the biggest wins for the teachers union, something that NTU president Joseph Del Grosso has consistently pressed for.

Peer review isn't new -- Rochester, NY, and Montgomery County, MD, are the most notable examples of peer systems. But the NTU has built in a number of checks and balances that will ensure that teachers not only have an eye on their peers but also a say in their evaluations.

This is accomplished by having teachers sitting on school panels and taking a direct part in the evaluations. Some will serve on a district council that will monitor the evaluations as they come in. Teachers can even bring in outside “validators” to double-check their evaluations.

Weingarten, who took part in the negotiations, said in an interview last night that this part of the deal was as critical as any on the contract.

“What you have is a tentative contract that values experience, values knowledge, values the work done every year, and provides more voice to teachers than they’ve ever had,” she said.

Money

The Newark contract won't come cheap, and although hard numbers are yet to be released, both public and private dollars are essential to making it fly. Even without performance bonuses, the average teacher could see raises exceeding the state average of 2 percent to 3 percent in each of the next three years.

One union official put the range of raises between 3.8 percent and 5.2 percent each year, although neither Del Grosso nor Anderson would confirm that.

Of the $100 million in new money, almost a third will go to giving retroactive raises to teachers that cover the past two years when the evaluation procedures were not in place.

This will also be the first big ticket investment for Zuckerberg’s foundation, which in two years has doled out as much as $16 million, depending on who's doing the counting. But it has been a trickle so far, with foundation leaders saying the strategic planning has taken time.

If this deal goes through, it would be committing as much as another $50 million to the contract alone, most notably the bonuses -- a full quarter of the $200 million to be raised.

The district will provide the other half of the $100 million at a time when it is struggling to make ends meet, especially with the surge of charter schools taking a bigger and bigger share of the dollars.

It was one of the first questions that Newark superintendent Cami Anderson faced yesterday, and she said the district has budgeted the money into its spending plans.

“We are confident we can find savings that can be deployed to this key effort,” she said. “There is really nothing more important than teacher quality, and the process for us will be to take a fine-tooth comb through the budget to find the resources necessary.”

Excess Teachers

Among Anderson’s biggest challenges in her first 16 months on the job is dealing with a dropping enrollment and the resultant need for fewer teachers.

As Newark has closed some schools and relocated others, it has accumulated close to 200 teachers who are deemed as excess and have been distributed across schools to a variety of support roles.

This contract does not provide any tools for dealing with this situation. When asked specifically about these teachers, Anderson only said that existing statute on seniority still protected those teachers from layoffs.

And while the new system does provide some mechanism for removing teachers after two years of subpar evaluations, the fact that many of them are not serving as full-time classroom teachers makes that path a difficult one to follow.

Unanswered Questions

As copies of the contract are leaked, all eyes will be on the salary guides. They lay out how teachers are compensated at different parts of their careers, and have been notoriously uneven -- especially for new teachers.

Anderson and Del Grosso yesterday both said the salary guides are more evenly distributed than ever before, doing away with so-called bubbles -- big pay raises that kick in for senior teachers.

They also said there will be special incentives for new teachers as well, with one-time bonuses of up to $20,000 for gaining an advanced degree, a sure help in paying off student loans.

Still, the extent of the performance bonuses beyond this contract remains an open question. The drying up of funds has led to the demise of pay-for-performance plans in other states, and both Anderson and Del Grosso said that will be determined in the years ahead.

“Let’s pray there is another Zuckerberg out there for the next contract,” Del Grosso said.

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