Teachers Mostly OK with Newark Contract, Except for Handling of Bonuses

John Mooney, Founding Editor | February 29, 2016 | Education
Educators typically view landmark contract as evenhanded, according to new report, but friction noted on reward distribution

Chris Cerf is the superintendent of the Newark school system.
The signing of the Newark teacher contract in 2012 was a big deal at the time, a tangible result of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the city but also a historic breakthrough for New Jersey’s teachers as a whole.

For the first time on a large scale, state teachers would be rewarded for being judged as exemplary, with rewards reaching as much $12,500 extra per year.

Of course, a great deal has transpired since then, on both the district and the union side, and the Zuckerberg money is almost gone. The contract is up for renewal, with little sign when formal negotiations will start and questions as to whether the bonuses will continue.

But a new study tracking the landmark contract and its impact over the past three years was released last week with some interesting findings about how well it has played out in the city and what it could mean going forward.

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The report by the American Institutes for Research — the first in a three-year study commissioned by the district and paid out of nearly $1 million of Zuckerberg’s money — has so far found that teachers see the new evaluation system prescribed in the contract as basically fair and even beneficial.

Yet opinions diverged when it came to the bonuses themselves, with only a quarter of surveyed teachers saying they were distributed fairly.

“This was a major redesign, so it’s not surprising that some teachers would have mixed feelings,” said Eleanor Fulbeck, the report’s lead researcher, in releasing the report on Friday.

“At the same time, we found that the more informed teachers and school leaders were about these changes, the more likely they were to support them,” she said.

The report comes at a time when the district — 20 years under state control – is going through fundamental changes in the final years of the Christie administration.

Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to return local control, with his former commissioner Chris Cerf now serving as superintendent. At the same time, the district faces a severe financial crisis that raises questions about what would be left of the schools if control is returned.

[related]At the center of the situation is the Newark Teachers Union, a longtime antagonist to state control and a stubborn partner in the 2012 contract inked by former superintendent Cami Anderson and former NTU president Joseph Del Grosso. After a tumultuous tenure, Anderson resigned and has been replaced by Cerf; Del Grosso died in 2015.

The contract has always been a point of contention between the district and the union, narrowly winning approval of the membership.

But the report found some common ground that hasn’t gotten much attention: the teacher evaluation system that was put in the place under the labor agreement.

In it, teachers were pledged transparent evaluations that included observations by both supervisors and peers. The results would be reviewed by the schools and by the district.

And according to AIR’s results, teachers have found the system to be fair and even-handed, with a vast majority saying the criteria used in the valuations are valid. Consensus was as high as 80 percent among teachers and well into the 90s among administrators.

“Teachers and school leaders generally reported that the new evaluation system is valid, accurate, and fair and that the results provide useful and actionable feedback that can inform teachers’ instructional practice,” the report read.

But as noted, a clear split was evident when it came to the bonuses made available to the highest-performing teachers, the centerpiece of the new contract. While a majority of school leaders found that system fair, the share of teachers agreeing dropped to just a quarter.

Fulbeck, the AIR researcher, said in an interview that the split is not unusual in the surveys that the institute has conducted on the subject nationwide. She said there could be a number of issues in play, including a common perception among teachers that they are not paid well enough in general.

But she said this would be a focus of follow-up surveys to determine where the tension points lie. “This is work we need to do in the next evaluation in looking at why perceptions may be different on this,” Fulbeck said.

The district released a statement this weekend that said it looked forward to AIR digging deeper into teachers’ reflections.

“The compensation question at the high level reported is difficult to interpret. As phrased it could mean nothing more than a general preference for better compensation” it read.

“As AIR continues their research in the next two years, we will continue to investigate these questions to make sure we accurately understand their implications for our work.”