I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What is the Recipe for Successfully Turning Around Low Performing Shools?

This coming school year, The Escambia County School District will be pouring a ton of resources and stimulus money into Warrington Middle School. We will be paying teachers sign-on bonuses, we will be giving them performance bonuses based on school letter grade improvement, and we will be allocating large ammounts of other resources into this facility to turn it around. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the district and the Union has been written, and will more than likely be approved by the Board at the June 16th regular meeting. This MOA delineates the bonuses and describes expectations about working conditions at Warrington Middle school over the next two school years. While I have some significant concerns about some aspects of the MOA-- I do intend to vote for approval because my concerns do not rise to the level that would warrant a vote for non-approval.

Here are some aspects that are troubling to me within the MOA.

1. I would have liked to see, in the midst of sign on bonuses, team performance bonuses, and potential school recognition bonuses,--some sort of an individual bonus for individual excellence by classroom teachers. I'm told that some sort of individual recognition bonuses will be developed for the 2010-2011 school year at WMS, so we will have to see how that develops. I outlined and presented to the superintendent for his review what, in my opinion, such an individual reward plan might look like within the context of the overall Warrington Middle School Bonus Program. We will see what happens at WMS to reward individual excellence, and I hope the idea does not get sidelined.

Group performance bonuses are great--but recognizing individuals within the group also makes sense and I believe this is an essential component to drive performance even further rather than by utilizing "group" bonuses alone.

2. The following phrase from the MOA is also problematic, in my opinion--

"Their (Warrington Middle School Instructional Employees) normal work hours will be 7.5 hours each day. However it is understood that instructional staff at Warrington Middle School may be required to participate in professional activities that extend beyond the normal work day. These additional professional activities that occur outside the teacher's normal workday shall not exceed a total of ten hours per month."

I like the language about the necessity of instructional staff to have to work more than normal at this school this school year--but why delineate the strict 10 hours monthly limit? This equates to what, an extra 20 minutes per day? If this school flourishes to it's maximum potential (as I do believe it has the ability to do) these instructors will earn up to an additional $10,000.00 EACH over and above their base salary. For this sort of financial reward I do not think it was productive to spell out the limit of extra work required. How does telling teachers at WMS "you cannot be forced to work more than an average of twenty minutes per day unpaid overtime" help to drive student achievement?? If I'm writing this MOA, I leave off the last sentence of the above phrase from the MOA. If a prospective teacher has an issue with that, they could choose not to accept the challenge of joining the WMS team this year and earning all of the big bonuses.
That's all.

Good teachers will put in the time required and setting a cap on the monthly additional time commitment does not help the overall effort. Professionals who accept challenging assignments will and should put in the time necessary to do the job--and I'm sorry but that might and probably will mean more than coming in ten minutes early and leaving ten minutes after the "7.5" hour work day.

3. As initially described to me, it was my understanding that the hiring for this WMS project wuld be open to the "best and brightest" however reading the MOA it looks as though union senority will trump hiring decisions based upon ability-- example, could an annual contract teacher stand a chance of being hired at one of these positions at WMS, or how about someone, some excellent candidate from outside our area?--or will all of the positions already be filled as a result of the priority transfer process described in the contract and MOA?

Putting too many restrictions,conditions, and limitations around this project does not enhance chances for success, in my opinion.

Other districts that have tried to replicate successful and innovative programs have run into difficulty if these programs get too hamstrung by union contract language. The Boston School System "Pilot Schools" are a good example. from the boston globe article:

"The Boston's 18 pilot schools also have teachers' unions, although the provisions are scaled back to allow for experimentation with longer school days and other changes that unions have traditionally resisted."....."The lackluster performance of Boston middle school pilots highlights what can happen when the pilot schools are imposed by district edict, rather than growing out of grass-roots proposals from the teachers and administrators."

Washington D.C. Schools are trying to raise pay in exchange for more and expanded management rights. This is an idea that I favor. Substantial concessions are being required in exchange for vastly better pay, including loss of "tenure" status.

In New York City, one innovative program will be paying teachers $125,000.00 yearly. But teachers will have to agree to be "at-will" employees to earn this large salary. And they will be expected to perform. And I doubt their unpaid overtime requirements will be delineated and/or limited by contract language.

We are at a tipping point; Public education is changing in America, and reforms are going to be necessary. Serious reforms. Absent this, a growing number of families (particularly those with above average economic means) will choose the homeschool or private school option. As this slow exodus happens, the challenges left for those of us who remain strongly supportive of public education will grow exponentially. Warrington Middle School is where we can begin to take a stand locally, to show skeptics what we are capable of given the right staff, authority, and resources. I think we will be successful, but we must be careful about how work agreements are structured, written, and bargained with the unions-- to allow the district administration greater management authority and flexibility--particulary when the stakes are as high as they are at Warrington Middle School.

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