Drawing a line in the schoolyard

Teachers threaten to strike over new issues such as merit pay and longer school calendar.

School's open - at least for now.

With strikes looming in troubled districts from Philadelphia to Boston to San Diego - and teachers already on the picket lines in Buffalo - some of the vanguard issues of school reform are getting an early test.

The overarching clash is a familiar but fundamental one: teacher demands for better pay and smaller class sizes running up against financially strapped districts. But underneath lie many of the most controversial changes that school administrators across the country are now pushing as part of a sweeping accountability and reform movement: teacher pay based on performance, a longer school year and day, more flexibility in teacher assignments.

The outcome of these negotiations - particularly here in Philadelphia - may presage what other districts will face in the future. The ideological divide is unusually stark here. Mayor John Street (D) and his handpicked school board are demanding what they're calling a "reform contract for a new century."

Faced with a projected $80 million deficit, they're also hoping to keep pay raises down and increase the percentage that teachers pay for their healthcare.

To them, improving Philadelphia's struggling schools is one key to revitalizing the city and stemming the steady exodus of the middle class to the suburbs.

But the teachers are balking. They're already underpaid compared to their suburban colleagues, working in overcrowded and resource-strapped schools in low-income neighborhoods - some of which are dangerous.

They insist they can improve the schools if they get competitive paychecks, better teaching resources, and increased security and discipline to help them do their jobs properly. They've presented a 20 point improvement plan to the board.

Education experts contend that both sides have valid points, which makes the crisis all the harder to negotiate. Take the district's demand for performance-based pay. "There's no question that's one of the best ways to improve student performance in urban school districts," says Frederick Hess, an education expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "At the same time, it's very complex and difficult to implement properly."

In fact, only a handful of school districts nationwide have experimented with performance-based pay. Most of those, like in Cincinnati, have been voluntary pilot projects developed in conjunction with the teachers' union.

Discontent on merit pay

But such proposals remain rare and untested, particularly in large districts. In general, teachers don't believe a fair and objective system has yet been developed that can ensure that evaluations would be truly based on merit, instead of the whims of an administrator.

That's a primary reason the National Education Association, a teachers union, this summer narrowly rejected even a conservatively worded endorsement of the idea of a performance-based pay system. "Anytime you have it contingent on an evaluation, it's more controversial than it is when it's based on demonstrated skills and knowledge," says Ms. Christie of merit-pay systems.

In Philadelphia, the union complains that the school district is demanding to implement a mandatory performance-based system, without properly explaining to teachers how it would work. "If they wish to create an incentive-laced system that is voluntary, we have no problem with that," says a spokesman for the Philadelphia Federated Teachers. "But making it mandatory and having no idea how it will work, is like asking us to buy the proverbial pig in the poke."

The school board refuses to comment on its negotiating stance, but it contends an incentive-based system is the best way to attract and retain good teachers in a system where 40 percent of the new teachers leave after the first year.

"The good news is that we talked seriously about a lot of important issues," said school district spokeswoman Alexis Moore, after a midweek negotiating session.

The other tough issue is the district's demand for a longer school day and year. Teachers say they have no problem with that, as long as they're compensated appropriately. That's been a key sticking point in education reform for decades.

Indeed, Mr. Hess notes that during the mid-1980s increasing the school year was the rage in reform circles. But few districts were able to implement it because they didn't have the money to pay for it. Most school systems nationwide still require between 175 and 185 school days.

Parents are divided

Outside the Waring Elementary School in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia, parents bringing their children to school hope they'll be able to complete their 180 days without interruption. But they're also torn, supportive of the teachers' demands for better working conditions.

"I do think the need to have better pay - in fact, the best pay possible - is important. How can their minds be right if their pockets aren't?" says Kaye Evans, holding her daughter's hand on the first day of kindergarten. "But I hope they come up with an agreement. I don't think the kids should be missing school."

But Daniesha Reid, who started 10th grade today, had no objections to a teacher walk out. "I hope they do strike," she says. "I'm sleepy. I'm not used to getting up this early in the morning."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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