TEST pilots flying in the high California desert in the 1950s broke the sound barrier. They ``pushed the envelope,'' the previous limits of aircraft design. Their exploits led to manned spaceflight. Teachers in Rochester, N.Y., Pittsburgh, and Dade County, Fla., broke the educational equivalent of the sound barrier with contracts signed for the 1988-89 school year. In these urban districts, teacher unions, each an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), negotiated salary increases of 28 to 40 percent over the life of their contracts, pushing the pay envelope with beginning salaries of $28,000 and top salaries of $63,000.
Thousands of teachers thus gained pay parity with other professions. The big-city collective-bargaining agreements also broke new ground in nonfinancial areas. Not only did teachers in these districts negotiate whopping pay increases, says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, but these cities also set in motion ``a potentially huge shift in their role and the way teachers feel about themselves.''
``Five years from now, it will seem as though these districts took an extremely timid step,'' says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union for each of these locals. ``It's only the first-generation computer we are talking about.''
The contracts formalize widespread acceptance of a major role for teachers in curriculum development, textbook selection, supervision of other teachers, setting class size, determining the type and amount of testing at the elementary level, even the recruiting and hiring of new teachers. The wall between administration and instruction is crumbling, say teachers in all three districts.
``Staying in the classroom is now an incentive,'' says Parris Battle, an elementary and high school teacher for eight years in Dade County. ``Becoming a mentor teacher brings honor and recognition from your peers. We know how to run a school,'' he says; ``now we have the authority to do so.''
Teachers in Rochester are both reforming schools and turning teaching into a profession, says Martha Keating, an elementary school teacher with 23 years in the district. Her new duties include being a lead, or supervisory, teacher for junior teachers.
Even before bigger paychecks could be cashed, the first noticeable change was the flood of applicants each district received from around the country, school officials say. Rochester, with some 2,500 teachers, had fewer than 20 retire. Many may be staying to fatten up their pension, says Ms. Keating. Whatever the reason, more experienced senior staff are in the classrooms who wouldn't be there otherwise, she says.
``Dollars and cents are indicators of an expectation on both sides that teachers have and are taking more of an involvement in the teaching profession,'' says George Gensure, a math and computer science teacher for 18 years in the Pittsburgh schools. ``We've stuck our necks out. We're ready to take over policing of the ranks, mentoring new teachers,'' he says.
Mr. Shanker, recognized as the father of collective bargaining for teachers, sees a parallel between the big-city contracts today and the watershed era in the early 1960s when, as a militant union boss, he led the New York City teachers union out on strike (getting jailed twice in the process). At that time collective bargaining was unheard of for teachers. Today it is a given.
``In the urban districts, a maturity has occurred in the bargaining process,'' Shanker says. ``Major conflicts get resolved. Then what you get is a set of relationships that can bring about the best of what is happening in a given district. What you see in these districts is what you see in companies that have a high degree of employee involvement,'' he says.
``This is an evolutionary step called `negotiating responsibility,''' says Linda Darling-Hammond of the RAND Corporation, an expert on teacher issues. ``What it should do is take [teachers] away from rigid work rules, and allow for [union] locals to take a central role in teacher professionalism.''
``You'll get better education if you get better teachers,'' says Ms. Darling-Hammond. ``This is a given; if you don't agree with this, there is no sense going further.'' It follows that you get better decisions if the people in the classroom ``own'' the decisions. In fact, ``you'll get teacher/professionals who will devise better plans, procedures, strategies for other teachers,'' she says.
One benefit Shanker sees, and one he says should be expected, is that, ``As teachers see the importance of their own participation, they will communicate this to students, especially at the secondary level. Participation of students will change. Institutions will no longer treat them as children.''
``If teachers feel this is a winning enterprise, students are going to pick that up,'' says Mr. Boyer. He is cautiously optimistic but wants to see if the new arrangements lead to structures that nurture ``an intimacy in the school relationship where students are known as individual learners.'' The verdict is still out on whether these contracts will have this result. Boyer says he has yet to see the contract that can cope with an environment of 2,000 to 5,000 inner city students, anonymously stacked on top of one another in a brick box called a school.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.
Contracts in three cities Miami-Dade, Fla. Starting salaries: 1988: 23,000 1989: 24,950 1990: 26,500 Top salary in 1990: $50,000 Pittsburgh Starting salaries: 1988: 22,000 1989: 23,500 1990: 26,000 1991: 28,000 Top salary in 1991: $50,000 Rochester, N.Y. Starting salaries: 1988: 26,700 1989: 28,900 Top salary in 1989: $62,947
Source: American Federation of Teachers