New Jefferson County (Louisville) Collective Bargaining Agreement Makes Small Advances but Leaves Much To Be Desired

Last week the Jefferson County Teachers Association’s (JCTA) voting members approved a new contract with the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). Centerpieces of the new agreement include a) no annual raise for JCPS teachers, and b) slight changes to flexibility in hiring for JCPS principals.

According to JCTA president Brent McKim, teachers are willing to forgo the annual raise because they understand the difficult budget situation the district is in. JCPS will, however, provide an additional $5 million to compensate teachers for working ‘extra hours’ and for participating in professional development. Other changes include providing early childhood and elementary school teachers with an additional 10 minutes for their planning periods, and permitting teachers to take a personal day to attend their child’s graduation—rules currently prevent teachers from taking personal days during the last five school days. I applaud the district for providing additional planning time early childhood and elementary teachers. Generally, teachers are not provided with an optimal amount of time for planning. Providing teachers with additional time during the school day for planning and collaboration must be a part of school reforms. Planning time is not a luxury for teachers; rather it is absolutely necessary for high quality instructional planning. Without high quality instructional planning there can be no high quality instruction.

There are changes in the new contract to regulations around
hiring flexibility for principals, but the changes are slight and leave much to be desired for giving principals the flexibility they need to hire the best possible candidates for teaching positions. Under the previous contract, principals were prohibited from hiring a teacher candidate from outside the school district if a JCPS teacher requests a transfer to the school for the opening. The three most senior transfer applicants were given preference for the position. Under
the new contract, the pool of transfer candidates for positions will be expanded to eight. If fewer than four teachers request transfers for the position, principals will be permitted to interview candidates from outside of the district to reach a total of four candidates for the position. The change provides principals slightly more flexibility in hiring, but not much. Even with the new contract, the hiring restrictions on principals in JCPS are unnecessarily burdensome and do nothing to ensure that the best candidates are chosen for teaching positions. The interests of children would be served by
allowing principals the flexibility to hire the best candidate for a teaching position, regardless of whether the candidate comes from inside or outside of JCPS and without regard to how many years of experience a candidate has. Principals factor in teachers’ years of experience when making decisions about the best candidate for filling a vacancy. Giving a teacher preference for a position
simply because he or she has been doing the job longer, not because he or she is a more effective teacher, is ridiculous and it is part of the adult-centered, traditional teachers union ideology that we must break free from in public education. That ideology puts the desires and security of adults before the needs of children.

Although not nearly as big a problem as hiring flexibility for principals, I believe it is time we engage in conversations around the idea of paying teachers to attend and participate in professional development. Asking teachers to attend professional development that takes place ‘after-hours’ is not sufficient justification for needing to pay them to attend. The ‘after-hours’ concept itself is problematic for non-hourly, salaried employees like teachers.
Further, the idea that teachers must be paid to attend professional development which is both required for continued certification and/or equips them with the tools to do their jobs well just doesn’t sit well with me. Regulations pertaining to the maximum number of hours per month that teachers may be asked to stay ‘after-hours’
for professional development and the fiscal reality of having to pay for both trainers and attendees puts unneeded burdens on principals and school budgets. I am a supporter of paying teachers a salary commensurate with their abilities. Effective teachers should be paid well. Highly effective teachers should be paid very well—at a salary that differentiates them from average teachers. But with that
salary the expectation should be that teachers will meet all professional obligations, including attending meetings and participating in professional development after school. These are not foreign concepts. In fact, for teachers in Kentucky
school districts without collective bargaining agreements this is how
professional life works. It is time to revisit these ideas in Jefferson County as well.

Building a New Teaching Profession in the USA

I recently returned home after spending nearly two weeks in Finland. After meeting with dozens of Finnish education officials, administrators, and teachers, one of several recurrent themes was trust. Finnish educators said repeatedly that trust is a hallmark of their educational system and their relatively recent success on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They talked about trusting a lot of people; education officials trusting school principals, principals trusting teachers, teachers trusting students and parents, etc. But most often the conversations
centered on how much trust the Finnish people have in teachers. As a former teacher and a teacher advocate, that excited me.

The teaching profession in Finland is a bit different from what it is in the USA. In Finland, throughout the nation’s history and even today teachers are regarded as the candles of society, spreading light into the darkness. Teaching is regarded as one of the most honorable and respected professions in the country. Very many of the best and brightest students graduating high school apply to teacher education programs in Finnish universities. Because the profession is regarded in that manner, university teacher education programs are able to choose from among the best and brightest of the best and brightest students entering Finnish universities.

Over the last 10 years I have often had the opportunity to speak to middle and high school students, and I often talk with them about considering careers in teaching. Unfortunately, it is the very rare motivated and highly academically capable student that tells me that they are interested in a career in teaching. It is the current reality in the USA that our teachers have varying ability levels and varying levels of effectiveness. Some of our teachers were the brightest, most capable, and highly motivated students in their high school and university classes. As students, these teachers could have chosen to major in anything. Others had fewer options.

In my current role as a faculty member in a college of education, I have the opportunity to work with some of Kentucky’s strongest educators; professionals who are outstanding in every conceivable way. They are smart, talented, unbelievably hardworking, and passionately committed to their students and to the teaching profession. Unfortunately, however, some of our teachers are not as skilled, committed, or passionate about children or about teaching as the teachers I just described.

The unpleasant truth is that some teachers in American classrooms have landed there because they couldn’t cut it in other majors or professions and teaching was relatively easy to get into and keep a job. Some are in the classroom because teaching has been considered a stable profession. Some teachers are in classrooms because the hours and calendar schedule of the profession are convenient for raising a family. And believe it or not, some teachers are in the profession for the money. You won’t get
rich teaching, but in the right school district with the right credentials and a few years of experience you can make a pretty decent living as a teacher.

What Do I Propose?

I propose building an American teaching profession with individuals who could have chosen lots of different career paths but chose to teach. Doing so would require pretty significant reform and the buy-in and collaboration of some key stakeholders.

First, we would need to acknowledge that the teaching profession in the USA is not quite what we want it to be, and that our current teaching force is not quite what we would like it to be. The teaching profession, including salary structure, career ladders, and professional accountability, would have to be drastically reformed to attract more highly qualified candidates into the profession. Colleges of teacher education would have to begin actively recruiting a diverse array of teacher candidates into the profession, selecting only the highest quality candidates for entry into programs, and holding candidates to extremely high standards; functioning as true gate-keepers to the teaching profession.

Teacher training programs would have to embrace radical reform enabling programs to better equip teacher candidates with the necessary content knowledge, pedagogical expertise, and dispositions for the needs of the diverse group of learners in 21st century American classrooms. To be clear, there are American teacher preparation programs doing just that, but those programs tend to be more the exception than the norm.

Policy makers , school districts, and teacher preparation programs would have to work together to create high-quality pathways for talented professionals to enter the teaching profession as a 2nd career, but with the necessary training and preparation for long-term success once they get there.

Teachers would have to start identifying and encouraging talented students as early as middle school to get them to consider careers in teaching. And teachers unions would have to radically transform themselves into high-quality professional associations that play a major role in both building and refereeing the teaching profession. Professional associations must play a major role in holding their members to the highest standards for professional practice.

By the end of my career I would love nothing more than to
entertain visitors from across the world and tell them that a key to the success of schools in the USA is the trust that we have placed in our teachers. I would love nothing more than to say that the American people have every confidence in American teachers and that the teaching profession is highly respected because we know that our teachers are well-equipped for and passionately committed to preparing our students for successful careers and lives as citizens of the greatest country in the world. It is my hope that we will have the courage to own up to our shortcomings and the will to transform teaching into the profession that it should be in the USA.