Baltimore Teachers Adopt Landmark Contract

Published November 22, 2010

Baltimore city teachers and school district officials have ratified a new contract that includes a novel, incentive-based teacher pay system. Although it’s not being called “merit pay,” the contract would reward teachers who raise their students’ performance or receive highly positive job evaluations.  

The new contract, which was approved just before Thanksgiving and took effect immediately, awards all teachers bonuses but discards the traditional “step” system of automatic pay increases once a teacher has completed a certain number of years of service.

Although union leaders had agreed with most of the terms of the deal in October, members rejected the contract in a preliminary vote. That initial rejection spurred an aggressive campaign by union leaders to inform members about the benefits of the three-year pact.

Under the approved, revised contract, teachers will move up a ladder of “intervals” that mark benchmarks of achievement. Every interval is a higher pay grade, and a teacher would move up to a higher interval every time he or she attains 12 academic units. The school district would award academic units for on-the-job results or completion of more job training.

‘Everyone Is Getting Money’
“With merit pay, there is a certain amount of money that goes to certain people. And when it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Jessica Aldon, public relations specialist for the Baltimore Teachers Union.

“With this, everyone is getting money,” she said.

Aldon explained a teacher could move up any number of intervals at virtually any pace. At the top intervals, salaries would reach $130,000 a year.

“You can move up two, three, four, or five times in a school year, depending on what you do in a school year and what you want to do,” she said.  

Measurements Debated
But before the new system can go into effect completely, the teachers’ union and school district will have to agree on how to measure teacher performance. The state department of education is drafting new rules that would make student performance count for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. (See related story: “Maryland Legislators Reject Teacher Evaluation Reform,” opposite page.)

The contract went to a union-wide “test vote” on October 14, and the membership rejected it by a margin of 1,540 against and 1,107 in favor. Several members complained the contract is vague on how teachers earn academic units and how they would be evaluated.  

Aldon said negotiators would try to reach agreement on evaluation criteria by the end of the calendar year.

State Weighs In
The Baltimore Teachers Union’s proposal for an incentive-based pay system has the Maryland State Department of Education’s vote of confidence. Education department spokesman Bill Reinhard said “differentiated” pay deserves discussion and that he was hopeful an agreement might be worked out.

“We’re supportive of local systems having options, including the option of differentiated pay,” said Reinhard. “There have to be some options for local systems to follow rather than just years of service.”

Reinhard argued that paying some teachers higher salaries to work in low-performing schools might work well for some school districts. So would paying teachers extra to teach high-needs subjects, such as math and science.  

“School systems should have the option to up the pay in those areas if that’s what it takes to draw the best candidates,” he said.

Flexibility, Fairness Sought
A state task force, appointed by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), is working with teachers groups across the state to come to terms on a system for evaluating teachers. This, too, may be finalized by the end of the year.

“We’re spending a large amount of time coming up with a flexible system that works and is fair for all teachers,” said Reinhard. “There is a need for us to understand what makes an effective teacher. That’s what we’re working towards.”

Merit pay remains a contentious issue nationwide. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Texas have merit pay in effect throughout all their school systems. In some other states, merit pay has taken root at the county or district level. Denver, Colorado, for example, has been linking teacher pay to student performance and teacher evaluations since 2004.

Union Opposition Slowing Progress
Maryland schools, however, have yet to put merit pay into practice. Douglass Austin, president of Urban Policy Development, a public-sector management-consulting firm based in Baltimore, attributed some of the delay to strong opposition from teachers’ unions, whose organizational incentives are to prevent teachers from being fired.

“If teachers are released because their students are failing, the unions have to work harder to sign up new teachers into the unions, and younger teachers are less supportive of the unions than those who have been in the system for years,” said Austin.

In addition, Austin said, many individual teachers, new and veteran alike, are wary of merit pay. They worry that under a merit-pay system, they could take the fall for their students’ low test scores whether they really deserve it or not.

Support from the Top
Merit pay has at least the tacit approval of the Obama administration. The $4.35 billion federal Race to the Top program awards grants to state school systems that meet certain criteria, including one requiring the states to include student performance in evaluating teachers and schools.

Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said Race to the Top’s encouragement of performance-related pay is leading many states that never considered merit pay before to start discussing it.

“Definitely, the dam has been breached,” he said. “You do see other school districts experimenting with it. Some school districts are pretty promising in terms of being pure merit-pay programs, while others are hedging their bets with bonuses.

“It’s something the President talked about on the campaign trial, before he was elected, and he followed through on it,” Petrilli added. “He deserves a lot of credit.”

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.