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LAWRENCE HARMON

The ladder lesson

In Lawrence, teachers’ raises will be based on merit, not seniority. But how will the union react?

SELÇUK DEMIREL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Lawrence school system is about to launch what state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester calls a “revolutionary’’ compensation plan for teachers. Of course, what passes for revolutionary in a public school system looks like old-fashioned merit pay in most job sectors. Still, the Lawrence plan is so sensible on its face that it might actually inspire major changes in how schools pay teachers across the state.

Teacher salaries normally rise in two ways: First, there are annual percentage increases determined through contract negotiations; second, there are “steps’’ and “lanes’’ by which teachers who reach a certain seniority threshold, or accrue a set number of credits toward a higher degree, receive automatic raises. Principals complain, legitimately, that steps and lanes are useless in recruiting, retaining, and rewarding the best teachers. But teachers’ unions generally resist linking performance and pay, fearful thatit will divide and demoralize their membership.

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It requires four or five years of experience — usually no more — for a good teacher to develop a solid expertise in the craft. Beyond that, a teacher’s value should be measured by the ability to raise student achievement and elevate the practice of colleagues, not years on the job. The attainment of a master’s degree in education — which many teachers pursue for pay raises or licensure purposes — also does little to improve a teacher’s skills. Lawrence, therefore, is replacing 10 steps of seniority and 11 lanes of college credits with five sensible steps on a career ladder — novice, developing, career, advanced, and master — and providing for corresponding pay hikes.

Most of what you need to know about this plan is that a talented new teacher will be able to enter a Lawrence school in the fall at a starting annual salary of $44,000 and reach $85,000 after just five years on the job. That’s about $30,000 more than a Lawrence teacher can earn under the current steps-and-lanes system. Meanwhile, teachers who can’t achieve the middle rung on the career ladder by scoring a proficient grade on their evaluations will be bounced.

“If you’re a great teacher, Lawrence becomes the place where you want to work,’’ said Seth Racine, chief redesign officer for the Lawrence schools.

By implication, Lawrence is not the place where burned-out teachers get annual pay increases simply by showing up.

The Lawrence schools slipped into state receivership 15 months ago after a long period of abysmal leadership and rock-bottom student test scores. Lawrence receiver Jeff Riley quickly brought in successful charter school operators to help reform some of the city’s weakest schools. He also set to work on the new teacher compensation plan, a longer school day, decentralized management, and other reforms. Perhaps other struggling school districts will get the hint before receivers arrive at their doorsteps, too.

Both Riley and Racine were rising stars in the central office of the Boston Public Schools when they decamped for Lawrence. Racine, a former deputy chief financial officer, pushed for a similar career ladder structure during negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union. He couldn’t get to square one. Riley, who turned around one of the worst middle schools in Boston, also hit his share of brick walls. Both jumped at a chance to work in Lawrence, a system one-fourth the size of Boston’s but now many times as likely to put the best possible teachers in front of every classroom.

It’s unclear how the Lawrence Teachers Union will react to the substance of the plan at a scheduled meeting this week with the receiver. But things are a little testy right now. Union president Frank McLaughlin claims that the proposal should be subject to collective bargaining — and that his union could initiate an unfair labor practice charge against state education commissioner Chester for even discussing the matter publicly.

Chester, meanwhile, is raring to go in a school district where the state picks up about 93 percent of operating costs and where the conditions of receivership strip much of the power from the teachers’ union and the city’s school committee.

“Lawrence is under no obligation to negotiate or bargain these changes,’’ said Chester.

The last thing a poor city like Lawrence needs is a protracted labor battle. The first thing it needs is a talented, well-paid teaching corps for the city’s 14,000 schoolchildren. The career ladder has been constructed for teachers, but it is also a great way for students to climb out of the deep trap of bad schools.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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