Now that the Boston School Committee has selected Brenda Cassellius to be superintendent, its next most important task will be to negotiate a final contract with the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) — a contract aimed at advancing student achievement and teacher effectiveness, all while being fiscally responsible.
This contract should be less prescriptive and provide more flexible decision-making at the school level than the last two contracts. In short, it’s urgent that it achieve what those contracts did not.
Recent studies about BPS student performance and MCAS results have documented the importance of school improvement in Boston. Needed change cannot wait for a future contract or series of contracts, each providing only incremental change. Despite system-wide improvements in student graduation and dropout rates, too many schools are underperforming and too wide an achievement gap exists among students.
Of the 101 Boston public schools included in the state’s new school accountability report, 49 were classified as “requiring assistance” or “intervention,” categories that represent approximately the bottom 15 percent of schools statewide. Attending these 49 Boston schools are 23,866 students, almost half the total enrollment of the 101 schools. Nine Boston schools serving 4,559 students were placed in the lowest classification, clearly indicating that fundamental change is needed.
The achievement gap by race is still significant in recent MCAS tests. While over 60 percent of white and Asian students received “exceeding expectations” or “meeting expectations” on the English language arts and math MCAS exams, less than 30 percent of black and Hispanic students achieved those levels.
The disparity in graduation rates by race is also too wide. The four-year cohort graduation rate is 85 percent for white students, 94 percent for Asian students, 79 percent for black students and 75 percent for Hispanic students. Dropout rates by race display a similar gap.
A 2018 report by Ernst & Young-Parthenon shows that approximately 18 percent of all BPS high school students were “off track to graduate” at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. “Off track” means that the students have fallen at least two years behind in terms of their age and required credits, placing them at risk of dropping out. Of the 3,300 students viewed as “off-track,” only 25 percent ended up graduating within four years and 36 percent within six years.
Sure, student demographics are contributing factors, but a contract that addresses student performance and effective teaching in a meaningful way can put the system on a better path.
The most recent two-year contract, which expired in August 2018, was a teacher-centric contract with little change that would affect student achievement.
This school year there are approximately 4,400 teachers for 54,300 students, and the average salary of a BPS teacher is $97,000. Competitive compensation to attract and retain effective teachers is important, especially in an urban school district. However, with the teachers’ high compensation and benefits and a comparatively shorter than average school day, the BTU bargaining team should collaborate with the city team to aim higher.
Both the union and city negotiators must ensure that the new contract is affordable and sustainable. Besides teachers, the BTU contract also covers paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, nurses, and other student-support employees. The employee cost of all members of the BTU in fiscal 2019 totals approximately $677 million, which represents 61 percent of the total school department operating budget.
The bottom line is that this contract will be judged on how well it will help improve student achievement. Settling on a new contract that does not responsibly address this objective would be counterproductive.
Samuel R. Tyler is the former president and Pam Kocher the current president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.