Act 10 gives Wisconsin schools more power to remove subpar teachers and improve the quality of instruction

Jul 19, 2013 by

MADISON, Wis. – Not long after Act 10 became law, Waukesha school Superintendent Todd Gray was approached by several teachers who were concerned about their careers.

“Some of them were very nervous, and some asked me, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ I asked ‘Are you doing a good job? If so, you don’t have to worry.’”

On the flip side, teachers who are less than adequate have new reason to be concerned. That’s because, for the first time in decades, schools have the ability to fire individual teachers without jumping through a lot of legal hoops, and there’s nothing their unions can do about it.

Act 10 made it possible for school administrators to shape and manage their staffs and work to have the best possible teachers in front of children. That’s a striking difference from the past, when union protections and tenure laws made it difficult and expensive to dump veteran teachers.

The end result, many believe, will be a general improvement in the quality of teachers in Wisconsin’s K-12 classrooms, and the gradual weeding out of less successful teachers.

Power to manage personnel

Act 10 brought a number of changes that allow schools to address teacher quality.

Layoff polices have changed in most districts. In the past most union contracts called for the “last in, first out” policy when job reductions were in order. That meant the teachers with the most seniority kept their jobs, regardless of their effectiveness in the classroom, while younger teachers were forced to hit the road, even if they had more to offer than some veteran teachers.

Now most districts reserve the right to keep the teachers they deem the best, regardless of seniority.

“Some of our wonderful old teachers lost their jobs in the old days because we had to lay off by seniority,” said Emily Koczela, finance director for the Brown Deer school district. “Now we have people across campus who kept their jobs because of Act 10.”

Many districts have implemented merit pay for outstanding teachers, or plan to do so in the near future. The programs allow districts to maintain their best instructors by recognizing their skills and rewarding them financially.

In the past teachers were stuck on union-negotiated pay scales, where raises were based on the number of years served and college credits earned, not effectiveness in the classroom.

Merit pay will help raise the overall quality of instruction “if we can, through the compensation system, attract and maintain the best and brightest,” Gray said.

But the biggest factor may be non-renewal for individual teachers. All Wisconsin teachers are basically under one-year contracts, and can be removed at the end of any given school year much more easily than in the past.

While that may sound harsh in terms of job security, the new law provides incentive for all teachers – beginners through the oldest of veterans – to put their best foot forward for students. If they demonstrate their effectiveness, schools are eager to keep them around, and have a new flexibility in pay structure to compensate the best and brightest.

“Now we can have those heart-to-heart conversations with some staff members, and tell them they may need to be in a different school district,” Deb Kerr, superintendent of the Brown Deer district, told EAGnews.

‘Pressure to step up’

Barry Forbes, general counsel for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said it’s important for people to understand the difference between “termination” – meaning the firing of a teacher in the middle of a one-year contract – and “non renewal” for teachers – which occurs at the end of the one-year contract.

“I have not heard of any contract terminations, but have heard of multiple contract nonrenewals in the last year,” Forbes told EAGnews. “Nonrenewal is much easier following Act 10, since Act 10 eliminated just cause protections for teacher nonrenewal.

“We are seeing some teachers being counseled out of the profession and we’re seeing principals move staff around more than they might have in the past.”

Some districts have moved quickly to make some staff changes, while others have been waiting until a new state teacher evaluation system is in place by the 2014-15 school year.

Gray, the Waukesha superintendent, has experienced a great deal of staff turnover over the past few years, because a popular retirement benefit program was being cancelled, and hundreds of teachers chose to retire while they were still free to participate.

But “12 to 15″ teachers have left with encouragement from the district, according to Gray.

“There were a few that were told that they might want to move in a different direction,” Gray said. “There was pressure on them to step up and some couldn’t do it.”

The Waukesha district is not quick to pull the trigger on underperforming teachers, Gray said. Officials will work with struggling teachers to help them develop their skills and improve before showing them the door, he said.

Gray said districts that want to attract quality teachers don’t want to get the reputation of firing people before they have a chance to develop.

Another positive tool provided by Act 10 is the ability to reassign staff to buildings and positions where they are the most valuable, Gray said.

“Now we can say ‘Look, we think you would do better over there,’” he said. “Before you would be forced to jump through a lot of union hoops to do that. There had to be reasons and you had to get the permission of the union.”

The importance of evaluations

A new evaluation system will be implemented this fall in the Slinger school district, where the last teachers union collective bargaining agreement has just expired.

Slinger Superintendent Bob Reynolds says it’s important to have the evaluation system to determine teacher effectiveness, and to be very careful in the early going to make sure it produces accurate results.

“We’re only hurting ourselves if we punish the wrong people,” Reynolds said.  “It’s in our best interests to help teachers be the best they can be.”

Reynolds expects some changes after the new evaluation system is in place. But that doesn’t necessarily mean mass firings. He expects a lot of teachers to adjust their efforts to meet higher expectations.

That’s something they weren’t forced to do with union protection. Now those who want to stay will have to meet the standards.

“I’m anticipating that in some cases, some folks, now that they have to, will step up their game,” Reynolds told EAGnews. “And there may be a few who aren’t going to make it.”

Mary Pfeiffer, superintendent of the Neenah school district, said it will be crucial for school administrators to work very hard on staff evaluations in the coming years. That will help them make fair and important determinations about who is capable of making the grade and who isn’t.

That includes determining teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, clearly informing them what they need to do to improve, and how they can do that, Pfeiffer said.

“We can’t place the performance burden on the union,” Pfeiffer told EAGnews. “The union has just been doing its job of representing its members. It’s the administrators’ responsibility to assess and determine employment of staff.

“We need to take responsibility, and now we are.”

Act 10 gives Wisconsin schools more power to remove subpar teachers and improve the quality of instruction – powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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