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bostonglobe.com
September 5, 2010

Coalitions gather for school reform

THERE’S NOT going to be a lot of money around during the next few years to pay for serious changes — such as a longer school day — in Boston’s teacher contract. Instead, someone is going to have to extract school improvements on the cheap out of the Boston Teachers Union.

Fortunately, a lot of people are lining up to do just that. During the last week, dozens of foundations and community groups in two coalitions have demonstrated their support for school administration proposals that are subject to collective bargaining. They include longer school days, stricter teacher evaluations, and greater management flexibility on classroom schedules and teacher placements. Basically, many Bostonians want the city’s 135 district schools to operate pretty much along the lines of the city’s 14 charter schools.

It would be nice if the school reformers could speak with one voice on behalf of the city’s students. But then this wouldn’t be Boston. Instead, two major coalitions have emerged so far: Put Students First, led by the Boston Foundation; and Boston United for Students, led by Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

Look for the Boston Foundation-led coalition, which includes major business groups, to be the more aggressive of the two. Its members include staunch supporters of union-free charter schools that offer eight-hour school days. The current contract requires Boston teachers to work 6.5 hours daily. The Boston United group, which includes many parent organizers and community leaders from the city’s minority neighborhoods, will be the more conciliatory of the two, sidestepping controversial issues such as merit pay for outstanding teachers in favor of a greater role for parents in school decision-making.

Maybe this “good cop, bad cop’’ approach will work to the benefit of the city’s schoolchildren. But the show of force would be greater had the two groups found a way to march under one banner. In 2000, more than 30 grassroots groups and foundations found common ground and agitated successfully for contractual changes that made it easier for schools to fill teaching vacancies with outside hires and harder for unwanted teachers with seniority to bump talented first-year teachers from the classroom.

The mere presence of the groups, however, already seems to be having a positive effect.

“We realize that schools have to improve, and we are willing to do things differently,’’ said teachers’ union president Richard Stutman, striking an unusually agreeable tone. Stutman described the activists who are pushing his union for reforms as “helpful.’’

The union could be playing rope-a-dope. Remember, this is the same union president who vetoed the creation of a Brighton pilot school in 2004, choking off for years the system’s best counter to the flexible schedules and longer school days offered by competing charter schools.

But Stutman, a math educator, also knows how to count. He has watched student enrollment in the city’s schools drop from 63,000 to 56,400 over the past decade. And with recent changes in state law, it becomes possible over the next several years to double the number of charter school seats in Boston from the current 5,200. Meanwhile, new charter applications are rolling in. Union officials know they need to compete or risk working in an ever-shrinking environment.

The recent negotiating sessions on a new contract have focused mainly on creating fair and accurate teacher evaluations. Historically, school managers in Boston have done a miserable job of evaluating teachers. No one can pin that one on the union. Now both sides seem earnest about finding better ways through evaluation to identify and retrain weak teachers.

But the better test of this contract will be whether the parties can agree on the creation of a longer school day. There is no better way to close the achievement gap between urban students and their suburban counterparts, provided the instruction is good and enrichment programs sound. The addition of 60 to 90 minutes to the school day, especially for elementary and middle school students, would do more to improve education in Boston and stem the loss of pupils to charter schools than any single reform.

Boston teachers deserve to be remunerated for working longer hours. But they also need to recognize that they already enjoy a good deal in terms of salary and in-school work hours compared to other teachers across the country. Of course, Boston teachers spend time at home grading papers and preparing lessons. But every profession carries extra work. By pushing too hard at the negotiating table, teachers will be pushing themselves into a showdown with parents and activists who won’t settle for shortsightedness or short school days.

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

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