The Best Laid Plans

Principals can collect lesson plans but can't say what goes in them, arbitrator rules

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

The city teachers union has successfully argued that teachers alone get to decide what to put in their lesson plans, prevailing over the city just weeks after negotiating a new contract that both parties hailed as a victory.

An arbitrator ruled this month that principals may occasionally collect teachers’ lesson plans but may not dictate what to include in them, settling a prolonged city-union debate that took on new urgency as the city has ramped up its evaluation systems for schools and teachers.

Over the course of a yearlong arbitration initiated by the United Federation of Teachers, union officials argued that the city violated a long-standing contract agreement by allowing principals to tell teachers what to put in their lesson plans and by collecting them routinely. They said that practice has become more common since the advent of new school and teacher rating systems that factor in teacher planning.

The arbitrator, Deborah Gaines, sided with the union in ruling that teachers have authority over the content of their lesson plans. But she did not bar administrators from ever collecting the lesson plans, as the union had requested.

Judith Glazer, a math teacher at I.S. 125 in Queens, celebrated the ruling as a check on “micromanaging” principals who disregard teachers’ expertise and the contract rules.

“This is a huge victory,” she said. “It reaffirms our right to teach the way we see is best for our students.”

While principals can’t specify the content of teachers’ lesson plans, they can still tell them to include certain elements in the lessons themselves, such as warm-up activities or daily assessments. They can also give specific directions to teachers who have received poor ratings. And they can still collect and check any teacher’s plans from time to time.

“We’re pleased that the arbitrator agreed with our view that supervisors should be allowed to collect and review their teachers’ lesson plans to ensure that they are rigorous and prepare our students for success,” said department spokeswoman Devora Kaye.

In the past, it was common for principals to demand that teachers complete their lesson plans a certain way and turn them in each week. But in 1990, the union and the schools chancellor agreed to a new contract provision that only let principals collect the plans on occasion. It also prohibited school leaders from mandating a “particular format or organization” for the plans.

Periodically, teachers have complained to the union about principals overstepping the bounds of the agreement. Recently, for instance, one middle school required each lesson plan to include 13 questions, while another school had teachers type their plans into an online programs with built-in lesson components, according to the arbitrator’s written summary of the hearings. Other schools distributed lesson plan templates or created posters of model plans, union officials testified.

While such complaints have cropped up before, the union said they surged after 2006 when the Bloomberg administration instituted “Quality Reviews,” where evaluators observe a school for a few days before rating it. The union said that evaluators often collect teachers’ lesson plans and sometimes cite them in their reviews. That has prompted some principals to issue new guidelines to teachers, according to some teachers who testified at the hearings.

Others said the new teacher evaluations contributed to the problem. Certain principals rolled out new lesson plan requirements based on the rubric by which teachers are now rated, some union witnesses said. Glazer, the I.S. 125 teacher, said her school’s support network advised principals to use the rubric to evaluate teachers’ lesson plans.

Ellen Gallin Procida, the UFT’s director of arbitration, said school administrators should focus on evaluating teachers’ lessons, not their lesson plans, which are meant for the teachers themselves.

“If I know what I have to teach, you can tell me the style and methodology,” she said, “but I’m the person getting up there and these notes have to be helpful to guide me.”

The education department pushed back against that argument, insisting that lesson plans offer administrators a useful map of teachers’ thinking. They also make it clear whether a teacher achieved her goals in a lesson, the city said. More to the point, the union has long accepted the fact that many principals ask teachers to include certain elements in their lesson plans, such as the lesson’s objective or necessary materials, city witnesses said.

One witness for the union, a former department official who handled teacher grievances, described an extreme consequence of granting teachers complete control over their lesson plans: One teacher successfully challenged a disciplinary letter he received for submitting his lesson plans on the back of a matchbook.

Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president of the principals union, said that, for better or worse, the ruling simply highlighted the part of the teachers contract that puts educators in charge of their own lesson plans.

“There may be questions about whether it should be in the contract, but it’s there,” he said. “This decision just affirms it.”


Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.

story slam

The state of teacher pay in Indiana: Hear true stories told by local educators

It’s time to hear directly from educators about the state of teacher pay in Indiana.

Join us for another Teacher Story Slam, co-hosted by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Chalkbeat Indiana, and Teachers Lounge Indy. Teacher salaries are the hot topic in education these days, in Indiana and across the country. Hear from Indianapolis-area teachers who will tell true stories about how they live on a teacher’s salary.

Over the past two years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

Those stories include one teacher’s brutally honest reflection on the first year of teaching and another teacher’s uphill battle to win the trust of her most skeptical student.

Event details

The event will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at Clowes Court at the Eiteljorg, 500 W Washington St. in Indianapolis. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP.

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