Understanding Teachers Contracts

Explainers | March 2, 2010
Related Issue(s): Teachers Unions

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(Note: This interactive explainer is best viewed in Firefox or Google Chrome.)

Whether it's the contentious multi-year negotiations over the teachers contract in Washington, D.C., or the debates in many states over competing for Race to the Top funds, teachers contracts are at the center of the education reform debate today. Once of interest only to education insiders, contract issues and calls for reform are now widespread. High profile editorial boards at major newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal regularly weigh-in on the topic. Articles in magazines like The New Yorker detail the effects of various contract provisions and processes.1 National voices as diverse as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are calling for more flexibility in how teachers are hired, fired, evaluated, and paid.

Despite increasing attention to contract reform, the public often has no idea what a typical teachers contract looks like. Although they are public documents, most contracts are not easily found on the Web sites of school districts or teachers unions; newspapers and local media do not publish them (and often offer only cursory coverage of the issues being discussed during collective bargaining negotiations).2 Meanwhile, those negotiations are often held out of public view, and the deals cut late at night. The documents themselves can be cumbersome, lawyerly, heavily influenced by side agreements and addendums, and generally hard for non-experts to figure out.

In 2007, the National Council on Teacher Quality launched the database "TR3" cataloging teachers contracts in the nation's largest school districts and allowing users to analyze contracts from 100 districts in 50 states along major dimension.3 For researchers and analysts, that database is a landmark step forward in understanding the role of contracts in the development and reform of human capital policies in education.

While not as comprehensive as TR3, which remains a powerful and current resource, this Education Sector Explainer also seeks to improve transparency and increase understanding. It makes available two different teachers contracts so that readers can see what a contract looks like, as well as compare the differences and similarities among contracts along key dimensions, such as teacher pay, evaluation, the rights of the teachers union, and teacher transfers. It offers a side-by-side comparison of common provisions found in contracts. It also includes a short set of interactive questions to help readers see where they personally fit into the major contours of the debate about teachers contracts today.

The two contracts illustrated here are the contract between the San Diego Unified School District in Southern California and the San Diego Education Association, which was ratified in 2006 and is still in use, and an early contract used by Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles. San Diego is a K–12 school district serving almost 131,000 students through 205 schools. It is the 18th largest school district in the United States. Green Dot, founded in 2000, is a network of public charter schools serving more than 10,000 students across 18 campuses.

Many of the same ideas and elements are reflected in both contracts. Both, for instance, discuss evaluation, layoffs, and pay in similar ways. But, overall, these two contracts represent two different approaches to defining and regulating the work of teachers, a traditional approach which is more comprehensive and explicit in spelling out work procedures and rules, and an alternative approach which is far less prescriptive. These differences highlight a key question in the debate about teachers contracts today: Given that teaching is professional work, can it be managed within the strictures of a traditional labor agreement or is a different model of professional labor relations necessary? By laying out two different models this Education Sector Explainer seeks to help readers answer that question for themselves.

Collective Bargaining Then and Now

Teachers contracts as they are structured today emerged during the 1960s and 1970s as reformers such as Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers worked to address the often unprofessional and unfair ways teachers were treated by management. Modeling teacher unionism on industrial unionism, these reformers sought to use the power of collectively bargained contracts to force better policies and working conditions for teachers.

Over time the extent to which industrial unionism and the work of schools clash or are complementary has emerged as a flash point in the education reform debate. Teachers union leaders and reformers disagree with each other—and amongst themselves—about the extent to which many common provisions in teachers contracts are obstacles to school improvement efforts.4 Education reformers argue that autonomy at the school site and a culture of professionalism are more effective than long documents codifying rules and regulations. Teachers unions counter that without collectively bargained rules governing how schools operate, teachers would be vulnerable to arbitrary and unfair practices and the quality of schooling would suffer as a result. They argue that a collective voice for teachers is an essential element of American schooling. Yet as the evidence mounts that some common practices codified in teachers contracts are problematic even teachers unions are beginning to support some changes.5

In practice, not all teachers are covered by collectively bargained contracts. Today 33 states require mandatory collective bargaining.6 In other states a variety of laws govern bargaining, and some states ban it altogether. But the ideas and elements in these agreements, as well as the actual practices that result, are ubiquitous across American schools regardless of state labor law.7 For instance, the "steps and lanes" salary schedule, which bases teacher pay almost exclusively on years of service and educational degrees, is used in the overwhelming majority of school districts today, regardless of whether or not a district's teachers bargain collectively. At the same time, there is a great deal of interplay between state law and teachers contracts. In some states, for example, the process for dismissing a permanent or "tenured" teacher is codified in state law, and teachers contracts are subsequently silent on the issue.

While the San Diego and Green Dot contracts don't cover every variation in the many contracts in use around the country, they are broadly illustrative, providing useful benchmarks for understanding the issues that are surfacing in the national debate about teacher contracts.

Green Dot's more alternative approach to unionization is hotly debated in the charter school sector and among teachers unions themselves. Many teacher unionists believe the Green Dot contract is too weak on protections for teachers while many charter school advocates believe it is still too restrictive for a high-performing professional workplace. But Randi Weingarten, now the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which as the nation's second largest education labor union represents more than a million public school teachers, higher education faculty and staff, public employees, nurses and health care professionals, and paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel, invited Green Dot to open a school in New York City while she was president of the United Federation of Teachers, the local AFT-affiliate. This move, widely seen as a turning point in the debate about charter schools and unions, made the Green Dot approach a touchstone and model in the charter school teachers union debate. 

Although its contract is still more traditional, San Diego's reform efforts under former Superintendent Alan Bersin thrust the city into the national reform spotlight in the late 1990s.8 Since then, the city has remained a focus of national attention in reform debates because it is a top 20 school district in size but also because Bersin's reforms were considered to be on the leading edge of the current round of urban school improvement efforts.

Again, these examples are only representative. Among those charter schools that are unionized, for instance, there are alternative contracts both "thinner" than Green Dot's, meaning they include even fewer provisions. There are also charter school contracts with more provisions and specificity around school operations and other requirements. In New York, for instance, the United Federation of Teachers operates two charter schools that use a version of the overall teachers contract there. Likewise, some of the policies in San Diego's more traditional contract, for instance those concerning teacher transfers, have been modified or discarded elsewhere.

Teachers contracts will only continue to grow in significance as concerns about teacher quality and the management of teachers work continue to dominate the education reform agenda. These contracts (and the common policies they codify) exert more leverage on the day-to-day operations of most schools than headline grabbing issues such as vouchers or the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Thus, as the debate over teachers contracts unfolds, understanding what these contracts actually contain and how they differ from one to another is essential for policymakers, the media, and other stakeholders to make sense of competing claims and to support or oppose various policies.

Using the Interactive Explainer

This interactive explainer is divided into 10 sections, all of which focus on a common provision(s) found in teachers contracts today. Each section includes relevant excerpts from both the San Diego Unified School District and Green Dot Public Schools contracts. The excerpts are placed side-by-side to allow for comparison. Above the excerpts, we include a short discussion of key differences and, in some cases, similarities between the two contracts.

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Reading through the 10 sections will show you what a contract looks like, as well as help you understand the differences and similarities among contracts along key dimensions. But where do you stand in the debate over teachers contracts today? Take this short survey to find out.

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If you are interested in viewing the entire contents of either contract, you can follow the "full text" links below.

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The Joyce Foundation provided funding for this project. The findings and conclusions are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the foundation.


1. For an overview of the changing media environment see Richard Whitmire and Andrew J. Rotherham, "How the Teachers' Unions Lost the Media," The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2009.

2. See Frederick M. Hess and Andrew Kelly, "Scapegoat, Albatross, or What" The Status Quo in Teacher Collective Bargaining," in Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today's Schools, eds. Jane Hannaway and Andrew J. Rotherham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2006)

3. The author served as an adviser on the development of the TR3 initiative. For more see: National Council on Teacher Quality, "Teacher Rules, Roles and Rights," http://www.nctq.org/tr3/

4. Jane Hannaway and Andrew J. Rotherham, eds., Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today's Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2006).

5. Recently Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers supported several contract reform proposals including a high-profile initiative in New Haven, Connecticut. For an overview of these issues and analytic perspectives on them see Jane Hannaway and Andrew J. Rotherham, eds., Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today's Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2006).See also, for example, Daniel Weisberg et al., The Widget Effect (New York: The New Teacher Project, 2009); Steven Brill, "The Rubber Room," The New Yorker, August 31, 2009; Robert Gordon, Thomas J. Kane, and Douglas O. Staiger, Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job (Washington DC: The Brookings Institute, 2006). Also, see a number of reports by The New Teacher Project, including: The New Teacher Project, "School Staffing and Performance Management in Newark Public Schools," December 2009; The New Teacher Project, "Human Capital Reform in Cincinnati Public Schools: Strengthening Teacher Effectiveness and Support," December 2009; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Hiring, Transfer & Evaluation in Los Angeles Unified School District," November 2009; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Staffing and Evaluation in Indianapolis Public Schools," July 2009; The New Teacher Project, "Strengthening School Staffing in Minneapolis Public Schools," May 2009; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Hiring, Assignment and Evaluation in San Francisco Unified School District," February 2009; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Hiring, Transfer and Evaluation in Pueblo City Schools," October 2008; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Hiring, Support and Evaluation in Thomson (CO) School District," August 2008; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Hiring, Assignment and Transfer in Milwaukee Public Schools," September 2007; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Hiring, Assignment and Transfer in Portland (OR) Public Schools," August 2007; The New Teacher Project, "Teacher Hiring, Assignment and Transfer in Chicago Public Schools," July 2007

6. Source:  National Council on Teacher Quality, "Teacher Rules, Roles and Rights," http://www.nctq.org/tr3/scope.jsp

7. Emily Cohen, Kate Walsh, and RiShawn Biddle, Invisible Ink in Collective Bargaining: Why Key Issues Are Not Addressed (Washington DC: National Council on Teacher Quality, 2008); Frederick M. Hess and Andrew Kelly, "Scapegoat, Albatross, or What: The Status Quo In Teacher Collective Bargaining," in Jane Hannaway and Andrew J. Rotherham eds.