Friday, January 05, 2007

NCTQ's Bid for Transparency in Contracts and Power in Publicity

Yesterday at the Charles Sumner School in Washington, DC, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) launched to the press and public "Teacher Rules, Roles, and Rights" a database of collective bargaining agreements and employee handbooks from the top 50 largest school districts in the nation. Bill Robb wrote it up for the USA Today front page on Jan. 4, 2007 here. It's a sensationalist lede, but as featured speakers at yesterday's event cautioned Robb's lede doesn't really tell much of the story.

All the speakers promoted caution along with a side helping of kumbaya to salve the seethe that might otherwise burn between teachers unions and NCTQ. Of course tensions may boil anyway as journalists tinker and toy with the NCTQ data to construct canards like Robb's hypotheticals meant to distract the public from the real good work schools do most days and the good work schools are fully capable of doing every day, even on the worst days.

A brief script of the cautionary web spun follows:

William Taylor, President of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights expressed the challenges of turning legalese agreements between unions and districts into digestible, easily understood prose for the NCTQ site. Kate Walsh, NCTQ's president, reminded the crowd that contracts don't describe actual teacher practices, but portray a policy agreement reached by rule. John Mitchell, AFT spokesperson, suggested that the organization he represents doesn't even endorse the site, but expressed gratitude that NCTQ responded to complaints and concerns the AFT had with an earlier version of the website data. Mitchell further endorsed that the press should use these data as a starting point; they should make many calls before penning a story about a "type" of agreement. "There are fifty agreements," he said, "each is different." Julie Koppich, an education consultant, stressed the difficulty and import of understanding the context of collective bargaining agreements, and Richard Colvin, Director of the Hechinger Institute seconded Koppich's remarks adding that the NCTQ data should be used to improve reporting not repeat the same kinds of reporting that ignore coverage on student impact or teacher hiring and retention.

It is clear that NCTQ will use this database, created in the spirit of transparency (the kind of stuff Ann Florini, among others, advocates would make the world go round much smoother) as a tool to get them some serious notice among the press and education policy elites: think Jay Matthews' Challenge Index. I couldn't help but notice some wholly incredulous looks shared between a few folks sitting in front of me as the NCTQ site was being demoed (as a gotcha!) to show how some districts miscount or creatively count teacher contract days, or the ways the data could illuminate pay discrepancy, or "penalty" as an NCTQ staffer put it, between traditionally and non-traditionally certified teachers. As those eyes rolled and lips curled I couldn't help but wonder why these types of "transparency" projects that were becoming so pervasive and profitable in education weren't being promulgated in other public works sectors organized by labor or otherwise, like police, fire, and refuse.

The NCTQ site seems to hold promise. Sure there is room for abuse, and clearly not every reporter who will use the site got to sit through the lectures on how to use the site responsibly and effectively. It's not clear what the payoff of all this information will be. For some it will be more fuel for the hate game against collective bargaining and labor, for others a way to more easily compare salaries and benefits and policies, possibly even emboldening current and future professionals.

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