Vitti’s ‘Student-First’ Agenda Faces Early Test

Pay limits for incoming teachers an unnecessary obstacle

New Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said he wants to pursue a “student-first state and local policy agenda” for the troubled district. Renegotiating the teachers union contract gives him an early opportunity to work toward a truly student-first agenda.

Vitti wants to make teacher raises a budget priority. But district leaders also ought to insist on concessions from the union that give them more flexibility to fill shortages with effective instructors.

A new Bridge Magazine article identifies one easy place to start: removing stringent rules on how much teachers can be paid when they transfer in from another district. The terms of Detroit’s current contract only permit “credit on the salary schedule for up to two (2) years of outside teaching experience.”

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Bridge’s Mike Wilkinson offers an example of why this sort of policy is unproductive: “Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.”

The collective bargaining agreement does allow some transferring teachers to get eight years of experience credit. According to Detroit Federation of Teachers President Ivy Bailey, the exception applies to special education and other positions that are harder to fill.

Bridge’s quick analysis found other districts have agreements with similar restrictions, but it also found districts that operate without the restriction. One large suburban district, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, reached an agreement with the local union to remove the offending provision a few years ago, showing it can be done.

But there’s good reason to question how far Vitti’s team will go to attract more teaching talent. The Detroit schools’ spokesperson told Bridge the district has no interest in hiring qualified experts who lack state certification. This option provided last year by state lawmakers could help alleviate some shortages.

A teacher’s first two years of performance more accurately predict future success than whether she is certified. Further, the average teacher doesn’t improve after her first five years on the job, while earning advanced degrees bears no relationship with overall performance. Nearly all public school districts pay teachers based on seniority and credentials and little else, including performance. That’s convenient to administer but out of step with rewarding results.

To its credit, the district already gives out modest merit-based bonuses, so a basis exists for more fundamental reforms. Ultimately, though, Detroit community schools could enhance teacher quality much more by phasing out the conventional salary schedule and basing teacher raises primarily on meaningful measures of effectiveness. Then administrators need to get out of the way and give teachers more tools and opportunities to succeed.

As transformative as these policy changes might be, Detroit’s new superintendent doesn’t need to be that ambitious in his first few months to show he is serious about a student-first agenda. Lifting the restriction on pay levels for new teachers with outside experience would represent a modest step. But it also could send a signal of more changes to come.

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