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Originally published Friday, July 19, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Guest: Focus on reforms that work in Seattle teacher contract

As the Seattle School Board negotiates its contract with teachers, guest columnist Kevin Washington offers suggestions focused on education improvements.

Special to The Times

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RECENTLY, Seattle School Board members completed a self-evaluation and gave themselves generally low marks on effectiveness, and staff members largely concurred. One staffer even commented, “I think the greatest frustration is that I don’t feel like we are working on education.”

I’ve been working on education in Seattle for 19 years, in a number of capacities. I can tell you there are a whole lot of people in the community working on education who expect the School Board to do the same. The collective-bargaining agreement between Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association is currently up for renegotiation. This new agreement offers a chance for the School Board to prove it can focus on education.

The last bargain, negotiated in 2010, took important strides in improving how teachers are supported, compensated and evaluated. The negotiation of that contract was also historic because, for the first time, it included input from the larger community in the form of the Our Schools Coalition, a broad alliance dedicated to improving the education of Seattle’s children.

The Our Schools Coalition, of which I am a founding member, is gratified that the district’s 2013 bargaining platform reflects many of the priorities for which the coalition has and will continue to advocate on behalf of students across the school district.

It includes commitments to make real progress on closing the achievement gap; end discriminatory student-discipline policies; align teacher professional development to student-outcome goals; recognize, retain and reward exceptional teachers; and use multiple measures including student-perception surveys — to inform teacher evaluations. All are strong steps that will serve students and build on the strides made in the 2010 agreement.

These actions were all included in the Our Schools Coalition’s 2013 advocacy platform , which enjoys overwhelming support from Seattleites. According to a January poll by Strategies 360, 89 percent of voters and 93 percent of Seattle Public Schools parents support it.

However, the district left out important and necessary changes to hiring and staffing practices that were outlined in the community agenda. We strongly encourage the district to act courageously on behalf of students by ending the failed policy of “forced placement,” in which teachers are assigned to schools over the principal’s objections and despite their possible unsuitability to the jobs in question. Instead, the district should adopt a system that allows both the principal and teacher to agree to a new school assignment. High-performing principals want and need the flexibility and authority to make hiring decisions based on student need and their own school culture.

Seattle Public Schools should also ensure principals can hire new teachers earlier in the year so they can recruit from among the best candidates. Seattle currently hires later than most other districts, putting it at a disadvantage in the competition for the best talent.

Finally, the school district should use defined performance criteria to make hiring, transfer and layoff decisions. Currently, Seattle Public Schools uses only seniority to make important education-staffing decisions.

This bargain offers the School Board members a chance to prove they can focus on what counts — to put aside personal agendas and train their collective sights on the lives and prospects of the 50,000 children in their charge. Considering its adult population, Seattle is among the best-educated cities in the country. That level of achievement has helped us build a prosperous, growing city full of innovation and opportunity.

Seattle needs to play its part by making sure our children are educated and prepared to be the workforce of tomorrow. The city’s children deserve an education system that will give them the tools to seize those opportunities. These changes will help build that system. The time is now.

Kevin C. Washington is education chair of Tabor 100, committed to economic power, educational excellence and social equity for African Americans and the community at large, and a member of the Our Schools Coalition.

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