The agreement, which is to be voted on by teachers on Wednesday, has been described as groundbreaking because, for the first time, it awards teachers bonuses based on an annual evaluation.
Merit pay has long been an anathema to teacher's unions that fear it creates a competitive environment at odds with the collegial nature of teaching.
But in an era of accountability, where work is defined by "deliverables," there is no denying the growing pressure on teachers unions to adapt to a standards-based world. The intensity of this pressure is compounded by the scrutiny and attractiveness of the benefits and job security of teachers in a down economy. To a growing number of Americans – many of whom are pro-teacher and pro-union – being held accountable for outcomes, and connecting job performance to compensation and job security makes sense.
Critics will worry that this agreement represents yet another assault on unions by extreme factions of political parties and corporate interests. Yet this agreement has built in checks and balances for teachers, including a requirement that teachers have their voices represented on an established teacher evaluation oversight committee.
Amid the skepticism toward what is locally referred to "corporate education reform" and the mistrust of so-called "outsiders," and in this era of standards and accountability, the agreement signals a recognition by both labor and management that preparing Newark's children for college and a career, demands bold leadership and a willingness on everyone's part to do more than just tinker around the edges.
Even if the agreement between the Newark Teachers Union and the Newark Public Schools fails to measure up to its own "groundbreaking" hyperbole, it still stands as a remarkable achievement.
While we don't yet know all of the contractual agreement's immediate and long-term financial implications, we do know that despite spending enormous sums of money annually, and despite the best efforts of good people, the majority of Newark Public Schools continue to fail the children and families they exist to serve.
The tentative agreement is one that improves the quality of teaching by creating a continuum of professional practice that rewards and holds teachers accountable based upon clear standards.
As with any "big bet" there is always risk. On this, the research is clear. There are no programs or initiatives, smart boards or laptops that trump the impact of having an excellent teacher in every classroom. Placing a premium on quality teaching is the most cost effective and efficient path to transformative change.
If this contract results in more teachers with the skills and the supports they need to address the complex needs of young people, it will be worth every penny.
Ross Danis is president and CEO of the Newark Trust for Education, Newark's local education fund.