Post Act 10, A Free Agency Culture of Education Emerges
The passage of Wisconsin's Act 10 has created a "free agent" culture for teachers who are no longer dissuaded from leaving a district and surrendering seniority. The result has been a new competition in education to keep the best and brightest teachers.
Every sports fan has felt that bittersweet moment when their favorite athlete leaves the team they love for a new team offering a sweeter deal. For the athlete, it’s a new and more lucrative opportunity to use their unique skills and talents.
In a post-Act 10 educational environment in Wisconsin, the dynamic isn’t much different for educators. Teacher seniority and incremental pay scales have gone out the window and have been replaced by performance-based systems of employment. While Act 10 stripped the majority of bargaining rights from teachers, it also caused a major shift in the culture to which teachers have grown accustomed.
“Education may become like pro sports and the teacher could become a free agent in a sense. The opportunity is there,” said Kenneth Kasinksi, superintendent of the Ashland School District in rural Wisconsin. “Now is the time for good teachers to go out there and toot their horns. The lower tiered teachers may have a tough time. If you are good at what you do, you’ll be fine.”
Prior to Act 10, teachers who had gained seniority were discouraged from switching districts by the resulting loss of seniority. Making a switch would place them on a lower rung than their counterparts at the new school, and leave them vulnerable to staffing changes. While seniority offered security for senior teachers, it was also a disincentive for less-tenured teachers to leave.
That disincentive is gone. Emphasis on teacher performance will be evaluated and incorporated into their jobs like no other time in Wisconsin's history. But at the same time, teachers have an opportunity to leverage their performance like no other time in the state's history.
“(Act 10) didn’t just give boards more flexibility, it gave individuals more flexibility as well,” said Falls Superintendent Patricia Greco.
Today, there is increased pressure on district administrators to create the right environment to recruit and retain their best and brightest teachers. In a sense, the public education sector is now resembling the private sector in terms of incentivizing jobs for teachers.
“You’ve got people who can function free-agent wise, so it’s going to be very competitive in the region,” Greco said. “Public sector or private sector. Employers of choice are the ones that build the structures that help employees grow, learn, stay engaged, respected, and fairly compensated.”
Greco's strategy to keep the highest quality teachers almost mirrors the strategy employed at Actuant Corporation in Menomonee Falls. Actuant is a $1.5 billion industrial company with operations in more than 30 countries. Actuant Global Talent Manager Margaret Reddick outlined the company’s recruiting and retaining credo, and many of the concepts outlined by Greco are replicated at Actuant.
“Retaining employees and building loyalty is about engagement. Through the communication of our vision and goals, guiding values and leadership expectations employees have a clear understanding of the Actuant culture and how they fit into the organization as a whole,” Reddick said. “This, along with good communication practices, formal learning and development programs, and a commitment to our community creates an environment where employees feel empowered and engaged.”
The Tale of Two Cities
Although it’s still too early to tell what effect a new “free agent” teaching culture will have on education, it’s easy to see the competition will manifest itself in different ways depending on which part of the state a district is located.
In Menomonee Falls, the district is within the greater Milwaukee metro region. The pool of potential candidates is large — some 600 applicants apply for a single job — but the concentration of competing districts is also dense. Drive in any direction in the metro area and you are bound to pass through 10 to 15 different school districts.
“You’ve got a situation where individuals will be positioned to be very competitive in population dense regions,” Greco said. “You don’t have to relocate your family, you can market off your skills and ability, and you’ll have the data to prove you can generate growth.”
In the past year, Falls lost one teacher whose decision to leave was lateral and based on better incentives from a new district. But administrators believe that’s a trend that will continue to grow as the culture shifts over time.
However, the competitive dynamic is a bit different in rural districts in Wisconsin. For Kasinksi — up in Ashland — it’s always been a challenge to recruit high quality teachers to that part of the state, which lacks many of the amenities present in a metro area. His task is even more difficult after Act 10.
“The difference has always been there for rural school districts, one of the largest factors we have to look for is someone who wants to live in this area first of all,” Kasinski said. “In some high need areas like special education, math, science and technology we offer incentives to those teachers. It’s usually salary based, but we also provide relocation assistance.”
Kasinksi said there’s a lot of pressure on school administrators to ensure their schools are continuing to make progress – and that begins with teachers. He said recruiting a great teacher from another district is not out of the question anymore.
“I’d be starting to look for the top literacy, math, and science teachers. Those are the people I would be going after,” Kasinksi said. “But once you get that high-performing teacher on staff you make that analogy back to the sports world. They better perform and perform consistently. The pressure will really be ramped up for students and teachers to make sure we are performing.”
Falls Goes on the Recruiting Trail
Jessica Gieryn is looking forward to her first year teaching social studies and English and North Middle School. However, North Principal Lynn Grimm went to West Bend to find Gieryn last year, and sold the Falls district to her before the school year started.
Gieryn is trained in a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). It’s a program Grimm wants to implement at North, and Gieryn has the expertise to get the ball rolling. Gieryn was recruited from West Bend — a district she’s taught at for all 12 years of her career. It’s a case in point example of a shift in culture for teachers.
“She (Grimm) made me feel very valued, and it’s a new feeling to have your skill set desired as a teacher. Sometimes I felt interchangeable with other teachers in the state,” Gieryn said. “She gave me a tour and tried to sell the school to me. I kind of felt that in the past districts expected teachers to thank them for giving them a job. Now they can thank me for working in their district.”
Gieryn said her passion is to teach, and the decision to move to North was based on more than the paycheck. In a time when districts are working in tight budgets, Gieryn understands teachers will be asked to do more. However, Gieryn said she places more importance on the district’s teaching environment and leadership than on salary and benefits.
“I take into consideration school leadership, the culture, and the climate of the building. Are teachers laughing in staff meetings or are they afraid they will get in trouble?” Gieryn said. “Even before salary, I’m looking for a district’s dedication to student learning and whether it’s a place we are all moving forward.”
Gieryn, with over a decade of experience, said she’s discussed the changing dynamic of education in the state with friends and family extensively. She sees a definite shift in the way teachers should think about their jobs, but doesn’t see it as a negative direction. She believes strong teachers will have the upper hand moving forward.
“We should be going for a system where teaching is a skill not everyone has, and those that have it should be recognized for it,” Gieryn said. “Under the old system there is no way to be promoted unless you moved up the salary scale, and that wasn’t accurate. We were all looked at as the same.”
Gieryn recognized that not all districts are using the changes in Act 10 to recruit talent and improve districts. Some are simply viewing the reforms as an excuse to slash budgets as deeply as possible. She said that would catch up to those districts in the long run as teachers leave for better work environments and performance suffers.
“It’s such a shift in thinking, but some districts aren’t really using it to find the best teachers. They are cutting the budgets, but they aren’t using it to better education,” Gieryn said.
Is it Good For Education?
The million-dollar question remains, “Is this good for education?”
It may be too early to tell, but Kasinski believes the competitive element in education will up the pressure on administrators, teachers, students, and the community.
“We’ll have to see how it all shakes out. There’s going to be increased pressure on students and teachers to perform. The real question is just how much pressure is going to be placed on people? It’s a period of transition, and we need to transition and transition with a level of moderation. You can’t swing the pendulum too far in either direction.”
For Greco, the new educational environment is a crucial time for school leaders around the state to step forward and amplify their role and articulate their vision. In competitive times, leadership is in high demand.
“How you define yourself as an individual and as a collective is key. We have a lot more accountability and we have a a lot more ability now. That’s a good thing,” Greco said. “But being the type of leader that people want to work with is crucial.”