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A group of part-time instructors at City Colleges of Chicago will join senior administrators in having their job performance – and pay raises – tied to student outcomes, thanks to a new union contract with a structure that is unusual, if not unprecedented in higher education.

The union representing 459 adult education instructors, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, last month ratified the contract, which was approved Wednesday by the City Colleges’ governing board. (The majority of faculty are affiliated with other unions.)

“Today’s agreement is a major milestone in our efforts to instill a student-centered mindset of accountability and performance across our institution,” said Paula Wolff, the board’s chair, in a written statement. “We commend AFSCME and its members for their leadership and commitment to putting students and taxpayers first.”

Union leaders, however, were not as positive. And a national faculty advocate called the new contract a bad precedent.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, said in an e-mail that “long and difficult negotiations yielded an agreement that was fair to frontline educators, students and management alike.” But he criticized the system’s characterization of the performance pay component.

“In reality, educators represented by AFSCME rejected management's flawed and unworkable merit-pay plan, instead securing annual cost-of-living pay increases and a significant increase in preparation pay,” he said. “In addition, the parties agreed to a limited incentive program for bonus pay connected to student achievement, over and above annual pay increases.”

System administrators, however, said under the contract instructors agreed "to take a financial stake in student success" through the elimination of a 3 percent annual "retention pay" raise, which is replaced by the bonus tied to student performance.

Under Cheryl L. Hyman, the chancellor who arrived in 2010, City Colleges began working student performance goals into job descriptions for trustees, the chancellor and college presidents. The overarching goal is a “reinvention” that seeks to improve the system’s meager 7 percent graduation rate and other lagging student success indicators.

Hyman and trustees have the strong support of Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor and President Obama’s former chief of staff, as well the state’s Lt. Governor, Sheila Simon, who has proposed reforms aimed at boosting the state’s community college graduation rate of 20 percent.

State government in Illinois has established targets for student progress in adult basic education, GED programs and English as a Second Language (ESL), the three areas taught by instructors in the AFSCME union. Students across the seven-college system are tested at every level of those programs, yielding annual results that will be used to determine the amount annual bonus pay for union members. The bonus will be a uniform amount for each broad class of instructor – who teach in each of those three areas – based on systemwide student progress, according to college officials.

For example, a system spokeswoman said 33 percent of ESL students met “level gains” last year. The goal for 2013 is for 37 percent of students to achieve those gains. ESL instructor bonus pay, at least for those union members, will hinge “on the instructors’ ability to move the bar” relative to that goal, the spokeswoman said.

Hyman applauded the faculty union for being accountable to students and taxpayers. “We asked adult educators to have a greater stake in student success and they answered the call,” she said in a written statement.

The new contract includes an average annual cost-of-living pay increase of 1.8 percent over the next six years. The collective bonus pot begins at $500,000, increasing later to $800,000, which means bonuses would range from 5-7 percent of instructors’ annual pay, according to the system. College officials said the relatively small annual increase was directly related to the agreement to have more funds awarded based on performance.

Gary Rhoades, a professor of education at the University of Arizona and former general secretary at the American Association of University Professors, was not familiar with the details of the contract, but said linking pay to student outcomes is problematic.

“Teachers might do things that make it easier for the students,” Rhoades said. “They might teach for the test in a narrow way to please the students, but it is not going to benefit the students.”

The culture of teaching for tests has been bad for the nation’s K-12 system, Rhoades said, and faculty contracts linked to performance could cause similar problems in higher education.

Furthermore, faculty members do more than teach, he said, like helping to plan curriculum or developing tests. “I think such contracts are a fundamental misunderstanding of what education is and the purpose of education is.”

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