Published Online: February 19, 1997

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Teachers: The Reluctant Recruits

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"This is a planned program, where everywhere they go, the finger is being pointed at teachers."

Ted Kirsch, President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Jerry Wernovsky, a teacher at John Hancock Demonstration School, boasts that his building gets 7,000 calls a month from parents.

They can dial into the elementary school's new VoiceTel system to hear recorded messages about their children's homework, special events like science fairs, and meetings of the Home and School Association.

The new telephone system came to Hancock courtesy of the CHAIN cluster, which is made up of George Washington High School and its 10 feeder schools. The more intimate organization--replacing a much larger regional bureaucracy--has increased the focus on parents and communication throughout the cluster. (The acronym stands for Children Achieving in the Northeast.)

"When you do talk to parents, you can have more of a supportive type of conversation rather than blaming," Wernovsky says. "It has helped bring them back to the school."

But not all of Wernovsky's colleagues are so enthusiastic about the changes that have come about in the district in the past 2« years.

Leaders of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have been persistent and vocal critics of Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, who brought to Philadelphia his trademark emphasis on accountability.

Without support from teachers--who will have to do the lion's share of the work of remaking schools--the reforms won't go very far.

District officials take care to distinguish between the views of union leaders and rank and file teachers, many of whom have been involved in reform efforts in the past and are working on them today. Still, it's clear that these teachers don't have much sway over their union's public positions.

Many teachers, regardless of their views, complain they don't understand the various elements of Children Achieving.

To try to bridge the communication gap, the Children Achieving Challenge, which coordinates the district's Annenberg Foundation grant and fund-raising activities, publishes a monthly newspaper called Philadelphia Teacher. Recent issues have explored assessment, technology, standards, school-to-career programs, and school safety and student discipline. Teachers' voices are liberally sprinkled throughout the articles, and the paper also prints the results of focus groups and polls of teachers that are conducted as part of the district's "formal listening" activities.

In one issue last year, teachers gave the reform efforts mixed reviews. "Philadelphia is always trying to implement something new," one teacher was quoted as saying. "Once you just get the hang of doing something, they're in there saying, 'This isn't going to work.' I don't think they give it enough time."

"We don't get consulted," said another.

Schools that exceed their targets will receive $1,500 per professional staff member, while those that fail will possibly be closed.

Ted Kirsch, the president of the 12,000-teacher union, says teachers feel like targets.

"This is not paranoia on my part," Kirsch says. "This is a planned program, where everywhere they go, the finger is being pointed at teachers."

William Epstein, the head of the district's communications and government relations office, says Hornbeck and Kirsch meet periodically and that efforts are being made to patch things up "at the field level and the personal level."

Despite the union's protests, the superintendent has pressed forward with his accountability plans.

The tough-minded measures are complemented by a focus on professional development to help teachers understand and use the district's new standards.

To try to ratchet up performance, the district last month released new performance goals for each school. They will have two years to reach their targets, based upon test scores, graduation and promotion rates, and student and teacher attendance. Schools that exceed their targets will receive $1,500 per professional staff member, while those that fail will receive assistance or possibly be closed and reorganized.

The union protests that teachers can't be held accountable for whether students show up for school, that the district has used inaccurate data about teacher absences, that the tests don't measure what is taught, and that too few high school students took the tests to make the performance measures meaningful.

The district has created a new evaluation system to use in rating teachers that more closely resembles the active teaching and learning called for in its academic standards.

Principals were trained to use it last fall. The administrators have been told that their efforts to "write up" poorly performing teachers will be supported by the administration, not discouraged.

And in the four-year union contract settled last summer, the district and the PFT agreed that teachers rated unsatisfactory won't receive across-the-board salary increases or step increases on the salary schedule.

After the settlement, union leaders claimed it contained no new accountability measures, while district officials insisted that they had scored a victory.

Kirsch charges that the district now has a quota for giving teachers unsatisfactory ratings. District officials deny the assertion.

But Hornbeck does expect that the new observation standards and the administration's commitment to backing them up "is going to make a difference."

Last year, he notes, only 20 teachers were dismissed in a system in which only 20 percent of the students are proficient in core subjects.

"I think that increasing numbers of teachers recognize the challenge to public education that is posed by public education's continuing failure to educate the children," the superintendent says. "That's where vouchers come from. We're not going to have public education as we know it unless there is change as radical as we are seeking to implement."

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