Program That Rewards Senior Teachers Stirs Flap in Philadelphia

By Daniel Gursky — April 22, 1992 6 min read

With the city of Philadelphia facing severe financial problems, a program that boosts salaries for some senior teachers in the city school district--at a cost totaling up to $16 million this school year--is raising some eyebrows.

The “senior career teacher’’ program, as it is known, rewards teachers who have a master’s degree, 60 additional college credits, 10 years’ teaching experience, and dual certification. Under the program, most such teachers receive a raise of more than $5,000 in their base pay.

Although the current teachers’ contract expires this summer, no one expects the district to try to eliminate the senior-career-teacher position, which was negotiated into the teachers’ 1988 contract. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, in fact, has said that any move to make such a change would be a “strike issue.’'

But recent criticism of the contract provision has forced Philadelphians to ponder whether teachers should be required to take certain courses in order to earn the extra money.

The issue is not so much whether teachers should be rewarded for taking extra courses. Even though the subject has been widely debated in recent years both nationally and locally, teachers in Philadelphia and in the vast majority of school districts continue to be paid according to their education and experience.

Rather, the controversy in Philadelphia centers more on the type of control administrators should exercise over teachers’ choice of courses and continuing education.

The Philadelphia schools have opted for a relatively flexible approach, both for the master’s-plus-60-credits salary step and an older master’s-plus-30-credits step. The district reviews its teachers’ transcripts, but essentially allows them to take almost any course offered by an accredited four-year college.

An Expensive ‘Boondoggle’?

Richard de Lone, the executive director of the Committee to Support the Philadelphia Public Schools, a group of business leaders, has questioned the wisdom of spending so much money on raises for senior-career teachers, especially when the district is moving toward extensive reforms such as site-based management and curriculum changes that could benefit from extra teacher training.

“If I had $15 million to spend on teacher development, I don’t think I would use it to pay them for going from 30 to 60 credits,’' he said. “I don’t like the principle of simply paying teachers more because they’ve taken more courses.’'

The Philadelphia Inquirer has spearheaded the criticism against the program, calling it a “multimillion-dollar boondoggle’’ in one editorial.

Philadelphia school administrators and teacher leaders alike reject the notion that teachers should be required to enroll only in classes directly related to teaching or to their subject matter. As professionals, they argue, teachers should be trusted to select their own course of study.

“I think it’s important to understand that a math teacher taking a course in history is not wrong,’' said Herbert Kaufman, the district’s director of school staffing. “We expect teachers to be knowledgeable not just about their subject, but about the world around them.’'

In response to criticism that some teachers were taking easy and irrelevant courses, including some offered on video, to meet the credit requirements, Mr. Kaufman said it is “unfair to focus on a very small minority who may have taken courses on things people didn’t think were appropriate.’'

“We’re not at all disappointed in the courses they have taken,’' he added.

Said Leontine Scott, the district’s associate superintendent for school operations, “Our rewards for the children will certainly exceed the amount of money [the salary step] may have cost the district.’'

Intellectual Stimulation

So far, more than 2,000 of Philadelphia’s 12,000-plus teachers have received the salary increase, which went into effect for the first time last September. As many as 3,000 may have enough credits to qualify for a raise eventually.

The current teachers’ contract expires at the end of August, and district officials would only say that the senior-career-teacher provision is an issue in the negotiations.

Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, maintained that the senior-career category was established largely as an attempt to bring salaries for the city’s teachers in line with those of the surrounding suburban communities and to keep experienced teachers in the classroom. Although some critics of the higher salaries have suggested that teachers ought to take on extra duties in return for extra pay, that was never part of the contract, Mr. Kirsch said.

The dual-certification requirement gives the district more flexibility in making teaching assignments, he added, but the biggest benefit has been the intellectual stimulation teachers receive from continuing their education.

“I think teachers should take courses in anything they desire,’' Mr. Kirsch said.

Critics have also reproached some local colleges for allegedly trying to attract teachers with the lure of “quick credits.’' Gratz College, with campuses throughout the Philadelphia area, probably saw the biggest increase in enrollment from teachers trying to meet the 60-credit requirement.

Gratz merely attempted to accommodate teachers by developing new education courses and offering classes in the evenings and during school breaks, said Jerry Kutnick, the college’s director of continuing education.

“A lot of teachers took courses here, and I’m convinced they’re better teachers because of that,’' Mr. Kutnick said.

A Double Standard?

Throughout the nation, districts continue to experiment with different ways of rewarding teachers, but there is little evidence of a movement away from salary schedules based on education and experience, said John Dunlap, the National Education Association’s director of collective bargaining.

Philadelphia’s salary schedule is unusual, he said, only because of the master’s-degree-plus-60-credits step. Most large districts the N.E.A. has surveyed have a step for 30 credits beyond a master’s, Mr. Dunlap noted, but few pay teachers more for 60 additional credits.

Because contracts are negotiated locally, however, the details vary from district to district, he said.

The American Federation of Teachers favors condensing the number of steps in salary schedules so that teachers can reach the highest levels as fast as possible, said Jamie Horwitz, an A.F.T. spokesman.

Ideally, he said, the A.F.T. would like to see more contracts like that negotiated in Rochester, N.Y., where teachers can earn substantial salary increases for taking on such added responsibilities as teacher training and curriculum development.

Mr. Horwitz also pointed out what he views as something of a double standard involving teachers’ continuing education.

No one questions teachers if they take courses, such as school finance, that can lead to administrative certification, and out of the classroom, he said. Yet, teachers are criticized for pursuing academic interests that might increase their value in the classroom.

Others assert that school systems offer teachers too little time and support for professional development.

“We should look upon teaching as an evolving art and skill that’s never-ending, so teachers should have time for renewal, time for honing their skills, time for getting up to date on cutting-edge ideas about what would make education more effective,’' said Jean Miller, the director of the Council of Chief State School Officers’ interstate new-teacher assessment and support consortium.

The consortium is developing standards for beginning teachers that will be based largely on demonstrable skills, Ms. Miller said, and that process could ultimately influence the way experienced teachers are paid.

Teacher assessment needs to “move away from book knowledge to performance that demonstrates book knowledge as well as the ability to work with students,’' she said. “You’ve got to be able to demonstrate sophisticated skills and art in teaching, and that will be rewarded.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1992 edition of Education Week as Program That Rewards Senior Teachers Stirs Flap in Philadelphia