Curriculum

Fewer Phila. Teachers Hired on Seniority Basis

By Jeff Archer — September 07, 2005 3 min read
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Students in Philadelphia are set to return to class this week to schools in which record numbers of teachers were hired for reasons other than their years of experience.

Changes made last year to the teachers’ union contract have chipped away significantly at long-standing, and long-debated, rules that have guaranteed open positions in schools to the most veteran teachers who apply.

Seniority hasn’t been eliminated as a factor, but it’s been greatly reduced. At a minimum, each school now has the option to fill half its openings through site-based selection. Newly configured schools needn’t consider seniority at all, nor must schools where three-quarters of the teachers agree not to.

“The bottom line is that the vast majority of principals have been given the authority to make decisions based on talent rather than on seniority,” said Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 210,000-student district.

As a result, the district reports that 555 teaching positions were filled using the site-selection process through the end of July, compared with 386 handled the traditional way. Last year, when the site-based option was limited to schools that got the approval of their staffs, the number of site- selected hires was 119.

Ruth Curran Neild, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, in Philadelphia, said the change in the district’s teacher-assignment process was long overdue.

“It’s hard to imagine any business in any industry that would want to hire an employee without finding out about their interests, their background, their qualifications, and how they would fit into the existing employee culture,” said Ms. Neild, who has researched the issue.

But Will They Come?

Critics of the seniority-based process further say it has kept newer teachers waiting to find out which school they might work at until after their more-seasoned colleagues had the chance to make their picks of openings. That, they add, put the city at a disadvantage in recruiting novice educators.

Leaders of the district, which was put under state control in 2001, pushed hard for changes in the teachers’ contract during negotiations last year. They noted that, until then, only 42 of the district’s 270 schools had voted on their own to adopt site selection in staffing.

Even with the new contract, principals didn’t flex all the authority given them. The total number of vacancies districtwide that could have been filled through July using the new procedure was 820. District leaders argued nonetheless that it was important that principals at least had a choice of methods.

Jerry Jordan, the vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he isn’t convinced the new contract language will improve student results. Letting schools choose their hires still doesn’t mean that better teachers will want to work in the most challenging schools, he said.

“Where you have very good working conditions, you’re going to have good teachers voluntarily site-select into those schools,” he said.

Still, he praised district leaders for working with the union to get the word out on how to navigate the new hiring process. Among other efforts, the district greatly enhanced its Web-based system for schools to post openings and let teachers shop for them.

With school leaders more empowered to choose who works in their buildings, Mr. Vallas predicts the district will continue to make steady gains in achievement. Results released last week showed the percentage of needy students who scored at the proficient level on state reading tests has more than doubled since 2002, from 15 percent to 31 percent.

“When principals are allowed to hire the best candidates, they go out and get the best,” Mr. Vallas said.

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