Teaching Profession

Leader in Phila. Seeks Changes in Teacher Rules

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 01, 2009 6 min read
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Arlene C. Ackerman, who took the helm of Philadelphia’s public schools a little more than a year ago, is pushing for changes that would upend how teachers are paid and assigned to schools.

The veteran urban superintendent is battling tradition in the 167,000-student system, but insists that increasing the effectiveness of the city’s nearly 10,700 teachers is a central goal of her leadership. Her administration is currently negotiating a new, multiyear contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

“The kinds of things I am talking about are radical,” Ms. Ackerman said. “I want teachers who will come to Philadelphia and work in our neediest schools, and who see themselves as experts at educating children in the most challenging communities.”

While the changes would be major for Philadelphia, most have been put in place in other large districts, including New York and Chicago. Ms. Ackerman’s decision to tackle the touchy issue underscores the prominence of teacher effectiveness on the national school reform agenda.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made teacher policy a centerpiece of the Race to the Top competition, the $4.35 billion grant program that is part of the federal stimulus package pledged for public schools.

More than 20 advocacy groups in Philadelphia also have rallied around teacher quality and are calling for many of the same policy changes Ms. Ackerman is seeking. Their campaign is called “Effective Teaching for All Children: What It Will Take.” And a recent settlement of Philadelphia’s 40-year-old desegregation case requires the district to take steps to ensure the neediest schools are staffed with more experienced teachers.

In fact, the settlement agreement gives Ms. Ackerman the authority to impose many of the changes she is seeking in 85 of the city’s neediest schools, but she said she prefers to collaborate with the union. The School Reform Commission, which has governed the district since a state takeover in 2002, also has the authority to impose such provisions, but has never opted to do so.

“We have the hammer, but I’d much rather work with them than ram this down their throats,” Ms. Ackerman said of members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The superintendent has substantial political capital and legal backing to push the PFT to agree to measures the union has previously rejected, said one education scholar who has done research on the city’s teaching corps.

“There’s a convergence of many important factors here that give the superintendent tremendous backup,” said Betsey Useem, a researcher for the Philadelphia-based Research for Action. “She also benefits from just a torrent of national research now on the whole issue of teacher quality and student learning gains. This is really in the water supply now of education reform.”

New Evaluation System?

The school district is seeking to assign teachers with track records of raising achievement to the city’s hardest-to-staff schools and to offer incentives—both monetary and nonmonetary—to keep them there for at least five years. Also on the agenda are scrapping all seniority-based transfer rights and giving principals and school hiring teams the authority to hire every teacher for their campuses, and raising teachers’ base salaries and using a tiered system to pay those with certain areas of expertise and proven results even more.

One major obstacle, Ms. Useem pointed out, is the unresolved Pennsylvania state budget, which so far has kept the district and union from being able to hash out any final agreements on salaries and benefits.

A one-year contract between the district and the PFT was set to expire Aug. 31, but district and union leaders, who have been meeting twice a week for much of the summer, agreed to extend it to Oct. 31 in the hope that the state budget will be final by then.

Jerry T. Jordan, the president of the 16,000-member PFT, declined to comment on the superintendent’s goal of improving teacher quality. He emphasized that the union is focused on its long-standing priorities: safe and orderly classrooms, reduced class sizes, and more resources and supplies in classrooms.

“Having good working conditions for teachers will make the biggest impact on our students,” Mr. Jordan said.

To make her case for an overhaul of the contract, Ms. Ackerman points to several things.

One is the district’s evaluation system for teachers, which rates them as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory based on a single observation each year by a principal for a tenured teacher, and two observations for those with less than three years’ experience.

“Before this last year, we only had 13 teachers who were rated as unsatisfactory, and only five lost their jobs because they failed to perform,” Ms. Ackerman said. “That says a lot.”

The superintendent said she wants to set a series of specific standards for principals to use to evaluate teachers. She also plans to create a professional-development program to train teachers to meet and maintain those standards.

Using student-achievement data as part of evaluations is “something that is important and should be part of the evaluation,” Ms. Ackerman said, but is not something she is pushing for in this contract.

Mr. Jordan said nothing in previous contracts has precluded principals from writing more-nuanced evaluations of teachers and suggesting ways for them to improve. But he said the union is “open to talking about changes to the current system.”

‘Strategic Compensation’

While Ms. Ackerman declined to share details in a recent interview, she is also advocating what she calls “strategic compensation” that would pay teachers who have specialized training and credentials in high-need areas more money. If those same teachers agree to work in a high-need school, they should receive even more, she said.

To tackle the difficult problem of attracting the strongest teachers to the weakest schools and keeping them there, Ms. Ackerman also wants to offer nonmonetary incentives. One approach she wants to try—at the suggestion of several teachers she has met with—is placing cohorts of five or six teachers in the toughest schools so they “don’t have to go alone” and may find it more palatable to stay.

Another top priority for Ms. Ackerman—and a major sticking point for the union—is eliminating the role of seniority when teachers transfer schools and empowering principals and school-based hiring committees to select all teachers. In Philadelphia, principals now are able to fill only half their teaching vacancies with hires that they choose; the other half are reserved for seniority transfers.

The city’s advocacy groups fought hard for such a provision in the 2004 contract, and were disappointed when the district and the union struck the deal to keep some teaching vacancies subject to seniority.

“We know that full site selection in and of itself is not a panacea,” said Brian Armstead, the director of civic engagement for the Philadelphia Education Fund, one of the groups behind the effective-teaching campaign. “But the teachers’ union response to doing this has been an automatic rejection.

“What we are saying is that it has to be done in a way where teachers feel empowered,” he said, “and where the committees aren’t stacked with people who always agree with the principal.”

Establishing site-based hiring that includes decisionmakers other than the principal is a “really sound proposal,” said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president for policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization for improvement of the teaching profession.

“We think that mutual-consent hiring practices are one of the most important things districts can do,” Ms. Jacobs said. “It means that a teacher doesn’t end up in a position that he or she doesn’t want, and principals don’t end up with teachers he or she doesn’t want.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grand from the Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Leader in Phila. Seeks Changes In Teacher Rules

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