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A longer plan, still without priorities

  • finalplanimage




The long awaited revision of the Imagine 2014 strategic plan is out, described on the District Web site as “the final version of the plan.” This is the document that Superintendent Ackerman and the School Reform Commission intend to bring to a vote on April 22.

Two of the principal objections to the original draft were the lack of priorities and the lack of cost estimates, making it unclear what portions of the catch-all list can and will actually be implemented. This version, while dressed up with some nifty charts and nice graphics, doesn’t address either of these issues. An addendum says that “we will be unveiling the priorities for the upcoming school year with progress goals, a detailed implementation plan, and costs as we begin the next school year.”

It also says, though, that “a key factor is aligning our budget with these priorities.” The 2009-10 draft budget will be introduced at an SRC meeting on April 22 (immediately after the plan is scheduled for adoption) and has to be finalized by the end of May – which is next month, not the beginning of the next school year. It now appears that the budget will provide the first hints of what items among this extensive list will be addressed first and how much it is likely to cost.

A few things in this updated plan, which followed a month of community meetings, caught my eye, including a few having to do with high schools. There’s a reference to changing the scheduling system to allow for small class sizes (but no explanation how this will be done), and a few more details on plans to redesign the core curriculum by, among other things, linking it “to real-world and field experiences to provide students with instruction that is relevant to their everyday lives and reflects the diversity of the student population.” There is also a plan to make more use of cooperative learning, inquiry-based instruction, project-based learning, and integrated technology.

There is also a promise to have a library in every school and start foreign language instruction in middle school – an interesting area for expansion, since foreign language teachers are in short supply.

Which leads to items in the plan about teachers, and how they match up with the recently released platform on effective teaching. A few items that jumped out at me:

  • The goal to have the majority of the teaching staff – 51 percent – be persons of color by 2014. The proportion of African American teachers has been steadily declining and now stands at 28 percent, while Latino and Asian numbers are tiny. This is a tall order – and could be one area where the turbulent economy may prove to be an ally. Teaching is looking better and better as a career. To help with this, the plan includes the creation of a new program to help non-professional District staff obtain teaching certification. (Such programs already exist, some in partnership with universities including Drexel, but they haven’t produced great numbers.)
  • Several other items regarding the recruitment and retention of teachers, including installation of “a tracking system that allows us to track candidates from the time they apply for a position until either they are hired or their application is disposed of.” Philadelphia is one of only a few big districts that still doesn’t have such a system. This sounds like a great candidate for some of the one-shot stimulus money.
  • The promise to reduce the number of teacher vacancies at the beginning of the year to no more than 15 by 2014. Some other urban districts, including Chicago and Boston, have already reduced their vacancy rates to negligible numbers.
  • There’s a little more detail about what the District leadership envisions as “differentiated compensation scale for highly effective teachers, principals, and staff.” Besides the general incentives for hard-to-fill subjects and chronically understaffed schools, there’s a reference to providing “financial incentives for high performance among individuals through differentiated salary increases, cash bonuses and career paths.” And there is also a mention of “a system of financial and non-financial incentives and rewards for tenured teachers…identified as high performing and highly effective through public honors and awards and funded opportunities for personal and professional growth.” These could include being able to attend the Harvard Principals’ Institute, conferences and networking.”
  • There is a promise to create “tangible performance measurements” and invest in a “data and technology infrastructure” to administer the performance management system.

The plan, however, fails to acknowledge that some of these promised initiatives require changes in the teachers’ contract. For instance, there is a plan to create targeted professional development centers and a system to track online the participation of each teacher. However, there is no mention of whether the District will seek to pay for this by getting a change in the contract that gives teachers automatic raises for taking additional courses and earning advanced degrees in whatever they choose. Historically, the District has had no say in what courses teachers take that earn them the higher salaries, which amount to some $63 million. 

Missing altogether from the plan is mention of full site-selection as a goal for the contract talks. Another item that is included – longer school day and year – would also be a matter of negotiation.

The plan now is for the new SRC, two of whom will be participating in their very first meeting this week, to vote on the final adoption (sans priorities, apparently) at their scheduled 6 p.m. meeting on April 22. Some groups are seeking a delay, arguing that with the cancellation of last week’s SRC meeting, they won’t have enough opportunity to express their concerns to the Commission. There is a daytime SRC meeting April 15.

The District has just today announced a community meeting tomorrow (April 15) at 6 p.m. at 440 N. Broad St., and two additional meetings on April 20 for community input.

The groups seeking a delay  – Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change, Philadelphia ACORN, and JUNTOS – also asked the SRC to consider separately the Renaissance Schools proposal, which would turn over up to 35 low-performing schools to outside managers.

The new draft of the plan emphasizes “internal” before “external” managers as potential partners, including successful principals and the teachers’ union. PFT leaders, however, have already said that they are not interested in managing schools.

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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.