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Seeing opportunity in teacher talks

Activists want the new contract to tackle staffing inequities. Negotiations are in secret.
  • coverphoto
    Photo: Harvey Finkle




Public and private statements from School District leaders indicate that they are seeking a significant overhaul of the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) as a way to tackle stubborn issues that have troubled activists and reformers for years.

The talks this year are taking place under both national and local pressure to improve overall teacher quality, assign teachers to schools where they are most needed, revamp teacher evaluation and professional development, tie compensation to performance, and stop the tide of teachers who leave within the first few years on the job.

Partly due to high turnover, the District says it will need to hire 1,024 new teachers for September. Data shows that 30 to 40 schools lose one-third of their teachers each year.

Along with the District, the union includes teacher retention as one of its goals. But it has differed sharply on other items, particularly compensation that is tied to teacher performance rather than being based primarily on longevity and education.

Despite pleas from activists to keep the public more informed and engaged, neither the District nor union leaders are speaking publicly about their overall goals and priorities in the contract talks. They also won’t say how often the two sides are meeting or whether any progress is being made.

A coalition of activists working under the Education First Compact and the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign for School Reform is pushing the two sides to figure out better ways to make sure that all students are exposed to good teaching on a consistent basis.

The campaign, called Effective Teaching for All Children: What It Will Take, is advocating for significant incentives and supports to get teachers to work and stay in the highest-poverty schools.

Along with that, a campaign priority is full site selection of teachers, in which all vacancies are filled at the school level, with real decision-making power in the hands of a leadership team rather than just with the principal.

Now, schools can use full site selection only with approval by a vote of school staff. At other schools, half the vacancies are filled through seniority-based transfers, and that complex process contributes to delays in teacher hiring.

“Schools and communities across the city face challenges in creating an effective teaching workforce,” said Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a leader of the teacher quality campaign. “A part of what we need to do is empower schools to develop visions and develop staffs that can live up to those visions.”

Armstead said the District has indicated they support “just about everything in the campaign.” He added, “The union actually is in support of a vast majority of things. The sticking point for them is site selection,” which cuts too deeply into teacher seniority rights and, as it’s done now, gives too much power to principals.

Besides incentives to work in hard-to-staff schools and full site selection, the campaign is calling for a better evaluation system and performances standards for teachers and principals (see Teacher evaluation system has lots of critics) “that are aligned with student success,” and professional development that promotes a “culture of collaboration” in schools.  

The current contract specifies that teachers are not required to attend any professional development outside of what is scheduled as part of the regular workday.

The union is currently working under a one-year contract because Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who arrived at this time last year, said there wasn’t enough time to resolve major issues. The PFT – prevented from striking by state law – reluctantly agreed.

Wages and benefits

The PFT contract expires on August 31. Historically, the District and union rarely settle before the last minute, with the major sticking points coming down to wages and benefits. These usually track what is given to municipal unions, and this year, Mayor Nutter has put no extra funds in his proposed budget for raises for city workers.

The District is not in as dire financial straits as the city, however, especially if an expected infusion of federal stimulus funds arrives. (see Stimulus funding boost is not a sure thing)

Nutter also would not comment through his chief education advisor, Lori Shorr, on what he would like to see a new teachers’ contract accomplish.

But through examining the District’s reform blueprint, Imagine 2014, and compiling various public statements of Ackerman and others, it is clear that leaders would like to move towards performance pay, a longer school day and year, better evaluations, more comprehensive professional development, earlier deadlines on teacher transfers, and expansion of schools’ ability to choose teachers through site selection.

Officials have also said they want teachers to sign individual contracts, requiring them to inform the District in a timely fashion of pending retirements or resignations.

Imagine 2014, while it includes several items that would have to be negotiated, omits a call for full site selection, even though work groups that helped develop the plan recommended it. The union agreed to hire half the positions at every school through site selection in 2004 after the SRC publicly made it a priority.

Phase One of Imagine 2014 does include an item calling for “financial incentives for high performance among individuals through differentiated salary increases,” and simplified mechanisms for removing poor performers. (see Ackerman: Reward high-performing teachers with more pay)

Broad powers

Right or wrong, policymakers who engineered the state takeover of the District in 2001 blamed contractual restrictions for lack of meaningful changes and gave the newly created School Reform Commission broad powers to unilaterally impose terms.

For instance, the law says the SRC “is not required to engage in collective bargaining negotiations” regarding “staffing patterns and assignments, class schedules, academic calendar, places of instruction, pupil assessment, and teacher preparation time.” In other words, the District could unilaterally end seniority-based teacher assignment if it chose.

Previous school leaders have decided not to use this power and to bargain around these issues anyway, considering the move counterproductive, politically unpalatable, and likely to be challenged in court. Ackerman, however, has hinted she might use the so-called “nuclear option,” particularly to implement her turnaround plan for up to 35 underperforming schools that could involve starting over with a new staff.

Ackerman noted at a press briefing that the law gives her the power to reassign teachers at will.

To learn more about the  “What Will It Take” campaign, visit

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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.

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