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Other cities outstrip Philadelphia in recruiting, hiring teachers

  • othercitiesphoto
    Photo: Jason Geil

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Despite a wind-chill factor of 25 below zero, more than 1,000 prospective teachers attended a job fair run by the Chicago Public Schools last winter. The number of job applicants per opening in Chicago has increased from 2.5 per position in 2002 to 10 candidates per slot since 2006. Since the system now expedites the hiring and assignment of teachers, schools open with few teacher vacancies.

In Boston, there is an average of 38 licensed applicants per new teacher opening (candidates can apply for more than one opening), and teachers are typically hired by the end of June.

In New York City, there are six applicants for every opening. As in Boston and Chicago, teacher vacancies have decreased. 

By contrast, in Philadelphia, only two to three candidates per position applied for the 2008-09 school year. Hundreds of teachers were hired as late as the end of August or early September, and school opened with 146 teacher vacancies, almost three times the number just two years earlier.

In the last decade, school superintendents in Chicago, Boston, New York City, and several other urban districts have radically altered how they recruit, hire, and assign new classroom teachers after making reform of their human resource systems a top priority.

While none have resolved all their staffing problems, leaders in these districts succeeded in upgrading the number and quality of applicants so they could be more selective in hiring. Studies in Chicago and New York City link the improvement in the academic credentials of the teachers to gains in student achievement. These cities have also narrowed the gap in teacher qualifications between low- and high-poverty schools.

In a series of 2008 reports, researchers at the Center for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at the University of Wisconsin described how human resources departments in New York, Boston, Chicago, Long Beach, Calif., and Fairfax County, Va. attracted a larger and more talented pool of applicants.

According to report author Allen Odden, these districts “figured out how to open school in the fall with virtually no teacher and principal vacancies.”

The set of reforms included:

  • A school-based teacher selection process that “gave schools the sole power to make the final decision on which teachers [both new and transferring] to hire.”
  • A significant reduction in veteran teachers’ seniority-based right to transfer to other schools.
  • An earlier and faster hiring process that enabled districts to snare promising prospects before they signed on with other districts.
  • The use of electronic tools to automate the hiring and school assignment process.
  • Development of new and more selective talent pools through agreements with national organizations, particularly The New Teacher Project and Teach for America, and through the creation of homegrown teacher residency programs. 

The researchers also found that superintendents in these cities have typically been in their position for six or more years and are backed by powerful city mayors.

“The reality in urban districts [is that] union-management collaboration is often essential for moving forward,” noted CPRE researcher Julia Koppich.

Philadelphia’s district-union relations, however, have always tended to be more antagonistic than cooperative.

While Philadelphia has not kept pace with the advances made in these other cities, the District did make some progress between 2002 and 2007 in revamping its hiring and assignment processes.

Under the Paul Vallas administration, the District largely replaced “emergency-certified” teachers with “intern-certified” teachers – mostly from Teach for America and The New Teacher Project – who typically had much stronger academic backgrounds.

Moreover, a 2007 report by Research for Action found that between 2002 and 2006, the percentage of new teachers in Philadelphia who were certified rose from 47 percent to over 92 percent, and teacher vacancies dropped.

The 2004 contract between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers allowed for school-based selection of all new teachers, all teachers hired in newly created schools, and half of all other vacancies.

Still, the District’s reforms have fallen short of comprehensive change. Philadelphia does not have system-wide school-based site selection. Seniority rights of veteran teachers with regard to school placement remain embedded in the contract. A delayed hiring timeline, caused in part by a prolonged annual teacher transfer process, results in many qualified applicants drifting away.

Moreover, the District still does not have the technology needed to make the hiring and school assignment process more efficient and customer-friendly.

CEO Arlene Ackerman said she intends to reform the District’s hiring and assignment process, and her administration has worked with the PFT to try to expedite the transfer and hiring schedule.

However, many of the underlying issues that affect human resources practices, including the extent of teacher seniority rights, have long been a subject of contention between the District and the PFT and are likely to remain so in the contract talks now underway.

The current one-year PFT contract expires at the end of August.

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