Here we have, in embryo, the nub of the differences between the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers:
“During the previous five years, the District had been offering an excellent education to some but not all Philadelphia students. Although incremental progress had been made in terms of student achievement, a large percentage of students still do not complete high school within six years and persistent participation and achievement “gaps” remain between students of different ethnicities, home languages, areas of residence, and program placement. At the same time, adults within the District were not always held accountable for protecting the core mission of the District – providing every student with an excellent and high-quality education."
--Arlene Ackerman, message on strategic plan
“...As teachers, we are held accountable for reaching and teaching all children, regardless of the myriad of factors that influence their academic success or failure. We, and no one else, are held accountable for raising test scores in classes whose sizes we can’t control, in schools that are falling apart, without enough books or computers and too often without the support of families.”
--Jerry Jordan, May issue of Reporter
If we approach these statements without prejudice, we have to admit that both sides have a point. The system is shortchanging many, if not most of, its students. Teachers face enormous challenges, some of which are beyond their control. But these two statements also reveal the limits of these positions.
Ackerman points to the failure of adults. But she does not say which adults. In practice accountability is not equitably applied. Arguably the most responsible adults – the elected officials who control school funding and exercise great influence over school policy – get a pass. Teachers are convenient scapegoats.
But, more importantly, the search for culpable adults ignores the systemic nature of the problem, namely institutionalized inequality that is so pervasive and has been with us so long that its seems normal. All participants in the school system in varying degrees, even when they have good intentions, contribute to what Pedro Noguera has called the “normalization of failure.” Change begins with this recognition. Instead of finger pointing we need an honest conversation between administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community leaders about what’s wrong and how to move forward.
As for the PFT’s statement, it is certainly true that there are limits to what teachers control and the degree of accountability should reflect this. The PFT has also, to its credit, called for lower class size, more counseling, improved social services, and other things that would improve educational outcomes. But teachers do control some things, things that are an important part of the education equation.
Individual teachers deliver instruction. Research shows pretty conclusively that how well they do it has a profound impact on student learning, particularly in relation to low income students of color. Moreover, teachers as a group exercise some significant power through collective bargaining.
Too often, the recitation of all the problems urban students face becomes an argument against any meaningful form of teacher accountability. As so often is the case, the devil is in the details. Space does not permit a full discussion of important issues like forms of compensation, methods of evaluation, and the role of standardized test scores. What would be a step forward is for the administration to acknowledge that the PFT’s concerns about arbitrary treatment and the need for robust supports are legitimate and for the union to recognize that a higher standard for teacher performance is necessary.
In the May issue of the Reporter PFT President Jerry Jordan’s lead article was entitled "Helping Children Succeed is a Shared Responsibility." Superintendent Ackerman responded positively saying in an address posted on the SD Web site: “I agree. Together we are responsible for student success, and together we will find ways to make that happen."
The call for shared responsibility is a good sign. Let’s hope it bears fruit.