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Race to the Top, contract deadlines converging

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As if contract negotiations with the PFT are not difficult enough, this year they are complicated by the competition among states for the $4 billion in Race to the Top (RttT) funds being handed out by the US Department of Education.

More than 130 Pennsylvania districts, including Philadelphia, have indicated they want to be in on the state's application, which could bring the state as much as $400 million. The deadline for interested districts to submit a "memo of understanding" (MOU) that is signed by the administration, governing body and teachers' union is Wednesday, January 13.

UPDATE: The PFT and District have signed an MOU.

Pennsylvania has sent a detailed letter to superintendents outlining the state's reform plans. It has also sent a letter to advocacy organizations urging them to support the state's efforts.

In evaluating the applications, the feds will award points in four reform areas: adopting common standards and aligned assessments, commitment to developing a statewide longtitudinal data system, improving teacher and principal quality, and school turnaround. More than 45 percent of the points will depend on the strength of the teacher development and distribution proposals -- those on school turnaround merit just 16 percent of the possible points.

The deadline for the teachers' contract talks -- originally last August -- is January 15. The state has to submit its RttT application, including all the MOUs from participating districts -- by January 19.

By signing the MOU, the union could be tacitly agreeing to participate in a reform initiative that includes provisions that have long been anathema, such as rewarding teachers based on student performance. In addition, districts have to agree to provide much more targeted and school-based professional development that involves more collaboration, make major changes in the teacher evaluation system, be more aggressive in terminating ineffective teachers, and provide stronger incentives for strong teachers to go to hard-to-staff schools.

As usual, the District and the union have been mum about what is happening in the negotiations. But some predict that PFT President Jerry Jordan is inclined to sign the MOU, likening his position to being between a "rock and a hard place"  because not signing could jeopardize a substantial infusion of funds into the District.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents most of Pennsylvania's teachers, is advising districts to sign the MOU as long as it includes language that protects bargaining rights.The PFT, however, has no right to strike, and the District has the power to impose contract terms under the state takeover law.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to award the money to about 10 states in the first round, and while Pennsylvania has a good chance, it is by no means a shoo-in. Factors in its favor include Duncan's relationships with Philadelphia superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt.

On the other hand, it won't help that Gov. Rendell is due to leave office at the end of this year, with no guarantees of a successor vigorously pursuing the reform plans.

School reform advocates, including the Philadelphia Teaching Effectiveness Campaign, have also been advocating for reforms that will get the best teachers to the neediest students, as well as increase the quality of teaching in general. They also like the idea of more school-based hiring of teachers by principals and leadership teams, and want better efforts to reduce teacher turnover.

School turnaround is another reform strategy of RttT that will have implications for the teachers' contract. Philadelphia is proceeding with Ackerman's Renaissance Schools plan, which calls for the "turnaround" of up to 30 persistently low-performing schools over the next several years. The four different models of turnaround listed in the RttT application call for different degrees of intervention. Approaches range from getting a new principal and extensive supports, to firing the principal and half the faculty, to turning a school over to an outside entity, to closure.

Officials say they will put out the Request for Qualifications later this month for organizations that want to partner with potential turnaround schools. The District also plans to reveal the pool of 10-15 schools from which the first small group of Renaissance Schools will be chosen for immediate intervention. 

All in all, lots of upheaval on the way.

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Dale Mezzacappa

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