Superintendent William Hite wants to make it clear: He is an educator, a former teacher, and principal himself. "I have the greatest respect for teachers and the teaching profession because we know the incredible impact teachers have on student outcomes," he said.
So the details of the District's opening position in its contract talks with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers -- leaked out over the last few days -- have caused a lot of "misconceptions" of his and the District's intentions, he said.
Some of the proposals -- that the District wants to take away teachers' access to water fountains and desks and stop supplying sufficient books, for example -- have dropped jaws inside and outside of Philadelphia, getting attention in such places as Diane Ravitch's blog.
In an hourlong interview Thursday, Hite sought to "reset the tone."
Taking out these details is a way of professionalizing and streamlining the contract, he said.
"This notion that I'm disrespectful to teachers couldn't be further from the point."
"Just because we’re eliminating a provision in the contract doesn’t mean we are eliminating the thing that is being provided," he said. "In a professional contract, those kinds of things don't belong there. "
Hite said that he wants to put teachers on a par with other professions like architects, engineers, doctors, and lawyers. "Other professions don't approach things the same way," he said. "A doctor doesn’t look at his contract to provide beds for patients. Water fountains, copy machines, desks, books. ... We will absolutely continue to provide them."
But, he added, "the contract doesn’t guarantee those things. The fact that we have a responsibility to educate children guarantees those things."
Other provisions, like asking teachers to work a longer day, are also about professionalization, he said, based on "a vision" so they can be more effective.
"Most of our teachers already work eight-hour days," he said. "Most work weekends, holidays and into the evening. ... I applaud the teachers for putting in whatever time it takes to make sure students are successful."
But, he added, "The [teacher] workday is defined as not just standing in front of children, but a time for teachers to develop themselves, collaborate, analyze data, and learn best practices."
The District intends to "think about different working conditions," and removing "the administrative burdens put on teachers every day."
The rub for teachers, of course, is the concurrent intention to slash pay and benefits when they already work for less money in harsher working conditions than most of their counterparts in surrounding districts.
Hite says that this doesn't make him happy, but that he has no choice.
"I get the fact that this is a tough ask. I wish we didn’t have these economic challenges and I wish we were not asking teachers, who we think are most important to student outcomes, I wish we didn’t have to ask our most important people to give back money. But we have incredible fiscal challenges, and it is also important to have certain flexibility in order to approach teaching in a different way."
Eliminating seniority in assignment, moving to site-based hiring, and giving principals more autonomy are all part of a "vision" that will ultimately benefit teachers, Hite said. He acknowleged, however, that any success in that area would require significantly upgrading the quality of the District's principal corps. Teachers and union leaders who hang tenaciously on to seniority as the only fair way to assign teachers consistently cite arbitrary principal practices as a reason.
"We have to strengthen school leadership, and teachers have to be a part of that," he said. "The plan is to begin to define a set of standards and competencies every leaders should have, and then recruit off that. ... It will take a different type of leader to give voice and access to teachers so they can co-develop plans for their schools. In many high performing schools, these things are already occurring."
The District also wants to restructure the teacher salary system, eliminating automatic increases for what is known as "steps" -- for years served -- and "lanes" -- for degrees earned, replacing it with an as-yet-undefined performance-based system. There would be no raises until 2017.
Again, that is a tough sell. A few districts around the country have made changes along these lines, including Denver, but longevity and education level are still the main drivers of teacher salaries. Hite said that research over the years has shown that advanced degrees don't correlate with improved student achievement.
"Naturally, we want people with more experience to the extent that adds value, but we spend a lot of money across the nation dealing with steps and lanes when they haven’t proven to impact student outcomes."
But research is inconclusive on the effectiveness of performance-based pay.
Hite acknowledged that some things are trickier than others. For instance, the District would like to eliminate any contractual limit on class size. Hite said this is part of the "flexibility" he is talking about, which would allow the District to use more blended learning, more lectures combined with labs, and to use technology more efficiently.
But traditionally, the class-size limits set by the contract have provided the guidance for teacher allotment in schools. Ideally meant to be maximums, the limits -- 30 for K-3 classes and 33 for older students -- have historically been treated by a succession of cash-strapped administrations as the standard. Eliminating them altogether could remove all guidance for how many teachers each school needs.
"Our desire is not to increase class size," he said. "It's just to have more flexibility for more types of models."
Hite, after barely six months on the job, is trying to reset the District and deal with what he called an "incredible" fiscal crisis of a magnitude "that I'm not so sure any other district in the country is experiencing."
"The point is, everybody has to make sacrifices," he said. "This has been something that was talked about long before I arrived."