The School District of Philadelphia needs all the help it can get, so I’m happy to see a number of local nonprofits band together to offer their advice.
The member groups of the recently launched Coalition for Effective Teaching are calling for reforms to the teachers' contract. As I looked over their list of recommendations, I saw a mix of ideas, some already happening and some that would be helpful. But many of them are misguided. The coalition would have greatly benefited had the members bothered to talk to rank-and-file educators during the planning process.
First off, there is much to agree with in the coalition's proposal:
- Maintaining class-size caps. Many teachers are struggling to get to know the 30 or 33 students under their charge well enough to personalize their learning. Increasing the cap size would only make things worse.
- Implementing research-based school-climate programs. The time has come for the School District to demand that "positive behavior supports" or restorative justice practices be employed in schools that are not only persistently dangerous, but also schools that have dozens of serious incidents each year.
- Training principals on meaningful teacher evaluation that is meant to help teachers grow as professionals. This is a win for everyone. Teacher evaluation must do much more than pick the satisfactory and the unsatisfactory. Teachers thrive on feedback. We don’t just need to know what we are doing well or poorly; we need to know what resources are available to improve.
These recommendations have across-the-board support from teachers, administrators, parents, and students. But I am concerned with the recommendations that expose the coalition members' lack of classroom experience. A few of the recommendations would not help create quality learning conditions for students.
- Universal site-selection. There is a great overreliance on site selection, which doesn't often work in practice as designed. There are schools without functioning committees; often the principal just picks the candidate he or she wants. If there is little to no trust between teachers and administration, site selection becomes a farce, counter-productive to those who strive for more site-based decision-making.
- More use of blended learning. This is naive. Increasing class size through technology is not really about innovation, it’s about hiring fewer teachers. In this austere budget climate, everyone needs to be honest about that. So, despite the coalition's call for a cap, endorsing this will lead to unwanted results.
- Limiting teacher raises for additional education unless research shows that the degree attained leads to better student outcomes. This leads me to ask: Whose research? There also needs to be a thoughtful examination of what kind of coursework teachers find most beneficial. The union and the District should seriously study this in collaboration with each other. Coming to a mutual agreement that includes the people who are actually teaching students is the best way to discover what the District should reward.
- Reward principals "for meeting high and clearly defined standards of student performance and school safety." Principals are already working as hard as they can, giving everything they have for the staff and children where they work. To think that the lack of merit pay is preventing some leaders from reaching their potential or keeping them in our schools is a concept that I just don’t buy.
Finally, if you are going to call yourselves the Coalition for Effective Teaching, you should have teachers included in your coalition from the start. Teachers have plenty of thoughts on what conditions need to exist in a contract in order to provide students with quality learning conditions. That these groups are sharing opinions about how to improve education in the city is great. But asking teachers to join the cause after the fact is parental at best. The coalition has cut out of the process those who are living the reality of the conditions it wants to improve.
Timothy Boyle teaches at the Academy for the Middle Years Northwest and is the operations director for Teachers Lead Philly.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.