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Does reforming high schools require starting with a new staff?

By Eric Braxton on Mar 30, 2009 02:20 PM
Photo: WP Clipart

Do schools need a blank slate for teacher hiring in order to succeed?

As I have said in nearly all of my posts, I am of the opinion that our neighborhood high schools need a major transformation, not just some small reforms. 

The culture and climate in these schools is just not conducive to learning.  Many people argue that creating this new culture requires replacing either all or some of the teachers in the building with a fresh staff that is on board with the school’s mission. 

This is a highly controversial idea and one with a troubled history here in Philadelphia (remember the backlash when David Hornbeck tried to “Keystone” Olney High School). Understandably, many teachers feel that this approach is blaming them for problems they did not create (at least not on their own), but I am not sure there is any other way.

When I have visited successful urban high schools, I always ask “what are your non-negotiables, what could you not do this without?” The first thing most principals tell me is the ability to hire their own staff. They say that it is critical when redesigning failing schools to start with a staff that understands and is committed to the school’s vision.

For most business owners (and school principals outside of Philadelphia) the idea of not being able to hire your own staff would be considered ridiculous, but this is Philadelphia. 

For a long time, Philadelphia had a hiring system largely based on seniority, the result of which was that principals had no say in who teaches in their schools. Now we have one of the most complicated and convoluted hiring systems, where some hires are based on seniority and others are site selected (meaning the principal, sometimes along with a committee of teachers, does the hiring).     

In districts like New York, Oakland, and Boston, teachers unions and school districts have made agreements that support transforming high schools. In New York, when a school is designated for change, the current teachers in that school must reapply if they want to stay. The redesigned school must take at least half of the old teachers. Teachers who are not picked to stay, or who choose to leave, get preference in selecting new schools and keep their building seniority.

I recently heard someone from the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher Union Leadership explain another model. In Montgomery County, MD, a school was designated for reform. Teachers participated in a committee that created a reform plan that included some waivers to the contract. All the teachers in the school then had the choice of whether to leave or stay and agree to the new plan. This model has the advantage of more teacher buy-in, but on the other hand relies on the current staff to create a strong reform plan, which some of the more dysfunctional staffs may not be up to.      

NCLB gives the District the power to force some schools to change their staff, but the District has been hesitant to do this given the backlash it has faced in the past. This process seems to work better when it is done collaboratively between the teachers union and the school district, but our union and district do not have a strong history of this kind of collaboration.

I do not believe that all the problems in neighborhood high schools are the fault of teachers, but I do think these schools need a fresh start and the ability to create teams that have a shared vision. I would be curious about other people’s thoughts about how we can achieve this.

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Comments (13)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 31, 2009 5:48 pm

I taught in 3 Philadelphia neighborhood high schools from 1995 to 1996 before I moved into ESOL teaching at a middle school in North Philadelphia. I taught at South Philadelphia High School, Audenried High School, and Bok. Replacing current staff is not the "answer," especially at a time when so many new teachers are coming to urban teaching through alternative routes and are not staying in the profession for more than 2-3 years. If the knowledge and experience of teachers were respected enough by administrators and "the system" to be seriously considered, the staff in place could plan and implement reforms that could work. Many staffs would be willing to accept changes in their contract in the interest of true reform that they had a part in creating. In my experience, the great majority of the teachers in schools are dedicated, hard-working, knowledgeable people who want very much for their schools to be more successful in educating the students who come to them. They can be understandably weary of "reform" after "reform" imposed upon them by people who don't know what they know about how to best engage and educate the kids.

Submitted by Eric Braxton on April 1, 2009 11:39 am

Your raise some good points. What you are suggesting sounds a lot like the Montgomery County model I mentioned above where teachers help create the reform plan and then choose whether to stay. I don't know that that model has been tried in enough places to know how successful it can be. My only concern with that model is that I can think of some schools where an "old guard" of teachers might control the redesign process and do more to protect the status quo than create real reform. There are other schools where I think that model would be very successful.

Again, I do not think that teachers are the cause of the problem, and I agree 100% that teachers should be involved in creating school redesign plans. I do think, however, especially if we are trying to turn around a school culture, that principals should be able to have more say in who teaches in their schools. These schools should have some kind of distributive leadership model where teachers are involved in decision making, but I do think the principals need more say than they have now.

Submitted by Margaret Plotkin (not verified) on May 23, 2009 2:11 pm

Has anyone stopped to consider that Montgomery County, MD is one of the wealthiest and best-educated counties in the US, while Philadelphia is among the poorest and least-educated? Reform is a whole lot easier when the raw materials you are working with come to you with some "processing" before they enter your purview! I'm really not interested in what can be accomplished in Montgomery County, MD. Show me some successful models in other large urban districts, not in wealthy suburban ones! That just puts everything back to the old lie "Those lazy teachers, they just don't WANT to do a good job with these poor minority students, or they're just too ignorant to implement this good model from another (completely different) district."

I agree that much needs to be done to improve urban high schools. But before we start wholesale firing of teachers who are at least willing to work there, and jettison the entire institutional memory and any hope of fostering successful mentoring and collaborative models that actually seek input from the "boots on the ground," let's figure out what actually ails the patient.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on April 1, 2009 3:00 pm

"Shared vision" can get a little thorny though. Getting together a team that works well together and has a similar philosophy makes a lot of sense. But does shared vision mean that people with a different point of view will be kept out, or pushed out?

I am concerned about hiring (and firing?) people based on philosophical perspectives. It seems like that Montgomery County model might help, if the starting committee of teachers had some diversity of opinions. Implementing a model that's based on fit rather than more quantifiable qualifications also seems tough in terms of union buy-in; it could be used as a smokescreen to get rid of or or not hire people for all manner of reasons (aside from a few legally protected situations). That's certainly how it works in the rest of the at-will, non-unionized world, and I don't think it's something we should aspire to replicate.

The potential difficulty in figuring out the details of how to give principals more hiring control is not a reason to maintain the status quo though. I just wonder about just what is required of a teacher to be considered "on board," philosophically.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 1, 2009 7:05 pm

I agree, Erika. I'm the same teacher (just retired after 13.5 years) who wrote the original comment. I have the utmost respect for one of my colleagues at my most recent school. She was building rep and opposed site selection for the very reason that she felt much was to be gained from diverse viewpoints and that she, herself, learned a great deal from a colleague with whom she differed on almost everything. She also felt that she likely would not have been hired almost 40 years ago because the interviewing group practiced a much different religion than she did and would have found her not "like-minded.
If GM workers can give back so much they gained in contract negotiations over the years, teachers can agree on some give-backs, too if they are threatened with mass dismissal so that the school can have a "fresh start" with no institutional memory. Alas--will the powers ever trust the teachers to plan knowledgeably with the students' needs as their priority?

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on April 1, 2009 8:00 pm

The one time my school tried site selection every single hire was gone by the end of the year. They were either fired or quit within the year. Despite what the district would like people to think it is always the principal that gets the final say in who gets hired via site selection.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 9, 2009 8:50 am

As other posts indicate, there is more to "overhauling" a school than getting rid of the teachers. Schools are very political environments. Administrators are often "political animals" - that is how they become administrators in Philadelphia. It is an enormously powerful position. Eric assumes administrators have the best interest of the school/students/community at heart while teachers do not.

In most of my experiences, most principals are not collaborative - it is "their way or the highway." When a teacher questions something in the school, too often the administration responds negatively rather than seeing it as an opportunity to reexamine what is happening and consider making changes. There may be a few "insider" teachers who have more sway over administration but this is not necessarily based on the best interest of the school/students. Sometimes, those who stay at hard to staff schools do so because of the "perks" - a lot of "EC" (extra curricular money), a "plumb" assignment like roster chair or department chair, self selected classes (honors, upper grades), etc. Principals "dangle" perks in front of some teachers at the expense of school improvement; it is to keep some people quiet or positioned against teachers who are challenging the status quo.

Giving principals more power is not synonymous with empowering communities/schools/parents/students. Principals, and Assistant Principals, can become very dictatorial and possessive of their power. Yes, the union gives teachers a bit of power, but, day to day, the principal rules and teachers are under the threat of being written up for "insubordination" or worse. Just because an administrator "talks the talk" does not mean s/he "walks the walk." I've been "snowed" by administrators who claim to espouse collaboration and respect "teacher knowledge" but will do anything to control the image of the school and or their power.

Change is not concentrating power in administration. It also is not in keeping "do nothing" teachers who stay because of their "perks." Restructuring schools requires all the stakeholders to be empowered to "speak truth to power" without fear of retribution - which might include a write up for a teacher to re-rostering him/her with the most difficult classes. There has to be a "check" on administration so a teacher, student or parent/guardian who questions a school policy, challenges an administrative decision, notes problems with school climate, etc. is not charged with being "unhappy" to "insubordinate." Too often administrators define "team players" as those who say "yes" to administrator's wishes. If there is going to be dramatic change, we need administrators who can hear constructive criticism and embrace it rather than try to "bury" those who are , in the words of Erika, "not philosophically on board."

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on April 8, 2009 4:22 pm


I analyze in great detail your above post on my blog. Here is a link if you'd like to respond:

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on May 23, 2009 6:28 pm

Ms. Plotkin...

I hope that is not your real name...because retaliation is rife...

I all the Philly teachers...and all the diamonds AKA Philly students will shine when they get teachers who are from the community...

I see a purge of Philly teachers on the way...with $500,000 a year Ackerman on the job...

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on May 25, 2009 9:02 am

This discussion reminds us that we should be suspicious of "one size fits all" solutions and need to approach the whole question of fixing high schools with some humility. Balancing the need for a fresh start with fairness for the existing staff is a thorny problem.

About the "shared vision" thing....It seems to me that before the who question comes the what question. There needs to be a school reform plan with some teeth, one that ideally is the product of some serious investigation and analysis of the school's problems and some real collaboration between administration, school reform experts, teachers, parents and students. Such a plan would address curriculum, modes of instruction, school climate, relationship with the community etc. It would include a timetable for implementation, lines of responsibility, and a plan for evaluation.

With such a plan in place there is a concrete basis for making decisions about staffing. Without some significant level of committment from school staff the plan would have no chance of success. Surely there is room for people who might have doubts about one or another aspect of the plan but are willing to give it try.
On the other hand people who are fundamentally opposed to it probably need to move on. The plan, rather than the subjective whims of an administrator, provides the means for making staffing decisions.

While the need to transform a failing school's culture is critical, I don't think that necessairly requires a clean sweep of teachers. With new and positive leadership that treats teachers as serious professionals and partners many teachers who might have been demoralized and ineffective under the old regime could turn around.
Its wrong to see the existing teachers in such a school as a liability pure and simple. Many of these veterans have valuable experience and knowledge of the school community that, again given the proper approach, could be a real asset to a reform administration.

Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on June 12, 2009 4:35 pm

Keep in mind that it's the principal who sets the tone of a school and often it is they, not their teachers, who are inadequate. Many principals left the classroom because they were unsuccessful there, yet now they're in a position of power over good teachers. Today's principal is not always someone with decades of successful experience as an educator. Often they destroy morale rather than build it. It's very dangerous to assume the competence lies with a school's principal and not its teaching staff.

In many cases, a school changes principals on nearly a yearly basis. Does that mean every new principal gets to throw away the current staff and start fresh? Does that make sense on any level?

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 12, 2009 9:00 pm

According to Michael Lerner...the principal's union chief...the Philly School District vets its principals so well that they...the principals...don't need to be fired...and are not fired...

I agree...

That is why the principals in Philly are known for their honesty, integrity, and high competence...

And, boy, do those principals have a lot to be proud of...they are graduating a lot of least 50 percent of their wards do graduate...

Kudos to the principals of Philly...keep up the good work...

Submitted by Dee Phillips (not verified) on June 18, 2009 11:42 am

Eric, you mention that you've asked principals what are their non-negotiables...what could they do without, I'm nost sure I've read that you've asked teachers. If so, what have they reported as their non-negotiables, what could they do without? We are a group of caring, and knowledgeable professionals who can articulate what changes aka "reforms" need to take place in their paricular school sites that will help produce positive results.

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