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Getting beyond the blame game

By Eric Braxton on Jun 26, 2009 10:24 AM

There has been a lot of talk recently about how to improve teaching quality and ensure equitable distribution of qualified teachers in Philadelphia.

The issue is hot right now for good reasons: the PFT contract negotiations are getting contentious and group of community organizations have created a Teaching Quality and Equity Platform.

Every four years when the PFT contract is being negotiated the same thing happens: people start lining up and taking sides and it always seems like the only choice is to be on the District’s side or the teachers’ side. It’s hard to find a third position since the negotiations happen in private with no real way for the students, parents, and community members who are also greatly impacted by these decisions to be at the table.

There are some serious issues that need attention.  High poverty schools still have the least experienced teachers and the highest rates of teacher turnover.  If we are serious about improving failing schools this has to be addressed. 

It seems like most of the time that this issue gets discussed (even occasionally on this blog) the conversation breaks down into different sides with entrenched positions blaming each other for the problems.  The result of the official negotiations is usually some kind of compromise where no one (not teachers, not the District, and certainly not the students in high poverty schools) really gets what they need. 

I think we have to find a way to get beyond blame, build some trust, and have some real conversations about how to solve these problems.  If the PFT and the District can’t have that kind of open productive dialogue, maybe some us should start and show them how. 

I think both traditional “sides” make some good points.  On the one hand, I agree that the seniority system ensures that schools in wealthier neighborhoods have more experienced teachers and I think school-based hiring is necessary to improve schools.  On the other hand, I agree with many teachers the best way to attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools is to improve working conditions and hire principals that work collaboratively with teachers. 

So my question is how do we get beyond blame and open up real dialogue to solve these important issues?      

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Comments (16)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 27, 2009 6:37 pm

Eric, I agree with the spirit of your comments and the call for a real dialogue. The School District is not making it up that there is a problem in terms of teacher quality at chronically low achieving schools. The data shows that there is a gap in terms of experienced and fully qualified teachers. At the same time the PFT is rightly concerned that any system for teacher assignment is fair and offers teachers some element of choice. Good faith bargaining and a willingness to make difficult compromises are needed.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on June 27, 2009 8:11 pm

The problem of teacher quality is directly to related to weak leadership that has become the hallmark of the Philadelphia School District. Good principals will attract good teachers, but until the district admits it has a problem in this department good teachers or whatever will leave problem schools in droves. It's time for 440 to bite the bullet and admit it has a major problem in disciplining its higher ups. Other school districts aren't afraid to fire principals, but Philly seems too scared of CASA to do what is necessary.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 28, 2009 11:25 pm


Do principals ever get fired in Philly?

With all the bruhaha of Alice Heller...the woman principal of South Philly...will simply be reduced to an assistant principal...big deal...

Do any principals get fired?

Submitted by Eric Braxton on June 29, 2009 2:48 pm

I hear your point, but you realize of course that many poeple make the exact same arguement about teachers.  Very few teachers in Philly get fired either.  I think the point is that we need a better system of recruiting, evaluating, training, and supporting teachers and administrators.  Maybe after we had a better system of evaluating and supporting teachers and principals some would have to be let go.  I don't think firing people alone will solve anything.  We have to improve the whole system for teachers and administrators.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on June 29, 2009 10:31 pm

People that have never taught in a classroom or haven't been in a school for years might make the argument that "few teachers in Philly get fired". It's sad to see that you insist on promoting such a myth. I know three personally that were fired, one of whom had 25 years of teaching and tenure (thus ending another myth that teachers acquire tenure they can't be fired). Two of them were fired at my school and the third I knew socially. She should have never been hired by the Philadelphia School District in the first place.

There are at least ten teachers I know of at my school that were bullied or fired by the same principal that I fought for nearly a decade. Some of them probably should have not been in the classroom, but a number were good, but dared to cross the principal (or in her mind she saw them as threats to her rule). One even left and eventually became a principal herself. The principal I am talking about was a thief, a liar, a slanderer, sneak, coniver, and bully. I even met one teacher who went to the same synagogue as this principal and asked me not to mention her name since she had been bullied by her before, at the synagogue, not school! What sort of monster goes to a place of worship to bully others? This woman had some serious psychological problems, but managed to get hired as a principal. CASA and the school district lawyers protected her despite her crimes. She was not fired. I even tried writing to Vallas when he claimed any teacher could write him about problems in their schools, but my email was turned over to her.That showed me how corrupt this school district administraion is and it's only gotten worse.

Tell me, Eric, when do teachers get to evaluate principals? Even those surveys they make teachers do at the end of the year are rigged. You only hear what the district wants to be heard. That's why they made damn sure there were no kids in the schools last May when we had the election. God forbid if the public should ever seen what is really going on inside our schools.

Teachers are fired all the time, let's stop with the propaganda starting now!!

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 29, 2009 11:25 pm


A thief, liar, conniver, slanderer, and bully...?

Aren't those the qualifications to be principal in Philly?

Submitted by Eric Braxton on June 30, 2009 8:27 am

I don't think your statement lines up with the facts. Of some 10,000 teachers, less than 15 were rated unsatisfactory last year.  Do you really think there are only 15 unsatisfactory teachers in the District or is there a problem with our system of evaluating teachers?

That said, if you read my earlier comment you would see that point is not that more teachers or administrators need to be fired, but that we need to overhaul the whole system of hiring, supporting, and evaluating staff. 

Your comments place all the blame on the administration without recognizing that the system works the same way for teachers.  That's the blame game I am talking about and it gets us nowhere.  I don't think teachers are the problem.  I don't think administrators are the problem.  I think the system doesn't work and attitudes that place all the blame on one side don't help. 

What we need is to create the kind of collaborative environment that Philly HS Teacher talked about above.  That does, as you say, require administrators that respect teachers, but it also requires some openness from teachers.

I'm just asking if we get beyond these entrenched positions and have some real dialogue about what we can all do to create learning environments that work for everyone.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 30, 2009 9:46 am

Eric Braxton...

I agree with is the teachers who need to bare more of the blame...

I am sure the 50 percent drop out rate is the fault of the and Arlene Ackerman and I...we all agree it is the teachers' fault...

Fire more teachers...put them in disciplinary rooms...and you will see the drop out rate perhaps 49 percent...then 48 percent...47 percent...

Keep the teachers in check...they are the problem in the says Lady Arlene...

Submitted by Eric Braxton on June 30, 2009 10:42 am

 I specifically said that I don't think teachers are the problem.  What I said is that instead of putting all the blame on one side, everyone needs to work together.  I see this happening on both sides, when someone calls for change, each side tries to say that all the problems are the other side's fault.  Can't we get past that?

Submitted by Philly High School teacher (not verified) on June 28, 2009 3:26 pm

The game that gets played in the media is already tiring. Ackerman seems to have the upper hand - at least with the Inquirer. Yes, Eric, negotiations are in private but it it wrong to assume the vast majority of teachers have an inkling of what it going on - the PFT does not communicate with us. It is almost as hierarchical and closed an institution at the School District.

That said, I agree with Ron that teachers need some element of choice. At this point, my experience with site selection is very mixed. The principal has the final say and it is often a "who knows who" as much as anything else. There are less than 70 high school principals in the SDP - I assume they talk and that has an impact on site selection as well as personal and political connections of applicants. I've benefited and been hurt by the process. The current system of site selection with traditional placements is a compromise that maintains an element of civil service with allowing principals to "pick their team."

My biggest problem with administrators is their lack of experience - I've had too many principals and APs who taught at the most 5 - 6 years, often taught elementary school, and then are high school administrators. I'd like a system like New Zealand - no one can become an administrator until s/he has taught 15 years. We also need a system where administrators have to go back to the classroom, for at least one period a day, every 3 - 5 years.

I'm also a parent of 3 SDP children, none at Masterman or Central, so this is also personal. I'd like my children to have a mix of new and experience teachers with an administration that does more than "CYA." Just as I need to listen when a student(s) says, "this is crazy" or "you don't make sense," etc., hear him/her out and make changes, administrators have to be open to teachers questioning what is going on in a building and be open to make it an environment where learning and teaching can happen. 100% site selection increases the chance that a teacher who questions anything is "canned" - the constant threat of being written up for anything considered "insubordinate." This doesn't mean that teachers aren't also part of the problem but we ALL (not just the administration's "pals") have to be at the table with some clout. I've never experienced this balance between administration, staff, community groups and parents/guardians but I'm sure there are neighborhood (not magnet) schools in the U.S. where it is happening.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 29, 2009 9:10 am

I agree with Philly High School teacher that site selection as presently constituted gives the principal too much power and can lead to abuse. Some years ago the Cincinati Federation of Teachers negotiated a version of site selection in which teachers selected by the building committee had an equal say in hiring. In the event of deadlock there was a higher joint committee that sought to resolve matters with an option for arbitration. This was intended not only as a check on principal cronyism but as a way of asserting the role of teachers as professionals who could effectively evaluate their peers.

In my experience an assertive Building Committee willing to work with the Principal for school improvement but prepared to stand up when teachers are bullied can make a difference.

I also think the point about many principals lacking teaching experience and needing to continue to do some teaching are good ones. I know some principals who help out by taking coverages or who will model best practices for struggling teachers. Effective instructional leaders practice what they preach. But principals also rightly complain that their capacity for instructional leadership is limited by an overload of administrative tasks having little to do with teaching and learning.

Submitted by Eric Braxton on June 29, 2009 2:43 pm

This was exactly my point.  Site selection is a good idea, but it only works where there is a good partnership between principals and teachers.  These partnerships are what make our schools work.  We need to figure out how to make more of them. 

Submitted by Philly HS teacher (not verified) on June 29, 2009 7:21 pm

I don't mean to diminish the pressures put on principals especially regarding paper work and other tasks. It would be great if CASA would negotiate for enough time for principals to be instructional leaders - to have time each week to teach a class. With the infusion of many more adults in empowerment schools (parent ombudsman, climate manager, etc.), this should be possible. As a teacher, I always have many things to learn. I assume it is the same for administrators. I often learn the most from students who question what we're doing, who let me know when I'm not clear and who provide suggestions. It also helps when a parent/guardian shares what makes their son/daughter "click." (As a parent, what makes my kids "click" can change on a daily basis but I at least know some of their "triggers.")

As far as what keeps "old head" teachers like me in a neighborhood school it is (1) collegiality and respect between administration and staff (not just teachers), (2) utilization of my skills beyond the classroom (yes, ask my advice, listen to my input and give me a group of staff to work with on x, y or z), (3) an environment which does NOT tolerate disrespect including cussing, threatening, mocking, etc. (student/teacher, teacher/teacher, student/student, administrator/teacher, parent/teacher, etc.), (4) being WELL informed about what is going on in the school and how we can impact change - not a school run by a small cabal of administrators/teachers who run on rumor and (5) a place where I feel challenged but not overwhelmed and my life outside of my job is respected (e.g. it is not assumed that I have given my life to the school and my children come second to my students).

I may be dreaming but there are teachers with proven experience (e.g. National Certification, student success in programs, etc.) who stay in neighborhood school classrooms. I assume more are teaching K-5 than 6 - 12. What usually keeps a people at a school are relationship. What drives us away is disrespect, disengagement, demoralization and cabals.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on July 1, 2009 12:29 am

There are a few reporters of the Inquirer and Daily News who are about as pro-district as the Notebook reporters...

They get their cue from 440..."The Reichschancellory"

The district loves to crow about Masterman...Philly is 6th in being the biggest city in America...yet Masterman comes in 66th place...66th place!

Big deal...I am impressed...the rest of the district bites, big time, nevertheless...and the public is going to know about it...sooner or the economy tightens...the fat cats at 440 are going to feel the pinch...hopefully, a few of them will be punished...

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on June 30, 2009 1:45 pm

Ok Eric,
Let's take this step by step, the 15 unsatisfactory teachers out of 10,000 is a figure that came from the administration. Remember Lerner told us that no principals were fired because they are so good! Right! Do you really believe what this administration has told you, especially Ackerman? She claimed that teachers couldn't be switched from one grade to another. That's outright crap. Teachers get bounced around from grade to grade according to the needs of the principal and that includes teaching grades they aren't certified to teach. Yes, there are lousy teachers in the Philly school district, but what makes a "lousy" teacher can often be up to the principal. There ARE MANY WAYS PHILADELPHIA "FIRES" TEACHERS so the 15 teachers nonsense is merely more propaganda. Ackerman has an agenda that has nothing to do with children first or being fair to teachers. She needs to be yanked out of her ivory tower and sent packing, just like every other city she invaded has done.
What is your figure for the amount of unsatisfoctory principals in the district? I've noticed that no one can answer my questions as to what has happen to former CASA president after he was arrested for allegedly stealing from his own union? How about answering the question about when teachers get to evaluate their own principals? No takers?
I disagree some people, teachers and principals, do need to be fired. When a principal steals from her staff and then tries to create incidents to cover up her crimes then fire her, if not have her arrested.
There is a double standard as to what happens to teachers compared to principals. Even that principal that was arrested for soliciting an undercover cop during a prostitution sting, was allowed to resign instead of being fired. Do you think a teacher would have been given that option?
I've tried to work "with the other side" only to be rebuffed. When I write to the CEO of the district and my confidential letter is turned back over to my principal (who then tries to use it against me) does that sound like this district is serious about changing its tune? What we need to see is the FBI running a perp walk out of 440. It's time for the city that "pays to play" got a good cleansing. We've continually asked for the district to publicly sit down with teachers and listen to us. Never happen. They schedule events on their own and then cancell them without telling anybody! Ackerman sets up these townhall meetings and then can't be bothered to show up at her own meetings! As my old man use to say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". The teachers of Philadelphia have been more than ready to work with the administration, but every time we volley the ball over to their side they keep it. When have teachers failed to be "open", Eric?

Submitted by El-Mekki (not verified) on July 1, 2009 10:49 pm

It is disheartening to read that there are so many problems with site selection. I found that to be an awesome and positive experience. We were able to hire top rated teachers with an aligned mission and collegial nature. The teachers who served on the site selection committee were as invested as I was and there were very few disagreements in how we rated our applicants.

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