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Teacher accountability - Can the administration and the union find some common ground?

By Ron Whitehorne on Aug 26, 2009 10:08 AM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Teachers return to the classroom soon, and talks continue during a two-month contract extension.

Here we have, in embryo, the nub of the differences between the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers:

“During the previous five years, the District had been offering an excellent education to some but not all Philadelphia students. Although incremental progress had been made in terms of student achievement, a large percentage of students still do not complete high school within six years and persistent participation and achievement “gaps” remain between students of different ethnicities, home languages, areas of residence, and program placement. At the same time, adults within the District were not always held accountable for protecting the core mission of the District – providing every student with an excellent and high-quality education."

--Arlene Ackerman, message on strategic plan

“...As teachers, we are held accountable for reaching and teaching all children, regardless of the myriad of factors that influence their academic success or failure. We, and no one else, are held accountable for raising test scores in classes whose sizes we can’t control, in schools that are falling apart, without enough books or computers and too often without the support of families.”

--Jerry Jordan, May issue of Reporter

If we approach these statements without prejudice, we have to admit that both sides have a point.  The system is shortchanging many, if not most of, its students. Teachers face enormous challenges, some of which are beyond their control. But these two statements also reveal the limits of these positions.

Ackerman points to the failure of adults. But she does not say which adults. In practice accountability is not equitably applied. Arguably the most responsible adults – the elected officials who control school funding and exercise great influence over school policy get a pass. Teachers are convenient  scapegoats.   

But, more importantly, the search for culpable adults ignores the systemic nature of the problem, namely institutionalized inequality that is so pervasive and has been with us so long that its seems normal. All participants in the school system in varying degrees, even when they have good intentions, contribute to what Pedro Noguera has called the “normalization of failure.” Change begins with this recognition. Instead of finger pointing we need an honest conversation between administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community leaders about what’s wrong and how to move forward. 

As for the PFT’s statement, it is certainly true that there are limits to what teachers control and the degree of accountability should reflect this. The PFT has also, to its credit, called for lower class size, more counseling, improved social services, and other things that would improve educational outcomes. But teachers do control some things, things that are an important part of the education equation. 

Individual teachers deliver instruction. Research shows pretty conclusively that how well they do it has a profound impact on student learning, particularly in relation to low income students of color. Moreover, teachers as a group exercise some significant power through collective bargaining.  

Too often, the recitation of all the problems urban students face becomes an argument against any meaningful form of teacher accountability. As so often is the case, the devil is in the details. Space does not permit a full discussion of important issues like forms of compensation, methods of evaluation, and the role of standardized test scores. What would be a step forward is for the administration to acknowledge that the PFT’s concerns about arbitrary treatment and the need for robust supports are legitimate and for the union to recognize that a higher standard for teacher performance is necessary. 

In the May issue of the Reporter PFT President Jerry Jordan’s lead article was entitled "Helping Children Succeed  is a Shared Responsibility."  Superintendent Ackerman responded positively saying in an address posted on the SD Web site: “I agree. Together we are responsible for student success, and together we will find ways to make that happen."

The call for shared responsibility is a good sign. Let’s hope it bears fruit.

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Comments (6)

Submitted by TopHeavyStaff (not verified) on August 26, 2009 6:25 pm

Great article in The New Yorker this week about teacher accountability in NYC: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_brill

Does Philly have rubber rooms and reserve-list teachers?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on August 26, 2009 7:32 pm

Yes,  this article poses the problem sharply.   Everyone concerned with this issue should read it.

Submitted by Hall Monitor (not verified) on August 26, 2009 6:40 pm

Tony Danza is the answer!

Check out http://detentionslip.org for all the crazy headlines about teacher problems.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 26, 2009 9:37 pm

Sad to see hate sites like detentionslip.org. being posted on the Notebook. Along with other hate sites like Jailed Teachers, Teachers and Trash Education and Teacher Crimes these sites are basically nothing more than haters who want to gin up negative images of teachers. They often contain news on principals too, but never use Principal as a website title. I think Teacher Crimes was pulled when it was pointed out that they were accusing teachers of crimes before they'd even been tried. Tony Danza seems to be Hate Monitor's speed.

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