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Guest blog: Site selection victory in contract

By Guest blogger on Jan 26, 2010 12:54 PM

Welcome to the guest blogger section of the Notebook blog.

This week's post comes from Jonathan Cetel, who is a regional organizer with Good Schools Pennsylvania and serves as a consultant to the Teacher Action Group. He previously taught middle years reading and social studies in the Olney section of Philadelphia. 

In the midst of our collective efforts to digest all of the reforms proposed in the new teacher contract, let’s take a moment to celebrate two clear and decisive victories: the expansion of site selection in the lowest-performing schools and the modification of the site selection process. 

Effective immediately in the District’s roughly 90 high-needs schools, all teachers will be hired through site selection committees comprised of the principal, at least three teachers selected by the Building Committee, one parent chosen by the Home and School Association, and one Vice-Principal and/or student in high schools. The principal must reach consensus with the committee on a hiring decision; if no consensus is reached, the principal must choose from the top three candidates, as ranked by the committee.

Philadelphia has long served as an outlier among large urban districts in its inability to abandon the practice of assigning teachers to schools through a central office according to seniority. In this system, teachers with the most seniority get to select the school they will work, and new teachers often enter classrooms having never met the principal. When I received my placement, I walked into the main office, asked the secretary if the principal was available, handed him a note from HR and said, “Hi, My name is Jonathan Cetel. I’m your new reading teacher.” 

While expanding site selection appears to be a no-brainer for people outside of education (imagine a business leader unable to hire his/her own staff), it remains a sensitive and complex issue for teachers. 

Consider the fact that the previous contract allows schools to use site selection if 2/3 of the teachers voted in favor of it. Only 58 of the District’s schools approved it. Such overwhelming opposition to site selection is often interpreted to mean that teachers have broad support for the seniority system, but something else is clearly at play.

Members of the Teacher Action Group provided the answer by explaining that a vote against site selection is really a vote of no confidence in the principal. Horror stories abound of principals assembling the site selection process to rubber-stamp all hires, resulting in decisions motivated by nepotism, cronyism, and even racial discrimination. The old contract language did not spell out a consensus model for making site selection hires. Teachers simply didn’t trust principals and wanted real power to influence the hiring decisions.

These teachers concluded that site selection, if designed correctly, can unify a staff around a common vision and even attract effective teachers to hard-to-staff schools. That’s exactly what happened at TAG member Patrick Kennison’s school, an empowerment middle school on the persistently dangerous list. Few, if any, teachers voluntarily transfer to his school.  

Last year, however, its staff approved site selection and hired a talented veteran teacher. Patrick believes the teacher chose his school because she got an opportunity to see past the stigma associated with its status as an empowerment school. Further, she, and other new hires felt inspired by the ambitious vision for the school expressed by enthusiastic teachers and administrators on the site selection committee.

With an estimated 70-90% of all vacant slots to now be filled through site selection and new language that empowers teachers in the process, I anticipate hearing more inspiring stories like Patrick’s and fewer horror stories about principals’ abuse of the system. 

Site selection is no panacea: however, it is a major step in the right direction towards distributing leadership and creating a shared vision among staff.  Still, let’s be clear: if site selection isn’t combined with additional reforms that improve working conditions, the lowest-performing schools will continue to struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers. In order to make these critical improvement, it’s essential that Pennsylvania maintain a commitment to an effective system of education finance that supports struggling schools in accessing much needed resources. 

To learn more about the Teacher Action Group or to find out how you can help advocate for the maintenance of the new school funding formula, please contact Jonathan Cetel at

The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post. We're just launching this feature so feedback and suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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Comments (2)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 26, 2010 11:18 pm

Before becoming a teacher, I worked in other realms in the field of education and supported increased site-based selection in Philadelphia. After going through the hiring process last spring and summer I came to a conclusion I never expected--the completely confusing, complicated system of half site selection positions and half traditional positions with separate parallel processes was the best model given the current realities in Philadelphia. I witnessed or experienced incompetent principals damage their school by using site selection capriciously, an overworked principal scrambling to take advantage of site selection (I actually informed her of the deadline when she asked me to interview after the deadline), and a principal using site selection to build a collegial staff with similar teaching philosophies. Sadly, in my opinion, there is an even greater shortage of good principals than there is of good teachers. Until there are more good principals, the half and half system balanced the good principals could do against the harm they could do. While the contract spells out more clearly the role for collaboration, that is not enough to convince me that is what will really happen. I know principals who break the teachers' contract regularly and it is difficult to achieve consequences for the principal unless it is something like performance evaluation. I also wonder if principals will refuse to offer positions to candidates if they disagree with the committee. We will have to wait and see how it plays out, but I no longer view it as the clear victory I would have touted the new contract as a few years ago.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 27, 2010 9:01 am

An important point.   Teachers, and parents as well, who want  a more effective process   are going to need to get involved and monitor and evaluate how it works at their school.   The District has to develop a transparent monitoring process and hold principals accountable for how they select staff.   Currently there is little in the way of data to evaluate how site selection is being employed.

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