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Commentary: BCG 'collective bargaining reform' and what it would mean for teachers

By Ron Whitehorne on Sep 4, 2012 06:13 PM

Among the recommendations in the recently released Boston Consulting Group report is a call that the District “undertake comprehensive collective bargaining reform” with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and, simultaneously, “pursue legislative changes” in the school code.

Taken together the “reforms” advocated in this document would roll back important protections that are afforded teachers under the school code and union contract.

Some of the language in the report, or to be more precise, the District’s summary of the report, is deliberately vague, but what is consistent is the extension of the authority of the administration and the erosion of traditional union rights that provide a degree of job security for teachers. Here are recommendations:

  • Leveraging the new state teacher evaluation framework to design multiple points of feedback to evaluate and develop teachers, such as principal and peer observations, student achievement data, and student feedback.
  • Rolling out full "site selection" for all school vacancies for instructional and non-instructional staff, enabling principals to choose which staff will fill all vacant positions in their buildings.      
  • Reforming the teacher transfer process, which enables teachers to select vacant positions in District schools in seniority order without the consent of principals.
  • Reforming teacher work rules that constrict the ability to manage school schedules, rosters, and teacher prep time in ways that maximize student learning.
  • Encouraging the state to reform teacher leave policies, which now allow significant paid and unpaid time off during the school year, resulting in interrupted student learning and large required payments to substitute teachers.
  • Encouraging the state to create a longer track, with more significant performance requirements, to teacher tenure.
  • Encouraging the state to use teacher performance—not seniority—as the basis for determining teacher layoffs.

Echoing the talking points of corporate school reform, the BCG argues that these reforms are essential if the District is “to implement a world-class talent-management strategy and become a true magnet for high-performing principals, teachers, and staff.” How these changes would achieve this lofty goal, however, is left to the imagination.

Parents and education advocates have a legitimate interest in the outcome of contract negotiations and, historically, have challenged both the union and the administration to find solutions that will improve education outcomes. That’s fair, and the union needs to be willing to enter into those discussions.

The union has shown in recent years a greater capacity than in the past to respond positively to the concerns of community stakeholders. In the last contract, for example, the PFT negotiated an ambitious series of provisions that provided more support for struggling teachers and an expedited process for getting them out of classrooms if they failed to improve.

But it is hard to find good solutions when one side seems to be determined to render the other side impotent.

It’s also hard to find solutions when the District is committed to budget austerity. For example, in the past, both sides have recognized that incentives were needed to get more experienced teachers into high-poverty schools. This is unlikely in today’s fiscal climate. Indeed, many teachers suspect that the District will look for cost savings by hiring teachers at the bottom of the salary ladder, as many charters now do.    

The SRC has said that these are only recommendations and that they are not bound by them, but there seems little doubt that these items approximate what they want. Their preference, judged by their behavior, would be to do away with collective bargaining and simply impose a contract, but, for the moment, that is not an option, thanks to the whistleblowing by some Democratic legislators in Harrisburg.

If all these things were realized through a combination of legislative action and bullying at the bargaining table – rather than good-faith talks about such important issues as how to truly improve teacher support and evaluation – what would it mean for teachers?

The clearest implication concerns job security. Teachers at schools that now are targeted for restructuring as Renaissance Schools are treated as forced transfers, unless they are rehired by that school, and they then can choose another position. With these changes, their seniority would mean nothing, and they would, effectively, be fired. They would be in the same position as new hires who would have to apply for a job via site selection. Dedicated teachers with years of service at “low-performing” schools could be punished by losing their jobs. How this kind of shoddy treatment will attract teachers to make a career in challenging urban schools is a real head-scratcher.

This will impact many more teachers in the next year with 40-odd schools targeted for closure. These teachers too, by virtue of teaching in older buildings with declining enrollment, would lose any advantage that comes from seniority.

The attack on tenure and the call for laying off teachers based on performance rather than seniority is another familiar theme that has profound implications. “Performance” is mainly about standardized test scores, always a dubious metric, but even more so after the revelations about pervasive tampering and cheating. But putting this aside, in the context of budget austerity, administrators would be looking for way to get rid of costly senior teachers, as well as those pesky activists who might challenge their authority.

Of course, the primary consideration for the SRC is what policies are likely to improve educational outcomes. But this discussion typically goes on without any reference to the implications for attracting and sustaining a professional cadre of teachers.  

How about we recognize that teacher morale and job satisfaction, which is related to job security, are part of the equation for creating a sustainable system of public education? How about we stop attacking teachers for demanding they be treated fairly and equitably? How about we recognize that good-faith collective bargaining that respects unions as partners in creating good schools needs to be part of the mix?   

Our students, particularly our students in high-poverty, under-resourced schools, need committed, skilled teachers who are prepared to make a career of being in classrooms.

On Sept. 21 and 22, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating For Public Schools (PCAPS), an alliance of teachers, students, parents and community organizations,  will be holding a conference to kick off a process for developing a community-based plan to improve our schools. Looking at the question of collective bargaining and its relationship to genuine school reform will be part of the agenda.

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Comments (25)

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on September 4, 2012 8:40 pm

Well done. The truth is that we are responsible for Corbett being in Harrisburg. Sitting on our butts rather than voting has created this mess, at least in PA. Hopefully, if we can survive this attempted hostile takeover, we shall have hopefully learned a valuable lesson. The SRC is a bought and paid for disgrace as is Nutter who knows he has our citizens in his pocket due to the alternatives.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 4, 2012 10:25 pm

The Boston Consulting Group has essentially put forth an ideological work. It is a product for those who paid for them to write it and reflects their ideology and the ideology of those who seek to privatize education. They seek to profit themselves.

It is definitely a politically biased work. It is purely an opinion with little substantiation with research or facts. It clearly reflects their political biases and those of PSP and the William Penn Foundation as led by Jeremy Nowak.

It does not even serve the interests of the true charter schools led by such innovators as Lawrence Jones or Naomi Booker, etc. It just promotes the privatized versions of schools.

What they propose to do is not really legal under the laws of PA. They attempt to circumvent the Sunshine ACT and the participatory due process requirements of decision-making of public organizations.

I wouldn't expect them to have much knowledge about how the 14th Amendment works, but I would expect them to know a little bit about how democracy works.

But what is sad to me is that it is destructive and will not improve what we do for children. It will just improve the profit margin of businessmen.

That is not what the charter school movement was originally supposed to be. It was originally about teachers and community members being given the opportunity to do some innovative things and take control of the learning program at schools.

It is time for the Philadelphia school community to rise and be heard. It is Great to see leaders emerge from within our community like those who are leading the coalition.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 4, 2012 10:30 pm

When the Archdiocese was looking at possible closure of some high schools, they agreed that teachers would be retained according to years of service, not which school they happened to be at. Is the BCG proposing that public school teachers would have fewer rights than Catholic teachers?

Principal autonomy is one of the most frightening ideas the SDP has come up with. Favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism have been creeping back into the system. We have all seen it.

Thanks, Ron. We really have got to stop this thing.

Lisa Haver

Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 6:04 am

Weird. And here I thought that not all district schools are the same, and it's impossible to compare teachers at magnet schools in Center City to neighborhood schools in the Badlands based on student test scores.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 6:01 am

why are the charter teachers not unionized? wouldn't it benefit pft to rally them together?

Submitted by change needed! (not verified) on September 5, 2012 7:14 am

All of the School District Employees should combine all the different unions into one. The we'd see who would bully who!

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on September 5, 2012 8:27 am


"why are the charter teachers not unionized? wouldn't it benefit pft to rally them together?"


Yes it would but the charter school operators, aided by the state legislature, have erected powerful obstacles in their way.    By law charter school employees cannot belong to the PFT and each charter school must be organized separately.   To thwart unionization charters typicallly delay a representation election until the end of the school year and then simply do not rehire union supporters, who as "at will" employees are vulnerable to this tactic.   We should be demanding the SRC respect the right of charter school employees to organize and engage in collective bargaining.   Failure to do so should result in revoking a school's charter.


In spite of these obstacles a growing number of school have been organized by the Alliance of Charter School Employees, sponsored by the AFT of Pennsylvania.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 9:51 am

thanks for info

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 8, 2012 2:03 pm

Kind of a conflict of interest, dont you think as their is a clear preferene by PFT against charter schools. Charter teachers would have to be crazy to let the PFT rep them.

Maybe a different union dedicated only to charter teachers.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on September 8, 2012 3:02 pm

The Association of Charter School Employees is a distinct union and not part of the PFT so I'm not sure what your point is.  One union for all teachers in the city would maximize our power.  There could be a separate contracts to take into account the differences as there are now with unionized charters.   A master contract could deal with wages and benefits.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 9:15 am

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary and for pointing out the gap between the recommendations and the outcomes BCG claims will result from implementing them. Their logic is a field of bad dreams: "if you dismantle it, they will come"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 2:51 pm

While I agree the devil is always in the details and I don't want to see anyone lose their jobs, the fact is, enrollment in district-run schools is declining. As district schools are necessarily closed, layoffs will follow. I, for one, am sick of seeing case after case where the excellent third year teacher is being laid off while scores of "veteran" (but bad) teachers remain, perpetuation the FALSE stereotype that Philadelphia teachers don't care and are ineffective. Anyone who is serious about educating children in 2012 realizes that what BCG is proposing, even if it's based solely on Principal's whim in hiring and firing, forces ALL teachers to step up their game and that IS good for children. As for the teachers who lose their positions at Renaissance Charters, most good ones should have no trouble successfully interviewing for the vacancies created at other district schools as principals finally have the freedom to shed their "dead weight." It won't be a perfect system and in some cases good teachers will lose their jobs - just like the current seniority-based system. But teachers who remain would remain only because they are effective members of the organization - much like every other profession in the world.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on September 5, 2012 4:56 pm

In ten years, by your rationale, the third year "good" teacher will be "bad" and obsolete in ten or twenty years. This privatization has nothing to do with "good" teachers, it is about cutting costs and profit for the owners.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 4:27 pm

Every profession has "dead weight".

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 9:02 am

True, but virtually no other profession of college-educated professionals PROTECTS that dead weight with seniority-based entitlement.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 11:57 am

It's not the teacher's union that supports bad teachers. It's the administration that refuses to do their job to get rid of them. Talk to me when you have 20 years of teaching in and they want to fire you because you make too much. You are totally missing the point.

Submitted by JL (not verified) on September 5, 2012 11:22 pm

Yes teachers would have to step up their game, the question though is which "game" are we talking about? It's only good for kids if we can count on principals to evaluate and retain teachers truly based on their work quality... can we? In the current state of many schools, the "game" that would need to step up in order to be evaluated favorably would be foot-kissing, pandering and supporting the principal's every whim. Anyone who goes against the grain or fights for anything different (even in students' best interests) will immediately be "unsatisfactory" without union protections.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on September 5, 2012 3:22 pm

I think your confidence in the wisdom of principals, the District, and the BCG is sorely misplaced.   If you read the whole BCG report it is clear that their approach to teaching and learning is not to promote professionalism but cut costs.   Besides their collective bargaining proposal there is a section that recommends replacing hands on teaching with web based learning, much of it borrowed from cyber schools.   Stripped of union protection, "good" teachers will be those who conform and adapt well to a regimen of larger classes, fewer resources, and, top down mandates.

Also, while we all can think of cases off good teachers who were laid off and less effective but more senior teachers who stayed, I think your generalization is unwarranted and unsupported by research.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 5:45 pm

Nepotism is alive and well in the SDP and charters. If principals have hiring/firing power, any teacher who asks questions, doesn't hang with the right group, is not a member of the right group, etc. will be a "bad" teacher in the mind of the principal. There are many shenanigans going on already. The union is the only protection against an all powerful principal.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2012 9:49 am

There is no question that such a system would rely heavily on having effective principals, clearly not what we have in every case in Philadelphia currently. (I would argue this is a compelling reason that they, too, should be stripped of seniority-based union protection.) I have been with the District for over 17 years and the majority of SDP teachers are "good" and dedicated to their students. My constant frustration throughout my career has been that I felt like my colleagues and I had our reputations constantly marred by the 10% of teachers who are lousy and should leave the profession.
BCG's report is absolutely focused on saving money. The financial crisis is why they are here. But if we could get rid of that 10% of poorly performing teachers, our budgets would be balanced and our students would be receiving more effective instruction. And that should be everyone's bottom line.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2012 6:11 pm

Principal autonomy is particularly worrisome considering the incompetence of a significant number of them.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2012 6:10 pm

All the site-selection vacancies at a particular school were filled before the system was officially opened. Nepotism is alive and well. Unless you are the neighbor, cousin, former grade partner, best friend's wife, you do not have a chance. The teachers hired all had a connection to the principal or were one of his inner-circle. The part of the general public who thinks site-selection is an honest fair way to hire the best teacher for the job is surely misguided. It is not a random occurrence either. It is happening all over the district. Just one more system corrupted.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 8, 2012 10:22 am

I went on an interview for a sight selection position when I was fifty years old. I had gone through PD training with many members of the selection committee and was familiar with many others who were teaching at the school already. They were the ones who notified me of the opening. After a two hour interview in front of nine people, I received a few congratulatory hand shakes. Three days later, I was told the position went to someone else. I asked one of my friends who was in on the interview process what didn't they like about me. Without hesitation, he said "Your age." I was fifty and the person who got the job was 24 They rationalized that I was close to an age most teachers would retire and they could get a lot more years out of the other candidate. So when someone says that good teachers would have no problem finding new positions, that someone needs a lesson on how the real world works these days. It is a bottom line business and discrimination happens all the time.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 8, 2012 10:42 am

Similar thing happened to me. Only difference is the candidate they chose had been my student teacher a few years earlier. The site selection committee had a number of the other candidates friends. Some older teachers won't even get interviews. As you wrote, workers over 50 have a much harder time finding new work. Age bias is live and well - especially in education. (I guess those in power assume we should all be like them - administrators - rather than respecting those who devote decades to working with teachers in the classroom.)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on September 8, 2012 1:33 pm

Thanks for these valuable stories.   It underlines the need for an independent study of how site selection is actually working.   I would be interested in writing a blog post on this.  

If anyone is willing to be interviewed please contact me.  

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