A conversation with Jerry Jordan
Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa interviewed Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan at the union’s headquarters, Nov. 6.
NOTEBOOK: If you could make a film about education in Philadelphia, how would it be different from “Waiting for ‘Superman’”?
JORDAN: The very biggest difference will be that I would focus on all of the good work that’s going on in our public schools, our traditional public schools. Waiting for Superman focused on charter schools and the desire of parents to get their children into charter schools for whatever reason. However, in Philadelphia, we have a number of really, really fine schools. And parents and children enjoy attending those schools. The work that teachers do every day is remarkable. We have so many kids who are able to go on to a world of work, as well as to higher ed, as a result of getting a really, really wonderful education in Philadelphia schools. Waiting for Superman did not focus on one public school or one teacher who works in a traditional public school. To me, the movie did not present a good balance of education, public education in the United States.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think teachers unions have outlived their usefulness, as the film implies?
JORDAN: When you look across the country, in states and school districts that have unions, student performance is higher than it is in states that do not have teacher unions. I think it’s because the teacher unions advocate for so many of the things that teachers know and parents know that children need. Also, the vast majority of the charter schools in the country are not unionized. And if you look at the latest data, the press recently pointed out that only 20% of those schools are working and are doing [better than comparable public schools]. So, therefore, 80% of them are [doing the same as or worse than] the public schools. And they don’t have teacher unions, for the most part, very, very few.
NOTEBOOK: The main charge that the movie makes is that unions protect bad teachers, when you see that little graphic he did about dance of the lemons. What is your answer to the idea that unions protect bad teachers?
JORDAN: I disagree with that. And I can speak specifically about the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Our members have told us that they are not happy when a teacher is not pulling his or her weight in a school. What unions do, and have a responsibility of doing, is making sure that teachers receive due process. But teachers who may be struggling, they deserve to be given assistance. And that is the role of the union, to ask for the help for those teachers. And if, ultimately, after receiving the support, if teachers are not successful, then they basically have to be counseled out and go into another profession.
NOTEBOOK: One statement in the film that brought gasps from the audience was that something like one in ten or fifteen doctors lose their licenses and a similar percentage of lawyers but only one in 17,000 teachers.
JORDAN: I don’t know how he gathered his data. And once again, I’ll speak specifically about Philadelphia. There are X number of teachers who may very well have been rated unsatisfactory and/or terminated. However, what he didn’t tell in the movie is about the number of teachers who leave the profession voluntarily. We had a staff meeting today. And a couple of the staff shared with me a couple of schools where teachers have just resigned because they’re not being successful. They know it, and they decide to leave. I know before the last few years, we had hired about 1,000 teachers [each year] yet retirements were only about 400.
NOTEBOOK: What kind of changes have you seen over the course of your PFT career in terms of how teachers who aren’t doing well are actually handled?