Jordan: Our biggest fights are educational
As unions face criticism, the PFT's president addresses the hot-button issues and explains a shift in focus to school improvement.
by Dale Mezzacappa
Teacher unions in general, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in particular, have moved beyond a concentration on “bread and butter issues” to actively engage in education reform, according to PFT president Jerry Jordan.
“Our biggest fights are dealing with educational issues and what’s best for kids,” Jordan said in an interview.
Jordan, a onetime social studies teacher who was elected president of the PFT in February 2008 after more than 20 years as a staffer and officer, said that there is no evidence teacher unionization per se stands in the way of student performance.
Across the country, “in states and school districts that have unions that student performance is higher than it is in states that do not have teacher unions,” he said.
Jordan cited the PFT’s constant call for smaller class size, for in-house suspension rooms staffed by teachers, for libraries in every school, and for more pro-active policies against school violence and bullying as examples of the union’s educational focus.
The movie “Waiting for ‘Superman’” dramatized for the general public the long-held contention in some school reform circles that unions protect bad teachers and resist common-sense changes that could improve schools.
Jordan denied this is true. But he did acknowledge that there was a time when the PFT fought every effort to fire a teacher, regardless of the merits.
“In the past, this union took every termination case, for whatever reason, to arbitration,” he said. The grievance committee today, which he chairs, “review[s] every case…we get all of the background information before making a decision to go farther.” He said the practice changed at least 10 years ago.
What others call protecting bad teachers Jordan describes as guaranteeing due process – the long-held union position.
“They’re entitled to a hearing,” he said. “They’re entitled to have the principals make recommendations…to improve their practice….If a teacher is not doing well, if a teacher is harming children, the members of the PFT in that building don’t like it, and they speak out against it.”
Many viewers gasp at the data presented in the film that only one in 17,000 teachers is terminated for poor performance. Jordan said that the number is misleading because high percentages quit within five years – many of them, he said, because they know they aren’t being effective.
Just that day, he said, staff had told him of “a couple of schools where teachers have just resigned because they’re not being successful. They know it, and they decide to leave.”
Last year, the PFT negotiated a process called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), that provides new and struggling teachers with intervention – something the union has sought for 16 years, Jordan said.
Instead of being told to “sink or swim,” new teachers now get a consulting teacher who for the first year will give demonstration lessons, assist with classroom management, and help them manage their time. Experienced teachers having trouble can also be placed in the program. Jordan said he hopes PAR will help teachers improve and keep more in the profession.
For much of its history, the PFT had contentious relationships with city and District leaders. It developed a national reputation for lagging behind even its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, in seeking ways to improve education and hold teachers more accountable.
In 2001, Harrisburg stripped the PFT of some bargaining rights in the legislation that gave the state control of the city schools in 2001, with both Democrats and Republicans complaining of union intransigence.
In the time since, which has also seen the rise of the charter school movement, the union has accepted changes that wouldn’t have seemed possible in its early history.