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Summer 2009 Vol. 16. No. 4 Focus on Teacher Excellence

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Seeing opportunity in teacher talks

Activists want the new contract to tackle staffing inequities. Negotiations are in secret.

By by Dale Mezzacappa on May 20, 2009 02:26 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Shanee Garner is a first-year English teacher at Bartram High School. Teacher contract talks are an opportunity to address how to provide adequate supports and incentives to retain good teachers at high-need schools.

Public and private statements from School District leaders indicate that they are seeking a significant overhaul of the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) as a way to tackle stubborn issues that have troubled activists and reformers for years.

The talks this year are taking place under both national and local pressure to improve overall teacher quality, assign teachers to schools where they are most needed, revamp teacher evaluation and professional development, tie compensation to performance, and stop the tide of teachers who leave within the first few years on the job.

Partly due to high turnover, the District says it will need to hire 1,024 new teachers for September. Data shows that 30 to 40 schools lose one-third of their teachers each year.

Along with the District, the union includes teacher retention as one of its goals. But it has differed sharply on other items, particularly compensation that is tied to teacher performance rather than being based primarily on longevity and education.

Despite pleas from activists to keep the public more informed and engaged, neither the District nor union leaders are speaking publicly about their overall goals and priorities in the contract talks. They also won’t say how often the two sides are meeting or whether any progress is being made.

A coalition of activists working under the Education First Compact and the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign for School Reform is pushing the two sides to figure out better ways to make sure that all students are exposed to good teaching on a consistent basis.

The campaign, called Effective Teaching for All Children: What It Will Take, is advocating for significant incentives and supports to get teachers to work and stay in the highest-poverty schools.

Along with that, a campaign priority is full site selection of teachers, in which all vacancies are filled at the school level, with real decision-making power in the hands of a leadership team rather than just with the principal.

Now, schools can use full site selection only with approval by a vote of school staff. At other schools, half the vacancies are filled through seniority-based transfers, and that complex process contributes to delays in teacher hiring.

“Schools and communities across the city face challenges in creating an effective teaching workforce,” said Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a leader of the teacher quality campaign. “A part of what we need to do is empower schools to develop visions and develop staffs that can live up to those visions.”

Armstead said the District has indicated they support “just about everything in the campaign.” He added, “The union actually is in support of a vast majority of things. The sticking point for them is site selection,” which cuts too deeply into teacher seniority rights and, as it’s done now, gives too much power to principals.

Besides incentives to work in hard-to-staff schools and full site selection, the campaign is calling for a better evaluation system and performances standards for teachers and principals (see Teacher evaluation system has lots of critics) “that are aligned with student success,” and professional development that promotes a “culture of collaboration” in schools.  

The current contract specifies that teachers are not required to attend any professional development outside of what is scheduled as part of the regular workday.

The union is currently working under a one-year contract because Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who arrived at this time last year, said there wasn’t enough time to resolve major issues. The PFT – prevented from striking by state law – reluctantly agreed.

Wages and benefits

The PFT contract expires on August 31. Historically, the District and union rarely settle before the last minute, with the major sticking points coming down to wages and benefits. These usually track what is given to municipal unions, and this year, Mayor Nutter has put no extra funds in his proposed budget for raises for city workers.

The District is not in as dire financial straits as the city, however, especially if an expected infusion of federal stimulus funds arrives. (see Stimulus funding boost is not a sure thing)

Nutter also would not comment through his chief education advisor, Lori Shorr, on what he would like to see a new teachers’ contract accomplish.

But through examining the District’s reform blueprint, Imagine 2014, and compiling various public statements of Ackerman and others, it is clear that leaders would like to move towards performance pay, a longer school day and year, better evaluations, more comprehensive professional development, earlier deadlines on teacher transfers, and expansion of schools’ ability to choose teachers through site selection.

Officials have also said they want teachers to sign individual contracts, requiring them to inform the District in a timely fashion of pending retirements or resignations.

Imagine 2014, while it includes several items that would have to be negotiated, omits a call for full site selection, even though work groups that helped develop the plan recommended it. The union agreed to hire half the positions at every school through site selection in 2004 after the SRC publicly made it a priority.

Phase One of Imagine 2014 does include an item calling for “financial incentives for high performance among individuals through differentiated salary increases,” and simplified mechanisms for removing poor performers. (see Ackerman: Reward high-performing teachers with more pay)

Broad powers

Right or wrong, policymakers who engineered the state takeover of the District in 2001 blamed contractual restrictions for lack of meaningful changes and gave the newly created School Reform Commission broad powers to unilaterally impose terms.

For instance, the law says the SRC “is not required to engage in collective bargaining negotiations” regarding “staffing patterns and assignments, class schedules, academic calendar, places of instruction, pupil assessment, and teacher preparation time.” In other words, the District could unilaterally end seniority-based teacher assignment if it chose.

Previous school leaders have decided not to use this power and to bargain around these issues anyway, considering the move counterproductive, politically unpalatable, and likely to be challenged in court. Ackerman, however, has hinted she might use the so-called “nuclear option,” particularly to implement her turnaround plan for up to 35 underperforming schools that could involve starting over with a new staff.

Ackerman noted at a press briefing that the law gives her the power to reassign teachers at will.

To learn more about the  “What Will It Take” campaign, visit

About the Author

Contact Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa at

Comments (15)

Submitted by Union Member (not verified) on May 28, 2009 8:04 pm

With more than 1,000 vacancies, the union is in a position of power. If our representives cave in on issues like health care, they need to be voted out during the next set of PFT elections.

As for performance-based pay, does anyone think it's fair to judge a teacher of middle-class children whose parents send them to school every day with pencils, notebooks and the message that learning is important to a teacher whose students come into school without breakfast or school supplies (although most have playstations) and whose parents don't require them to do their homework? If you want to see a mass educator exodus, judge teachers on their classes' PSSA scores with no mind to how far behind those students were when they walked through the doors in September.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on May 29, 2009 1:04 am

There unquestionably are a lot of issues about tying pay to test scores.

But the proposals for performance pay that have been getting the most traction would not judge teachers on their classes' PSSA scores (no matter how far behind they started). What's more commonly supported by advocates of performance pay ist looking at "value added" and  systems that would reward teachers whose students gain the most ground during the school year.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on May 29, 2009 11:00 am

But value added has problems too. Then you run into schools focusing on "bubble kids." And it makes sense; the kids who are closest to being on grade level are going to be easier to work with and are going to show more extensive gains than students who need much more intensive help and who, even with that help, will show comparitively little "growth" on tests.

And that doesn't even get into the issue of how you can judge the English teacher on improvements when the student may have really improved by some involved work in Social Studies class.

I don't think these are reasons to throw your hands up and say you can't track anything, but without accounting for hundreds of nuances and variables it's not going to be fair or reliable--and may end up giving yet another incentive to leave the kids in greatest need behind.

Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on June 10, 2009 6:06 am

Judging teachers on "value added" would be fine by me, but unfortunately, that's a fantasy. Any teacher in any school can tell you that the only thing that matters to this administration is PSSA scores and the benchmarks that predict them. Principals tore their staffs apart this year during one particular phase of benchmarks, only to learn that this particular benchmark company was more to blame than the teachers (the content didn't match the teaching timeline and some of the questions didn't have the appropriate answers, at least in one particular grade). The district is now going to another testing company, but the point is, the primary judge of a teacher's abilities is PSSA's and the benchmarks that predict their outcome. Special Ed and ESOL students are expected to do as well as any other student on these tests, which puts those who teach them at risk in a performance based pay system.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on May 30, 2009 11:52 am

How can the PFT be "voted out during the next set of PFT elections". The election is rigged, there are no voting machines, but just paper ballots that are mailed into the PFT. Gee, I wonder why nothing changes? Did you hear anything from or about the opposition running against Jerry Jordan in the last election. The only name to oppose him was the one I saw on the actual ballot the day I voted. Nothing more than a plant so the PFT can pretend it was a 'FAIR" election. No debates, no rival publicity, Business as usual. Ever try to get a direct number to your union rep. or have them put anything in writing? How come the PFT has deemed chapter meetings at schools worthless? They can't even be bothered to listen once every couple of months to the very members that put money into their pockets? Just like politicians they don't think they have to answer to anybody anymore.

I do agree that the PFT has a position of power with all the vacancies opening up through the district of Philadelphia. The restoration of NTAs in classrooms during Guided Reading Time; having someone else to individually test students with tests like WRAPS and such is necessary; restoring accomodations rooms and inhouse suspensions; making administrators report all infractions by students and using ADEQUATE PUNISHMENTS for serious offenses (any administrator using an "overnight suspension" should be immediately fired) are some of the issues the PFT needs to hold the 440 crowd to changing. Stop playing politics.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on May 31, 2009 5:28 pm

There is no evidence that PFT elections are rigged. What is a problem is that the practice of slate voting means the winner takes all positions which over almost three decades has been the incumbent CB slate. Since people are slated for Executive Committee positions based on agreement with the slate's program or loyalty to the leadership the result is little diversity or dissent. There have been various opposition slates over the years and in many instances received substantial support (40% of the vote in some elections) but captured not a single position.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on May 31, 2009 7:55 pm

When the same group has won for three decades there is something very wrong. Maintaing the status quo has worked well for both the PFT and the 440 crowd. What opposition? Nobody even knew who the opposition person was that ran against Jerry Jordan. I suggest everyone on this site check in with Substance News out in Chicago for what is happening to tenured teachers. They have principals out there that have been trained to go after teachers with tenure and the teachers union is often helping them get rid of these teachers!?!? Do you think the Ackerman crowd isn't taking notice of what is going on out there. We need a union that's not afraid to fight. They have been told to "out" prinicpals and other administrators that have harassed their staffs, misused school funds, etc., but the PFT just make excuses for why they can't ever do anything for their members. If they don't want to fight it's time for them to step aside. Three decades of the same people running show is enough "evidence" for me that things are rigged. It is crucial for Philadelphia public teachers to wakeup to what is going on throughout this city.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on May 31, 2009 8:48 pm

Is it really a union? It can't shares its offices with the district...

The union is just one pea in the pod and shares it with the Philly School District...

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 1, 2009 9:05 am

Recent history has hardly been kind to the PFT which has seen declining membership, influence and power. To put all this on the leadership doesn't help us understand what's going on. Unions are on the defensive generally and teacher unions have been targeted by right wing education "reform" forces. How the unions and the PFT in particular have responded to these attacks should be the focus of debate.

Part of the problem is the decline of rank and file involvement in the union at the building level. Many PFT members see the union as a service organization in which PFT staff will come and fix their problems. But the contract and the grievance procedure is not a substitute for an organized membership prepared to assert its rights. Without strong chapters at the building level contract enforcement will be spotty even with the best intentioned union staff.

With the generation that built the PFT largely retired, rapid turnover of staff and many newer teachers with little experience of unionism building this kind of organization is difficult. The union leadership is hardly unaware of the problem. But addressing it, at least in my view, requires an infusion of democracy and a change in staff practice from a service model to one that seeks mobilization of membership.

The PFT is all of us and fixing it is all of our responsibility.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 1, 2009 8:51 pm

Ron Whitehorse...according to Dr. Ackerman...most of the problems...are the fault of the teachers...

Get rid of the teachers...and you get rid of the problems...

Ja Wohl, Doktor Ackerman!

Submitted by chattyC (not verified) on June 23, 2009 9:56 pm

If you want to see a mass educator exodus, judge teachers on their classes' PSSA scores with no mind to how far behind those students were when they walked through the doors in September >>

I say if teachers in Philadelpha are paid according to how well students do, our unemployment lines may go through the roof! I like the word "incentive" rather than "merit pay", because it's positive, and not punitive. There have been lots of negative comments lately in the press about teachers, so as great communicators and thinkers, we need to turn that around.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 29, 2009 3:36 pm

Erika least we have established under Dr. Ackerman...that any problems academically in the the teachers' fault...I say...and Dr. Ackerman is a firm believer...that the buck stops with the teachers...they are responsible for the ills and failures in the classroom...

Submitted by chattyC (not verified) on June 23, 2009 10:11 pm

EXCELLENT POINT by Whitehorne I can't count how many times I've heard, "the union does nothing for me". WE are the union, we have good ideas, and TRUE, the old timers can be of great help to the newer teachers, who are basically concerned about hanging in there ,and their paychecks. The old guard took center stage at the PFT rally, and did a great job with their comments and suggestions.


Part of the problem is the decline of rank and file involvement in the union at the building level. >>>Without strong chapters at the building level contract enforcement will be spotty even with the best intentioned union staff.

With the generation that built the PFT largely retired, rapid turnover of staff and many newer teachers with little experience of unionism building this kind of organization is difficult. The union leadership is hardly unaware of the problem. But addressing it, at least in my view, requires an infusion of democracy and a change in staff practice from a service model TO ONE that seeks mobilization of membership.The PFT is all of us and fixing it is all of our responsibility.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2009 2:18 pm

Since this article was published (sometime this summer), the District has gone through a hiring process and the word is there are very few vacancies this year. Partly, that is thanks to the tough stand taken about signing those teacher contracts; it gave the schools the first real idea of how many teachers were returning in many years.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on August 19, 2009 3:00 pm

Do you have any more details about this that you could share? Feel free to email me privately at Sounds like a great issue to follow up on. Thanks for the update.

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