Seeing opportunity in teacher talks
Activists want the new contract to tackle staffing inequities. Negotiations are in secret.
by Dale Mezzacappa
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.