November 24 — 3:26 pm, 2003

The case for school-based teacher selection

Should schools have the power to choose their teachers?

Philadelphia is one of a dwindling number of districts where both the hiring of teachers and their placement in schools is done by the district’s central office. New teachers in Philadelphia have little choice about their school assignment, and schools themselves have almost no control over which teachers are assigned to their school.

New positions and vacancies are generally filled by veteran teachers who have an automatic right to transfer to another school if they have seniority in the District, or by new recruits who usually know almost nothing about the school to which they are assigned.

Currently, only 31 of Philadelphia’s schools select their own teachers from a pool of new recruits whose credentials the District’s Office of Human Resources has screened and who have passed an initial interview. These schools have voted for "site selection" by a two-thirds vote of the teachers, a process allowed by the teachers’ union contract with District. Personnel committees made up of teachers and a parent (and a student or an assistant principal in high schools) select new teachers in consultation with the principal.

Most principals in Philadelphia want site selection to be expanded to all schools in the District. In a 2003 survey, 61 percent of Philadelphia’s principals expressed their support for site selection, choosing it as one of the two most-needed changes from a list of eight possible reforms.

There are many good reasons why site selection should be applied to all of the District’s schools and should be written into the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement that will be re-negotiated in 2004. These reasons include:

  • Development of a cohesive, trusting school culture. New teachers should accept positions in schools where they want to work, and principals and veteran teachers should choose staff whose philosophies and skills match the culture and needs of the school. Student achievement in high-poverty schools is much more likely to rise when teachers coalesce as a community of like-minded professionals.
  • Attracting teachers to high-poverty schools. As we have seen with some of the current site-selection schools, high-poverty schools can actively “sell” the advantages of working there. When candidates actually go into well-run schools in a low-income neighborhood, they are often pleased and surprised at the positive environment for teaching.
  • Closer scrutiny of qualifications. With site selection of teachers, hiring could operate much more like it does in suburban districts where prospective teachers are asked about their interests, skills, and experiences and are often asked to teach a demonstration lesson.
  • Choosing those with prior experience in the school. Site-selection schools often fill vacancies with their student teachers, long-term substitutes, or Literacy Interns who already have a good track record in the school and want to be there.
  • Timely hiring. Most new teachers aren’t hired until mid- or late summer or even after school starts, partly because they can’t be placed until all the veteran teacher transfers get their first pick of schools. Because site-selection schools aren’t hemmed in by transfer rules, their new teachers are usually hired weeks earlier than other new teachers and are thus better able to plan for their classes and set up their classrooms in advance.
  • Making real principal accountability possible. It is unfair to hold school principals accountable for student performance when they have no control over who teaches in their school. (As one principal put it recently, "If you keep sending me rookies and marginal players, don’t ask me about my win-loss record.") Meaningful systems of principal accountability must go hand in hand with site selection of teachers.

As a former principal in Philadelphia, I was in the frustrating position of having to accept any teacher sent to me by Human Resources.

By contrast, in my position as a principal in a nearby suburban school, my staff and I were able to choose the teachers for that school. We were able to select teachers whose attitudes and abilities were a good fit with the school’s needs and culture, and the district’s superintendent could hold me accountable for the quality of the teachers we selected. This system, commonly accepted elsewhere, should be adopted in Philadelphia’s public schools.

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