Site selection of teachers now in place at 31 schools
Whether to give individual schools, rather than central administration, the power to select their own teachers has emerged as a hot issue in the debate on improving teacher quality in large urban school districts like Philadelphia.
School-based hiring, also known as "site selection," will be a central issue in 2004 contract negotiations between the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).
For the past three years, Philadelphia schools have been able to opt for a system of school-based selection by staff vote. Proponents of the program say that allowing schools to make hiring decisions builds collegiality within schools, which in turn creates more loyalty between teachers and schools, and increases teacher retention rates.
Although the number of site selection schools has grown since the program began in 2001 with just 15 pilot schools, there are still only 31 schools currently using site selection. More than a third of the original 15 pilot schools have since opted out.
Members of the School Reform Commission (SRC) and CEO Paul Vallas have recently stated their desire for a districtwide system of school-based selection – a significant change from the pilot program put in place in fall 2000 under the current teachers’ contract.
The teachers’ union leadership, however, has been skeptical about the program’s impact on teacher quality and has expressed caution about the potential for misuse.
"If not handled carefully, school-based hiring could reintroduce patronage in our schools and hiring of more unqualified teachers," said PFT President Ted Kirsch.
At the school level, however, PFT building representatives have taken a range of stances, with some actively supporting school-based hiring.
Two-thirds vote of staff required
The existing teachers’ contract outlines specific criteria for the establishment and implementation of site selection.
The system requires that at least two-thirds of a school’s staff vote for site selection in order to adopt the policy. The vote must take place by the end of December, and must be repeated every year.
Once a school’s staff elects to use site selection, hiring decisions are made through the school rather than the District’s central office. Teachers new to the system and experienced teachers seeking transfers alike must interview at the school, and hiring decisions are made regardless of seniority, except when two teachers are deemed equally qualified.
A personnel committee composed of the principal, three teachers, and a parent is responsible for setting hiring criteria, screening and interviewing candidates, and making hiring decisions. At high schools, a student or assistant principal selected by the principal also serves on the committee. All candidates are pre-screened by the District’s human resources department.
The personnel committee may interview candidates for anticipated openings, allowing schools greater flexibility in anticipating and filling teacher vacancies.
District touts program
CEO Vallas said he supports the current system of site selection.
"We’re encouraging schools to vote for site selection [this December]," he said. "We’re trying to facilitate the process, to provide them with help when they request it."
In an October letter sent to all principals, Vallas called site selection a "unique opportunity" and encouraged them to participate in orientation sessions about the process for principals and building representatives held in November by the District’s Office of Human Resources.
Two civic groups are also pushing for site selection.
The Education First Compact, a year-old group of civic and business leaders staffed by the Philadelphia Education Fund, has sent informational materials to all principals, encouraging them to promote the use of site selection as a way to build their schools’ professional community.
Lori Shorr, a member of the Compact from Temple University’s Office of Partnership Schools, said that the group is working to foster an informed discussion about site selection with all stakeholders – not just principals.
"We don’t want the discussion to be shut down at the top level of the school," Shorr explained.
Another group, the Campaign for Human Capital, a task force of District administrators, teachers, and civic and business leaders convened by Vallas in 2002, strongly recommended in its February 2003 report that the District pursue a system of districtwide site selection.
SRC wants districtwide system
SRC members and Vallas have indicated that they will push for a districtwide system in the next teachers’ contract.
Commissioner Sandra Dungee Glenn, who also co-chairs the Campaign for Human Capital, identified site-based selection as the biggest factor of the upcoming negotiations and said that the issue will be the "linchpin of our ability to move forward" in teacher recruitment and retention efforts.
Vallas agreed that site selection will be a "top priority" in the next contract. "The schools have got to have the flexibility to recruit their own teachers – all the schools," he said.
Vallas has emphasized the need for principals to have more power over hiring, as opposed to giving more authority to school-based personnel committees.
"[It] doesn’t mean that you can’t have committees involved. I leave that up to the school in terms of who they would put on the hiring team," Vallas told the Notebook in August. "But I think ultimately the final decision for hiring needs to rest with the principal."
Betsey Useem, of the Philadelphia Education Fund, has conducted research about the existing site selection system and argued that the more collaborative model in the current contract is important.
"One of the advantages that we’ve heard about site selection is that teachers welcome the new person, and they’re really excited when they come," she said. "If the principal selects alone, that can really be a problem."
Useem also emphasized the importance of involving parents and students in hiring new teachers: "Parents need to pick up the vibes of how well that person is going to relate to parents – similarly with students at the high school level."