November 27 — 12:00 am, 2003

Why Philadelphia loses promising teachers and what is being done about it

Just as in other large districts, a late hiring timeline means many candidates go elsewhere

At the end of July, it seemed that the Philadelphia schools would open with few or no vacancies for the first time in several years.

Between July 2002 and July 2003, the District received more than 3,800 applications, including sufficient numbers in hard-to-fill subjects. As of late July, the District’s Human Resources department did not anticipate needing to hire many emergency-certified teachers, even in areas of chronic shortage.

However, on the first day of classes for students, the District still had 83 vacancies, approximately 50 percent less than last September at that time, but many more than expected. Moreover, many teachers had just been hired in the few previous weeks.

What happened?

District officials say the story of teacher hiring in Philadelphia parallels that of most urban districts that lose high-quality teachers who would like to teach in the district, due to a late hiring timeline.

"Our top recruitment priority for the spring is changing our hiring timetable to be more competitive with offers candidates receive from other districts," said Tomas Hanna, who heads teacher recruitment and retention for the School District.

Historically, many teachers in the applicant pool withdraw at the last minute after receiving offers from other districts. In fact, a number of the vacancies at the opening of school this year arose because teachers who had accepted jobs in the District did not bother to tell Human Resources that they had taken other jobs.

Philadelphia is not alone in this regard. A 2003 report by Jessica Levin and Meredith Quinn of the New Teacher Project draws on data from four urban districts to document many of the same problems in hiring high-quality teachers that Philadelphia faces. Although these districts recruited aggressively and had an ample applicant pool at the beginning of the summer, they, too, scrambled to fill teacher vacancies at the last minute.

The New Teacher Project study, titled "Missed Opportunities," reports that large urban districts typically fail to make job offers to new teachers until July or August. As a result, these districts lose a large number of teacher candidates who accept positions in suburban districts that usually hire by early summer. It also found that the majority of teacher candidates who withdrew their applications cited the late hiring timeline as the major reason they took other jobs.

The late hiring timeline also resulted in a loss in teacher quality in the districts they surveyed. Applicants who were lost to these districts had significantly higher GPAs and were more likely to have degrees in their teaching field and to have completed educational course work than the individuals ultimately hired in the districts surveyed.

The New Teacher Project identified three related factors that impact the late hiring timeline in urban districts. First, resigning or retiring teachers are often not required to notify the district of their intentions to leave until during the summer. Secondly, collective bargaining policies require schools to hire existing teachers who elect to transfer to other schools in the district before any new teachers can be hired, thus further stalling the new teacher hiring process. Finally, budget uncertainties make administrators reluctant to hire new teachers before the end of June.

The primary recommendation of the New Teacher Project is to hire the vast majority of new teachers by May 1. The authors make several suggestions about how to achieve this, some of which have already been tried in Philadelphia. These include:

  • Ensure early notification (by March 15 at the latest) by resigning or retiring teachers and remove disincentives for providing early notice, especially the loss of benefits.

Philadelphia teachers are already asked to notify the District by April 15 of their intent to retire or resign are assured that if they notified the District before that date, they will be eligible to carry their benefits through the summer. If teachers resign during the summer, they are required to pay back the benefits they have accrued since the end of the school year.

  • Revise collective bargaining and transfer requirements and move up the transfer process.

The existing PFT contract allows 31 schools in Philadelphia – where two-thirds of the faculty voted to implement a hiring process known as "site selection" – to hire new teachers before both forced and voluntary teacher transfers are considered. In all other Philadelphia schools, however, the union contract requires the completion of seniority-based transfers before any teachers can be hired. These features will be revisited in upcoming contract negotiations.

  • Create an earlier and more predictable budgeting process and insulate the "hardest-to-staff" schools from budget fluctuations.

In Philadelphia this past spring, the School District announced that it hoped to complete most hiring by June 30. However, the plan collapsed because of uncertainties about the state budget, Title I funding, and budget allocations to schools.

  • Revamp human resources practices to increase the hiring role of schools and to create efficient and effective human resources systems.

This year the District implemented several new initiatives intended to make the recruitment and hiring process more efficient and user-friendly. These include a new District website and an on-line application process, automated tracking system, and a list of school vacancies for prospective teachers to view prior to selecting a school. The District has also held open houses and information sessions for new teachers and student teachers.

Hanna noted that a consequence of putting the teacher vacancy list on-line this year was that teacher applicants were able to see which schools had openings and that some applicants were not happy with the options and declined to select a school.

Hanna said, "This was not a bad thing. It helped teachers who would probably have left early in the year to self-select out prior to the opening of school."

Hanna also expressed pleasure that, "This year, we have cut the fall teacher attrition rate by more than half at this point last year-from 13 percent to 6 percent."

"That is progress, but it is not yet success," Hanna said.

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