May 3 — 1:28 pm, 2004

District teacher hiring practices still hinder equity, report says

As the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) enter a fifth month of contract negotiations, a timely new report is making the case for instituting a comprehensive strategy to recruit and retain qualified teachers. The report, by the local group Research For Action (RFA), advocates establishing site-based teacher hiring at every school and providing a strong package of targeted incentives to attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools.

Despite a statewide teacher surplus and recent efforts to boost teacher recruitment and retention, Philadelphia “remains hobbled” by a highly centralized teacher hiring and assignment process and seniority rules that govern teacher transfers, the report argues.

Comparing the way Philadelphia selects and assigns its teachers with nine local suburban districts and 13 other urban districts nationally, the report – part of a four-year RFA study called "Learning from Philadelphia’s School Reform"– advocates turning over the power to choose a school’s staff from central administrators to hiring committees at individual schools. This practice, known as "site selection," has emerged as a key issue in the current teachers’ contract negotiations.

The report’s lead author, Elizabeth Useem, notes that to date 44 of 276 District schools have approved site-based teacher hiring by the necessary two-thirds majority vote of teachers, a process mandated by the current four-year PFT contract that expires August 31.

The District’s School Reform Commission (SRC) has been vocal in its support for a new contract provision that would mandate school-based hiring at every school. In contrast, the PFT leadership has maintained the current process for enacting site selection is fair because it enables a school’s staff to decide what is best for that individual school. Union officials also warn site-based selection can open the door to patronage.

PFT vice president Jerry Jordan maintains that rather than pushing for citywide site selection, the focus in improving teacher quality should be on improving teacher working conditions through small class size, building safety and discipline, teacher supports, and a good curriculum.

“Those are the things that make a difference,” Jordan says.

But Useem is quick to point out that site selection is only a starting point, “not a silver bullet,” for improving teacher quality across the District.

She notes, “Student gains in a given year are more sensitive to teacher quality than to any other variable.”

Attracting experienced, skilled teachers to the lowest-achieving, typically hard-to-staff schools – and keeping them there – requires “a really comprehensive and aggressive set of enhancements,” adds Useem.

By offering teachers at understaffed schools higher salaries, smaller classes, supplies stipends, and tuition payments towards a graduate degree, other large urban districts – including New York, Baltimore, and Charlotte – have made gains in equitably staffing low-performing, high-poverty schools, the report says.

Aldustus Jordan of the Teacher Equity Campaign– a coalition of 27 local parent, student, civic, and community organizations advocating for the more equitable distribution of qualified teachers across the District– urges both the District and the PFT to adopt a broad-based strategy in the next teachers’ contract to ensure that all students have equal access to skilled, well-supported teachers.

“At the end of the day, teachers, the union, the District, and other education stakeholders want teachers at all schools to be well supported,” said Jordan. “That’s the most important issue.”

The RFA report, Philadelphia’s Teacher Hiring and School Assignment Practices: Comparisons with Other Districts, is available online at www.researchforaction.org.

To learn more about the Teacher Equity Campaign, contact Aldustus Jordan of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth at 215-563-5848 x12 or aldustusjordan@pccy.org.

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