November 3 — 4:43 pm, 2004

Teacher contract called ‘disappointing’ for lacking real incentives

Education advocates have labeled as“disappointing” a handful of incentives in the newly signed teacher contract designed to counter the inequities in the distribution of skilled teachers that haunt Philadelphia’s hardest-to-staff public schools.

After nine months of negotiations and three deadline extensions, the School District and its teachers’ union signed a new four-year agreement on October 15. They came to terms on such topics as site selection, or school-based selection of teachers, and healthcare benefits. The contract governs the working conditions for the District’s 11,000 teachers and 10,000 other school employees. The agreement allows teachers to largely maintain their current level of benefits, but gives principals, in many instances, final say in teacher selection.

In the past, seniority determined which teachers could transfer into positions in schools that had teacher vacancies. The old system often resulted in the most challenging assignments being left for the least experienced teachers.

But education advocates concerned about teacher quality argue that simply switching to a principal- and school-based hiring arrangement, known as “site selection,” is not sufficient to convince teachers to take on the challenging positions at the District’s high-turnover schools. They lament an absence of targeted incentives they say the contract could have provided to encourage a fairer balance of qualified, experienced teachers throughout the system.

“The incentives we wanted were smaller class size, extra teacher coaches, librarians and reading supports, so that really, the learning environment improves,” said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. “We wanted site selection, but we never thought site selection by itself would do it.”

About 20 civic and advocacy groups this past spring initiated the Teacher Equity Campaign. They argued, “For far too long, many of our highest-poverty schools with the most difficult working conditions are unable to staff their schools with certified and experienced teachers.”

Aside from the provisions Yanoff mentioned, the group also lobbied to provide hard-to-staff schools with improved teacher transfer policies; additional staff support; mental health and discipline supports and personnel; additional money for classroom supplies; professional development and training opportunities to establish professional culture; reduced work loads and administrative duties; extra planning time; and strategies to “ensure a regular cadre of substitutes.”

But few of these ideas appears in the new contract, based on a summarized “Tentative Agreement” document provided by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, to which observers have been referred to find out the new contract terms. The School District has said the actual contract is not available for public release, citing on-going work by attorneys on both sides to finalize its official language. A District spokesman, in a brief interview at the end of October, said the official, written contract would not be completed for another 10 days.

Along with a shift toward site-based selection of teachers, the new contract counters barriers to staffing the District’s most-difficult-to-staff schools through measures identified under an “Incentive School List.” This list will contain up to 25 schools to be jointly selected by the union and District, according to District officials.

Elizabeth Useem, a senior research consultant at Research for Action, a locally based nonprofit organization engaged in education research and evaluation, said that based on the PFT’s contract summary, “There really are no meaningful incentives. It looks like they just ran out of gas when they got to that section. There really isn’t anything to be a draw to those schools.”

According to the PFT document, teachers working at schools on this Incentive School List can receive tuition reimbursement up to $2,400 a year. Teachers holding a Masters +30 and beyond, can receive the reimbursement or three additional personal leave days a year, which can be placed in a “frozen leave bank” to be paid at retirement or resignation.

At these schools, the new contract also promises:

· to provide “targeted professional development” in dealing with managing disruptive students;
· to allow teachers who voluntarily transfer into Incentive Schools to “suffer no loss of building seniority”;
· to set a “goal” to “reduce class size below the School District’s average class size in comparable buildings.”

But Meg Wise, Director of the Philadelphia Education Fund’s civic engagement activities, noted that on class size, “There’s been no indication from what anyone has seen so far for how they would achieve that.”

Eric Braxton, director of the Philadelphia Student Union and a member of the Teacher Equity Campaign, commented on teacher contract provisions in general, “The trick is, it’s all in implementation. . . . It is not just about getting the right things in the contract, but about how they implement it.”

PFT Vice President Jerry Jordan countered the criticism about a lack of incentives for teachers to work at hard-to-staff schools, saying, “For the first time, there is tuition reimbursement paid to teachers who accept positions in those schools. It is the first time in the history of the contract that teachers have been able to voluntarily transfer into a school and maintain their building seniority . . . . And clearly, reduction of class size is on everybody’s list. It’s at the of top mine and well as teachers’.”

“We agreed site selection was not a magic bullet for any of the schools,” Jordan stressed, “but it was one topic that many groups focused on.”

The teacher transfer policy described in the PFT document allows a “Staff Selection Committee” at every school to provide input on the teachers a school hires. It says the committee would consist of two teachers, a parent member of the Home and School Association, an assistant principal (where applicable), and the principal. "The principal will consult with the School Council and/or Home and School Association to establish the teacher parent members," it states. Where no School Council exists, the document adds, a school’s Building Committee can make recommendations. The contract summary states that a school’s Selection Committee should “establish appropriate, objective criteria and procedures to identify candidates for filling vacancies, including maintenance of racial balance.”

That committee will in effect “screen” candidates for that school’s principal, who will make the final decision.

Site selection is to be implemented for all newly hired teachers and for retired teachers returning to service. For “transition schools” — defined as schools where new grades are added for the first time, middle schools that are converting to high schools, or smaller schools that are separating from a large high school — site selection will be used for that “transition” year. Newly built schools will be staffed through site selection for the first two years. Finally, in all other schools site selection will apply in 50 percent of vacancies.

The District estimates that principals will have the power to select in 75 percent to 80 percent of all teacher-hiring instances.

Yanoff echoed the comments of many observers – both expert and non-expert — in saying, “We are concerned with how this will work.”

Both District and union officials note that incentives to work in hard-to-staff schools could be provided outside the framework of the contract. That was certainly the case in 2001, when the District started offering cash incentives of a few thousand dollars for teachers to work in some schools and subject areas where there were shortages.

But generally deemed ineffective, those cash bonuses will conclude at the end of this school year, according to District spokesperson Joseph Lyons.

The Student Union’s Braxton argued that cash incentives hold less influence in attracting quality teachers than do improved working conditions. “A lot of teachers say, ‘You can’t pay me to work in those schools,’” he explained.

Some examples of what does work were provided in a Research for Action research brief titled, “Philadelphia’s Teacher Hiring and School Assignment Practices: Comparisons with Other Districts.”

Among the districts Research for Action cited for having seemingly effective incentives was Charlotte-Mecklenberg. In 52 selected schools, that district offered smaller class sizes, teacher bonuses of $1,500 to $2,500, additional materials and supplies for the classroom, and reimbursement for teacher tuition costs incurred in getting a master’s degree. It said teachers cited the master’s degree tuition reimbursement as the most popular of those incentives.

Research for Action also pointed to the key issue of hiring timelines, citing a 2003 New Teacher Project report that it said “highlighted the fact that the longer districts take to hire, the more likely they are to lose strong candidates and to start the school year under more chaotic conditions.”

To improve its chances of snagging high-quality candidates before competing school systems, School Reform Commission Chairman Jim Nevels said in an interview, that the terms of the new contract allow the District to move up its hiring process.

However, observers said they remain unsure of how much the District’s disadvantaged hiring timeline will improve, as the deadline for teacher transfer applications is to be July 1. Transfer placements were still being made up until that date last summer, thus still taking the District into mid-summer before it could identify its new teacher needs.

Contact Notebook staff writer Sheila Simmons at 215-951-0330 x156 or sheilas@thenotebook.org.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism