February 2 — 4:54 pm, 2010

Teacher contract is signed; ‘Real work begins now’

New language calls for revamping teacher evaluation and rewarding staff at high-performing schools.

The contract negotiated between the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been hailed as a major step forward, with words like “groundbreaking,” “historic,” “transformative,” and “bold vision.”

But whether it advances the cause of education reform in Philadelphia will depend on how well the union and administration are able to work together to implement some of its more far-reaching provisions.

“The real work begins now,” said Mayor Michael Nutter.

PFT President Jerry Jordan said he wants to create a real partnership. Despite a past history of administration-union distrust, he said, “I’m not going into this with any kind of negativity. When you look at districts that have begun to improve student achievement, they never do that without collaboration between the union and administration.”

The contract expands teacher site selection so schools have more control over hiring, revamps the teacher evaluation process, allows for more focused professional development, and – funding permitting – provides extra compensation to the staffs in high-performing schools.

It also gives the District latitude to “turn around” low-performing schools with new staff by imposing forced transfers on all teachers at so-called Renaissance Schools. The turnaround teams in charge of these schools will be required to implement a longer school day and year, among other changes. Teachers will be paid for the extra time.

The pact establishes joint committees to work out the details of the new teacher evaluation process, called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), which will be mandatory for new teachers and for tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory. The system will be phased in over three years.

A joint District-union committee will work out the details. Jordan said he had already made his appointments and expects it to move forward expeditiously.

Other committees will work on school safety and on “value-added” compensation.

“We didn’t get everything we had hoped for, but this is a transformational contract … and a product of truly collaborative effort on both sides,” said School Reform Commission member David Girard-diCarlo, expressing a sentiment shared by his colleagues. “Now, the trick is to execute it well.”

Despite some vocal opposition, the PFT ratified the contract by a two-to-one margin on January 20, and the SRC gave its unanimous approval on January 27.

PAR is designed to replace what is now an ineffective teacher evaluation process in which nearly every teacher attains tenure and is rated satisfactory. Under this process, teachers will play a major role in assessing and helping their peers.

“This is a leap for all of us,” said Dee Phillips, a vice president of the union whom Jordan appointed to the PAR committee. “We’re bringing in professionalism, and having teachers help teachers more than ever before.”

Advocacy groups were for the most part supportive.

The Effective Teaching for Every Child campaign, a coalition of 25 organizations from the NAACP to the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), gave the contract generally high marks, but said there were not enough incentives to address harmful teacher turnover in some of the neediest schools.

Still, Carol Fixman of PEF told the SRC, the contract “addresses some significant issues … that the District has been trying to address for years.”

She said inclusion of rewards for the entire staff in successful schools rather than a focus on rewarding individual teachers is an “enormous step forward” because “it will encourage teachers as a team to improve schools.”

The campaign had hoped for full site selection, in which teacher vacancies are filled by the school instead of through seniority. The contract expands site selection significantly, by mandating it in more than 100 of the lowest performing schools, but doesn’t make it universal – leaving a very complicated process for hiring and placing teachers.

The contract also specifies that teachers on site selection committees will be part of the decision-making when hiring their colleagues, which Fixman called “critical to empowering teachers as leaders.”

The plan to create Renaissance Schools has proven to be the most controversial element of the contract.

Some of these low-performing schools will be operated by outside managers, either as charter or contract schools, and others by turnaround teams developed by District educators or housed in the superintendent’s office.

All teachers currently working in Renaissance Schools will be forced to transfer out, though they maintain seniority rights and can reapply to these schools. At District-run Renaissance Schools, no more than half the teachers can be rehired. At schools that switch to contract or charter management, teachers will no longer be union members.

 Some teachers say the plan demeans their hard work, penalizes those who can’t work the extra hours, and will do nothing overall to improve the schools. “The moment it is a Renaissance School, I’m out of there,” said Michael Roth, who has taught English at Edison High for five years. “I could have applied in the suburbs but I wanted to teach in the city. I moved to the neighborhood. This is not a way to treat us like professionals.”

Jordan defended the Renaissance Schools provision. He said both the federal No Child Left Behind law and Act 46, under which the state took over the Philadelphia schools, give the District power to make such changes “without any input from the union at all.” Act 46 also stripped from the PFT the right to strike.

Under this contract, Jordan said, teachers “maintain seniority rights and will have an opportunity to go in these schools and know before they go in what will be different about the working conditions.”

At the same time, he is hoping that most of the turnaround schools remain “in district” rather than being turned over to charters or private managers.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has said she would like to see as many schools as possible stay within District control but said the process will not favor in-house provider applications over outside ones.

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