A conversation with Jerry Jordan
Notebook Contributing Editor Dale Mezzacappa interviewed Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan at the union’s headquarters, Nov. 6.
NOTEBOOK: If you could make a film about education in Philadelphia, how would it be different from “Waiting for ‘Superman’”?
JORDAN: The very biggest difference will be that I would focus on all of the good work that’s going on in our public schools, our traditional public schools. Waiting for Superman focused on charter schools and the desire of parents to get their children into charter schools for whatever reason. However, in Philadelphia, we have a number of really, really fine schools. And parents and children enjoy attending those schools. The work that teachers do every day is remarkable. We have so many kids who are able to go on to a world of work, as well as to higher ed, as a result of getting a really, really wonderful education in Philadelphia schools. Waiting for Superman did not focus on one public school or one teacher who works in a traditional public school. To me, the movie did not present a good balance of education, public education in the United States.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think teachers unions have outlived their usefulness, as the film implies?
JORDAN: When you look across the country, in states and school districts that have unions, student performance is higher than it is in states that do not have teacher unions. I think it’s because the teacher unions advocate for so many of the things that teachers know and parents know that children need. Also, the vast majority of the charter schools in the country are not unionized. And if you look at the latest data, the press recently pointed out that only 20% of those schools are working and are doing [better than comparable public schools]. So, therefore, 80% of them are [doing the same as or worse than] the public schools. And they don’t have teacher unions, for the most part, very, very few.
NOTEBOOK: The main charge that the movie makes is that unions protect bad teachers, when you see that little graphic he did about dance of the lemons. What is your answer to the idea that unions protect bad teachers?
JORDAN: I disagree with that. And I can speak specifically about the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Our members have told us that they are not happy when a teacher is not pulling his or her weight in a school. What unions do, and have a responsibility of doing, is making sure that teachers receive due process. But teachers who may be struggling, they deserve to be given assistance. And that is the role of the union, to ask for the help for those teachers. And if, ultimately, after receiving the support, if teachers are not successful, then they basically have to be counseled out and go into another profession.
NOTEBOOK: One statement in the film that brought gasps from the audience was that something like one in ten or fifteen doctors lose their licenses and a similar percentage of lawyers but only one in 17,000 teachers.
JORDAN: I don’t know how he gathered his data. And once again, I’ll speak specifically about Philadelphia. There are X number of teachers who may very well have been rated unsatisfactory and/or terminated. However, what he didn’t tell in the movie is about the number of teachers who leave the profession voluntarily. We had a staff meeting today. And a couple of the staff shared with me a couple of schools where teachers have just resigned because they’re not being successful. They know it, and they decide to leave. I know before the last few years, we had hired about 1,000 teachers [each year] yet retirements were only about 400.
NOTEBOOK: What kind of changes have you seen over the course of your PFT career in terms of how teachers who aren’t doing well are actually handled?
JORDAN: I don’t know what other unions are doing. I can just say that the PFT makes sure that the teachers receive due process. They’re entitled to a hearing. They’re entitled to have the principal make recommendations that they feel the teacher needs in order to improve their practice. We just don’t protect bad teachers. If a teacher is not doing well, if a teacher is harming children, the members of the PFT in that building don’t like it, and they speak out against it. And we don’t support that. What we do believe is that teachers should be treated fairly.
NOTEBOOK: Is there any data indicating a decline in PFT grievances of termination actions?
JORDAN: When we look at the number of employees who are fired for poor classroom performance, we have a committee in this office, a grievance committee, it’s called, and I chair that. And we review each case. And we do not take every case to arbitration. There’s got to be a lot of [evidence] that the teacher did not get the kind of support, for instance, that he or she should have been getting in order to allow them the opportunity to improve. And that is the way that we operate. We talk to the staff person who represented them. We get all of the background information before making a decision to go farther on each case.
NOTEBOOK: You say you don’t take every case. Is that a change from what might have been a practice in the past?
JORDAN: It is.
NOTEBOOK: It is.
JORDAN: Oh, yes. In the past, this union took every case that was a termination case, for whatever reason, to arbitration.
NOTEBOOK: When did you start taking a new look at this?
JORDAN: Oh, probably [more than] ten years ago. I mean, it’s not something that we run out and just yell about. We look at it. We’ve got enough experience on our staff, they know when they are doing a case whether or not the person is being treated fairly, whether or not they’re getting the kinds of supports or have had the opportunity for those supports.
NOTEBOOK: What are your expectations for the Peer Assistance and Review program (PAR) in helping new and struggling teachers?
JORDAN: I’m really excited about the PAR program. This is [something] that we have been trying to get added to the PFT contract through, I do believe, three superintendents for about 16 years. And we were finally able to get the agreement of the District this year. [Before] new teachers [were] given the keys [to the classroom and told to] go in and sink-or-swim, you’re on your own, and by the way, someone, an administrator, will come in and evaluate your performance. [Under PAR] the consulting teachers are going to be there all year to give them support so that new teachers will … learn how to manage within the system. The consulting teachers [are] very skilled, experienced teachers with tremendous education backgrounds, and known as really extraordinary teachers in the school district—they’re going to go in, and they’re going to give demonstration lessons for that teacher before their children, if they feel that that’s a support that that teacher needs. If a teacher is having difficulty with classroom management, that consulting teacher is going to provide suggested techniques for them to follow. These consulting teachers are teachers right out of the classroom. So, this is fresh in their minds, and they’re going to be working as consulting teachers for four years, and then they’re going back to a classroom. So these people are really, really at the top of what they do. And we’re hoping that with this program, not only will the teachers be successful, but that we’re going to be able to retain the teachers. We just have been turning over so many over the last decade. And with the projections of the retirement of the baby boomers—I think I just read recently that about a third of the nation’s teachers are going to be retiring within the next three or four years–that’s a huge number of teachers to replace.
NOTEBOOK: Why is tenure so important to teachers? And do you think the current system works?
JORDAN: Tenure is a term that I think is misunderstood by a lot of people. Teacher tenure in the pre-K-12 system is not the same as people think about tenure in higher ed. Tenure for a teacher means that they have gone through a… probationary period for the first three years, and they’re evaluated by the administrators. And the administrator says that the teacher, in three years, has been a satisfactory teacher. However, all that tenure means is…that that teacher is guaranteed due process. If there is a problem, the teacher is going to have a hearing; the teacher has the ability to be represented, and the teacher has the opportunity to have his or her say. That’s what tenure is, nothing more. Do teachers with tenure in the School District of Philadelphia lose their jobs? Yes, they do, after due process.
NOTEBOOK: What about seniority? If layoffs for instance become necessary due to budget cuts, do you think that it should be last hired, first fired in all cases?
JORDAN: Because it should not be subjective. It just shouldn’t be subjective for an individual who has put a career into a job, the district, to be subjected to the decision being made arbitrarily by an individual, based on whatever criteria. We don’t have the research that tells us how you measure what an effective teacher is. Also, I also fear that in very difficult budget circumstances that if layoffs are not done according to seniority, what will happen is to stretch a dollar, people who have the highest salaries will be the ones who will be laid off first, in order to close the budget gap. And that would be patently unfair. And unfortunately, I’m to the point of being somewhat cynical in that I’ve seen a number of things happen over my career that I never thought would happen.
JORDAN: Like that. And it can happen. You know, at least everybody understands how layoffs occur when they’re done according to seniority. And it also encourages young people to stay in the system.
NOTEBOOK: Can you give instances in which the PFT has promoted education reform, either through the contract or in other ways?
JORDAN: Well, I gave you one earlier when we talked about PAR. I can’t tell you how many years we’ve been asking for it. We’ve been asking for a reduction in class sizes for as long as I can remember. And the class size language in the contract has been in there since 1988: K-3, 30 children; 4-12, 33 children. We have argued to eliminate the practice of split grades. We have fought to have a library with a librarian in every one of our schools over the years. We have fought for support for children who are having trouble with reading, to make sure there are reading specialists able to diagnose problems and to help the children. We, in fact, ran a Reading Recovery program in this city, and we were the site for training the teachers. We do professional development for teachers… because for too long the District did not adequately support the teachers who were struggling in classrooms. Every summer, for the last several years now, we have done teacher training as well. The contract calls for one counselor in each school [but for schools with 1300-1400 kids] that is a workload that is just impossible for one person to do. So, we’ve been advocates for all those things. As well as dealing with issues of safety and discipline. I mean we’ve been running ads, even last year and this year, about providing children with safe and orderly schools. And this latest ad deals with bullying and not having children endure that. We fought to have accommodation rooms, so that there would be in-house suspensions or time-outs for kids. And when the budget became tight, they eliminated that. We wanted teachers and asked for teachers to be in these rooms, not classroom assistants. And they first eliminated the teachers and put in classroom assistants, and have eliminated them.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think it’s fair to say that unions impede education? Someone in the film actually said they’re a menace. So, what would be your response to that?
JORDAN: I would say no. And I think that if you look at our latest contract, I don’t know how anyone could say that based on the kind of reforms that we negotiated in this contract. The PAR program, which is a huge, huge support. We negotiated Renaissance schools for public schools, regular public schools. We wanted to work to improve them within the system, not for them to be converted to charter schools. That was an absolutely huge, huge step that we made. We negotiated language that will allow whole schools that improve to be rewarded. The issue of being able to allow the faculties in high-need schools to be able to have a longer school year, and in the case of the Renaissance schools, a longer school day. When you look at contracts around the country, whether it’s D.C., Baltimore, Chicago’s current contract, things are happening in different locals. And I’m talking about the AFT locals that I’m more familiar with than the NEA locals.
NOTEBOOK: So, the manifesto initiated by Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein that Superintendent Ackerman signed and then took her name off— it said that paying teachers simply by seniority and what degrees they have is ineffective. Is there a better way to pay teachers?
JORDAN: I haven’t seen it yet. I just have not seen it.
NOTEBOOK: You did just mention the idea of the bonuses for the whole school.
JORDAN: Yeah, but that’s on top of the teacher’s base pay, as well as the support staff because what we included in our language is that it would be the entire staff—the secretaries, the non-teaching assistants, the classroom assistants—because all of those people are needed to make a school operate well. And it’s meant to create a team concept. You need a team.
NOTEBOOK: Some charter schools, the ones who get the Teacher Incentive Fund money, they do things differently. They might even have a higher starting salary. They have raises that are based on other criteria besides how long a teacher has been there. You don’t think that’s a fair way of doing that?
JORDAN: The teacher incentive fund, as I recall from dealing with it during the (Paul) Vallas administration, that there were a few people who were able to get the money. And after those few positions were allotted, then the other teachers were not able to get it. This is an issue that I think we’ve got to look at, you know, the equity, and everyone being eligible for it, not just two, three, or four teacher leaders in a building. And within our current contract, we have language for teacher leader types of positions in the high school, department heads, who make more money than the teacher who is the math teacher in a math department.
NOTEBOOK: “Waiting for ‘Superman’” also points out that teaching has been a low status profession. Why do you think teachers and teaching is devalued as a profession?
JORDAN: Unfortunately because of movies like “Waiting for ‘Superman’”…[devaluing teaching] has been true for a long time but [the movie is] really reinforcing it. People put the most valuable person or persons in their lives into schools. And then they say, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to pay for it.” What other profession can you be in that can bring you so much joy but also so much pain? You know, where someone is assaulted in the middle of the day while trying to do their job of supporting kids. You’re just not revered the way that teachers were when I was a child growing up. And there’s just a lack of respect. It didn’t happen with a lawyer, with a doctor.
NOTEBOOK: But it goes beyond kids in certain schools not respecting teachers. It goes to the entire society.
JORDAN: Exactly, that’s right.
NOTEBOOK: There’s the saying “If you can’t do, teach.”
JORDAN: Yes. Well, that’s just totally wrong. And I think that we have to do a lot to try to change that image.
NOTEBOOK: Does teacher education need to be improved, traditional teacher education? And what is the impact of Teach for American and the other alternative certifications?
JORDAN: I think teacher education needs to be improved. It’s time. But we probably need to look at a fifth year of education for teachers. And that fifth year being a practicum, a full year in schools, what we can traditionally call a student teacher, but really making sure that those teachers are really skilled teachers before they complete their certification program. And with that in mind, I think that with the TFA’s, that we have a number of them as members of the PFT, and they too, I think, need a longer practicum than a five-week summer session, or whatever amount of time they’re given, and the supports that are given during the school year. They need a lot more.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that the kind of person TFA is bringing in, the graduates of top colleges who did not go through teacher training, is having an effect on the District one way or another?
JORDAN: I think that if you’ve got people who are not staying, then that does have a real negative effect on the District and on a school, particularly when a school has a large number of them in one place and then they leave around the same time. You have a high turnover. So therefore, the culture and the team in that school never really grow.
NOTEBOOK: Would you say that PFT’s priorities have changed over the years?
JORDAN: Oh, yes. We’re beyond just the bread and butter issues that traditional unions really fight for. We continue to fight for those, but our biggest fights are dealing with educational issues and what’s best for kids. I’m getting ready to pack up, and I’m taking my weekend reading. I do a whole lot more reading of educational issues than I’ve ever done.
NOTEBOOK: And the biggest challenges over the course of your PFT career as a leader?
JORDAN: That’s a tough question. Every day there are new challenges. And at this time, I think that [it’s] really fighting to make sure that the kids in this School District of Philadelphia are getting the kind of education that they rightfully deserve, as there are so many who seem to be hell-bent on dismantling public education in this city. And that it’s the only way for poor kids to get out of poverty.