September 4 — 7:13 pm, 2012

Commentary: BCG ‘collective bargaining reform’ and what it would mean for teachers

Among the recommendations in the recently released Boston Consulting Group report is a call that the District “undertake comprehensive collective bargaining reform” with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and, simultaneously, “pursue legislative changes” in the school code.

Taken together the “reforms” advocated in this document would roll back important protections that are afforded teachers under the school code and union contract.

Some of the language in the report, or to be more precise, the District’s summary of the report, is deliberately vague, but what is consistent is the extension of the authority of the administration and the erosion of traditional union rights that provide a degree of job security for teachers. Here are recommendations:

  • Leveraging the new state teacher evaluation framework to design multiple points of feedback to evaluate and develop teachers, such as principal and peer observations, student achievement data, and student feedback.
  • Rolling out full "site selection" for all school vacancies for instructional and non-instructional staff, enabling principals to choose which staff will fill all vacant positions in their buildings.      
  • Reforming the teacher transfer process, which enables teachers to select vacant positions in District schools in seniority order without the consent of principals.
  • Reforming teacher work rules that constrict the ability to manage school schedules, rosters, and teacher prep time in ways that maximize student learning.
  • Encouraging the state to reform teacher leave policies, which now allow significant paid and unpaid time off during the school year, resulting in interrupted student learning and large required payments to substitute teachers.
  • Encouraging the state to create a longer track, with more significant performance requirements, to teacher tenure.
  • Encouraging the state to use teacher performance—not seniority—as the basis for determining teacher layoffs.

Echoing the talking points of corporate school reform, the BCG argues that these reforms are essential if the District is “to implement a world-class talent-management strategy and become a true magnet for high-performing principals, teachers, and staff.” How these changes would achieve this lofty goal, however, is left to the imagination.

Parents and education advocates have a legitimate interest in the outcome of contract negotiations and, historically, have challenged both the union and the administration to find solutions that will improve education outcomes. That’s fair, and the union needs to be willing to enter into those discussions.

The union has shown in recent years a greater capacity than in the past to respond positively to the concerns of community stakeholders. In the last contract, for example, the PFT negotiated an ambitious series of provisions that provided more support for struggling teachers and an expedited process for getting them out of classrooms if they failed to improve.

But it is hard to find good solutions when one side seems to be determined to render the other side impotent.

It’s also hard to find solutions when the District is committed to budget austerity. For example, in the past, both sides have recognized that incentives were needed to get more experienced teachers into high-poverty schools. This is unlikely in today’s fiscal climate. Indeed, many teachers suspect that the District will look for cost savings by hiring teachers at the bottom of the salary ladder, as many charters now do.    

The SRC has said that these are only recommendations and that they are not bound by them, but there seems little doubt that these items approximate what they want. Their preference, judged by their behavior, would be to do away with collective bargaining and simply impose a contract, but, for the moment, that is not an option, thanks to the whistleblowing by some Democratic legislators in Harrisburg.

If all these things were realized through a combination of legislative action and bullying at the bargaining table – rather than good-faith talks about such important issues as how to truly improve teacher support and evaluation – what would it mean for teachers?

The clearest implication concerns job security. Teachers at schools that now are targeted for restructuring as Renaissance Schools are treated as forced transfers, unless they are rehired by that school, and they then can choose another position. With these changes, their seniority would mean nothing, and they would, effectively, be fired. They would be in the same position as new hires who would have to apply for a job via site selection. Dedicated teachers with years of service at “low-performing” schools could be punished by losing their jobs. How this kind of shoddy treatment will attract teachers to make a career in challenging urban schools is a real head-scratcher.

This will impact many more teachers in the next year with 40-odd schools targeted for closure. These teachers too, by virtue of teaching in older buildings with declining enrollment, would lose any advantage that comes from seniority.

The attack on tenure and the call for laying off teachers based on performance rather than seniority is another familiar theme that has profound implications. “Performance” is mainly about standardized test scores, always a dubious metric, but even more so after the revelations about pervasive tampering and cheating. But putting this aside, in the context of budget austerity, administrators would be looking for way to get rid of costly senior teachers, as well as those pesky activists who might challenge their authority.

Of course, the primary consideration for the SRC is what policies are likely to improve educational outcomes. But this discussion typically goes on without any reference to the implications for attracting and sustaining a professional cadre of teachers.  

How about we recognize that teacher morale and job satisfaction, which is related to job security, are part of the equation for creating a sustainable system of public education? How about we stop attacking teachers for demanding they be treated fairly and equitably? How about we recognize that good-faith collective bargaining that respects unions as partners in creating good schools needs to be part of the mix?   

Our students, particularly our students in high-poverty, under-resourced schools, need committed, skilled teachers who are prepared to make a career of being in classrooms.

On Sept. 21 and 22, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating For Public Schools (PCAPS), an alliance of teachers, students, parents and community organizations,  will be holding a conference to kick off a process for developing a community-based plan to improve our schools. Looking at the question of collective bargaining and its relationship to genuine school reform will be part of the agenda.

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