This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Good teachers can make a profound difference in the lives and the academic abilities of their students. No task is more important than creating classroom learning communities that foster a sense of hope and possibility among students.
To raise teacher quality in Philadelphia is not as simple as placing a certified teacher in every classroom or simply complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act definition of a "highly qualified teacher." These standards are only a useful floor to help ensure a minimum level of competency.
The School District must figure out what truly makes for a good teacher and then do everything in its power to find, develop, and support as many of them as it can.
With an aggressive teacher recruitment and retention program in place over the past year, Philadelphia has progressed well beyond the "get a warm body into every classroom" thinking prevalent during the acute teacher shortages of recent years.
But vacancies, high turnover, inexperience, and inadequate preparation still characterize the teaching staffs of many schools, particularly those where the need for good teachers is greatest: high-poverty schools and schools that have mostly students of color.
Neither federal law nor state certification standards address teachers’ capacity for meeting the challenges they face in an urban district like Philadelphia. Teachers need to be able connect with students whose lives are very different from their own, to know these students well, and to create a culture of respect in the classroom. Recognizing the social injustices most District students face, without belittling them because of these realities, can go far in this effort.
Philadelphia’s successful teachers are deeply committed to their students and have high expectations for what they can accomplish. They identify and build on students’ strengths and the strengths of the communities in which they work. To teach in city schools requires not only a strong grounding in content and instruction, but also compassion and communication skills.
These traits are hard to assess, especially in a hiring process that is as centralized and impersonal as Philadelphia’s.
The need to personalize the hiring process and find teachers that can address the specific needs of our schools is a key reason we believe that the process of "site selection" – hiring teachers at the school level – should be extended to all schools.
Site selection is a method for filling teacher vacancies. It does not and should not give principals new powers to fire teachers or reconstitute the staff of a school. The model, which has been tried locally with some success, involves creating a school personnel committee where teachers and a parent collaborate with the principal to develop hiring criteria and interview candidates.
But site selection alone is not going to ensure that struggling schools with high turnover get the staff they need. Those schools need support beyond the modest financial incentives that have been offered to teachers at a limited number of high-turnover schools. It is time to address the working conditions for teachers at high-poverty schools, which are particularly difficult at the middle schools that are plagued with problems of turnover.
Schools like these that have large numbers of inexperienced teachers at the low end of the pay scale should receive extra resources to compensate for their lower payrolls. This would allow for reduced class sizes, lighter teaching loads, increased support staff, additional classroom materials, and top-notch principals. A lower payroll was the rationale for giving extra money to schools run by Edison and other outside managers, and it should be applied across the board.
Even after an encouraging flurry of new District initiatives this year, much more needs to be done to recruit and retain new teachers. Here are some next steps:
- Reduction of the city-suburban salary gap that entices so many experienced city teachers to jobs in the suburbs.
- An earlier hiring and placement process; the District loses teachers because they have to wait until late summer to find out where they will teach.
- Quality pre-service programs that include experience teaching under real job circumstances.
- Measures to ease in new teachers, including making sure the new teacher coaches spend time actually doing teaching and not just telling new teachers what to do.
- Expansion of "grow-your-own" programs like the very successful Literacy Intern Teacher program that has eased the transition into teaching for hundreds, including paraprofessionals and parents.
Recruiting highly qualified teachers, placing them in the classrooms where they are most needed, and stabilizing the staffs of all schools will take a comprehensive, long-term approach that builds upon the District’s current efforts and recognizes state and federal guidelines as a floor, not a ceiling.