This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
There were just 41 teacher job vacancies in Philadelphia schools this February, less than half the number from a year earlier. Applications for teaching positions have climbed by 70 percent in two years. Fewer new teachers this school year have quit.
Looking citywide at staffing in the School District, the trends are unmistakably positive.
But a newly formed coalition of more than 20 local organizations points out that when looking at the numbers school by school, glaring inequities among schools show up.
"The unfortunate fact remains that our schools with the highest concentration of poor and minority students have the highest percentages of emergency-certified teachers, the highest percentage of inexperienced teachers, the highest number of vacancies, the highest teacher turnover rates, and the most challenging working conditions," said Aldustus Jordan, education specialist at Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth.
There are fears that a new early retirement program will worsen the staffing disparities.
Data released by the state of Pennsylvania confirm that there is tremendous variation among schools in their ability to staff classrooms with teachers that meet the state’s definition of "highly qualified" – teachers who are fully certified or those who have passed their exams and are in approved alternative certification programs.
Overall, just over 90 percent of Philadelphia’s public school teachers met the state’s standard in 2002-03. While dozens of Philadelphia schools were staffed entirely with teachers deemed "highly qualified," many of the city’s high-poverty schools fell well below the citywide average.
FitzSimons Middle School had only 44 percent "highly qualified" teachers and Muñoz-Marín Elementary had only 58 percent. Besides having high-poverty populations, these two schools, like most of those that ranked near the bottom citywide on teacher qualifications, are currently run by private education management organizations.
The District’s teacher recruitment and retention czar, Tomás Hanna, while citing encouraging trends in the vacancy situation as well as the 1,290 new teachers hired this year, is quick to acknowledge the continuing problem with what he calls "perpetual vacancies," or "churn."
Hanna explained, "So you’ve filled the vacancy, but that same vacancy has been filled already four times this year, so the consistency issue does remain in play."
Understanding and addressing this churn is one focus of Hanna’s office, which is working on expanding the support provided for new teachers – from the central office, from new teacher coaches, and from principals.
Recruitment also continues to be a priority. Despite an increase in applications, the District hired well over 300 emergency-certified teachers this year. That means 27 percent of newly hired teachers this year are on emergency certificates. Last year, 32 percent of newly hired teachers were emergency-certified, Hanna reported.
Hanna expressed optimism that initiatives like the District’s standardized curriculum, class size reduction, a more aggressive approach to dealing with discipline issues, and principal training on teacher recruitment and retention are beginning to help stabilize the teaching staffs in high turnover schools.
Positions in middle grades and special education are still among the hardest to fill, Hanna said. A new set of District middle grades initiatives is targeting staffing problems at that level.
But the newly formed teacher quality coalition, convened by the Philadelphia Student Union, is advocating a package of additional steps for getting and keeping experienced and highly qualified teachers in Philadelphia’s high-poverty, high-turnover schools. Coalition members have presented a seven-point "Teacher Equity Platform" to the School Reform Commission (SRC), to CEO Paul Vallas, and to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).
The group hopes to ensure that current teacher contract negotiations include strategies to address the uneven distribution of experienced, certified teachers throughout the school system.
"It has been 50 years since Brown vs. the Board of Education, and schools are still relatively unequal," Student Union member Andrew Hopkins, a Gratz senior, told the SRC.
"The unequal distribution of experienced and highly qualified teachers in the Philadelphia public school system seriously undermines the ability of my children and thousands of other children to achieve the quality education to which they are entitled," added Dolores Shaw, a mother of two and vice chair of the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project.
The coalition’s platform calls for:
- Offering extra incentives for teachers at hard-to-staff schools, including non-monetary benefits such as smaller class sizes and extra planning time;
- Capping the number of emergency certified teachers allowed at hard-to-staff schools;
- Implementing a grow-your-own program to help paraprofessionals become certified teachers;
- Making it easier for schools to have site-based teacher selection by requiring a simple majority vote of teachers for schools to adopt the policy.
Push for site selection
CEO Paul Vallas and members of the School Reform Commission welcomed the coalition’s call for site selection and reiterated that giving schools the power to hire teachers is a top priority in contract talks with the PFT.
"As commissioners, that’s a policy that we desire," said Commission Chair James Nevels.
The current union contract affords teachers the right to opt for a site-based selection process at their schools, but such a measure must secure two-thirds of the teacher vote at a particular school, and the vote must be repeated annually.
This year, new teachers will be hired using a site-based selection process at 44 schools, up from 31 schools last year. At these schools, a personnel committee, including the principal, teachers, and a parent, makes hiring decisions.
The number of schools that use site-based hiring has grown steadily each year since it began with 15 schools in 2001.
Union spokesperson Barbara Goodman affirmed the current contract language providing for a vote; it "empowers schools to make a choice on whether site selection will work well in that particular school situation," she said.
Coalition spokesperson Jordan said the response from District officials was encouraging but added a caution: "Site selection by itself will not address the issue of the inequitable distribution of certified and experienced teachers."
"The only way that we’re going to ensure that there’s a balance of teachers across the District is to make sure that the working conditions at the hardest-to-staff schools are improved," he added.
The current teachers’ contract includes financial incentives for teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools, but coalition members want the District to go further. They point to other districts such as Minneapolis and Chicago that offer hard-to-staff schools extra resources and professional development opportunities.
Retirement program raises fears
The development of an early retirement program by the District is a potential wild card that some fear will undermine other efforts to keep certified, experienced staff in high-poverty schools. About 2,000 teachers attended a PFT-led informational meeting about the retirement package in early March.
The School District hopes to save money by enticing highly paid veteran teachers to retire with a financial incentive of up to $50,000 in tax-free retirement benefits. The offer is open to teachers with 20 or more years of experience. The District will accept teachers into the plan based on seniority.
"The obvious worry is that there will be more turnover, especially in high-poverty schools already characterized by high turnover," said Betsey Useem, senior research consultant at Research for Action. Besides the retirements from these schools, she noted, a migration of teachers from high-poverty to low-poverty schools is likely as jobs open up at those schools.
"That’s an absolutely legitimate concern," said Jim Van Horn, director of human resources for the School District. He said the District is prepared to "limit or even potentially rescind" the program if it appears to be having a harmful effect on the workforce.