This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Many schools in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods have been consistently plagued with a revolving door of teachers, who frequently lack experience and proper qualifications in their subjects.
For more than a decade, organizing groups and education advocates have been pushing District and teacher union officials to grapple more directly with the problem, especially as research evidence has mounted that even one dismal teacher can significantly set back a child’s academic improvement.
With the District in the midst of a leadership transition and a new teachers’ contract coming up, these activists are hoping that renewed attention to this issue will build on progress already made.
“What we’ve seen is that districtwide, there’s been a large improvement,” said Ali Kronley, chief organizer for ACORN in Philadelphia, who called activism around teacher quality ACORN’s “signature work” over the past few years. “There are fewer vacancies, and teachers have higher level of experience districtwide than five or six years ago.”
Still an issue, though, she said, is how those teachers are distributed. “We continue to see huge disparities among schools,” Kronley said.
The highest-poverty schools and the ones serving mostly students of color still have trouble attracting and keeping stable, experienced faculties, she said – a conclusion backed up by a May report from Research for Action.
The RFA report found that the District has improved teacher recruitment, reduced first-year attrition, decreased its reliance on emergency-certified teachers, and upgraded teacher qualifications overall.
However, it “has not been successful in moving toward greater equity in the distribution of fully certified and experienced teachers across all schools,” the report said.
Kronley said that she was hopeful that new School Reform Commission chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, who has been outspoken on teacher quality issues, could make an impact. “Her recent comments reflect the…concept that equity doesn’t mean equal dollars for schools, but figuring out what schools and students need” and seeing that they get it, she said.
But other organizers are cautious. “Putting more resources in the neediest schools – that’s something the District has hesitated to do that I think is necessary,” said Eric Braxton, an organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union.
PSU has long advocated that the hardest-to-staff schools should get smaller class sizes, top-notch leadership, ample materials, and other amenities that will attract and hold the best teachers. Braxton says that students in his organization still complain about teachers who don’t know their subjects and about classes taught by a parade of substitutes.
“It’s still a huge problem,” Braxton said.
In 2004, the year when the last teachers’ contract was negotiated, the Education Law Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), arguing that the District’s method of placing teachers discriminated against poor students and students of color.
Shortly after, PSU held hearings about the lack of qualified teachers in some of their schools. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah came and heard students talk about being sent to the basketball court during math class because the sub was a gym teacher. Some 20 organizations got together to create a Teacher Equity Platform that was presented to the District and, among other things, requested changes in the teacher assignment and transfer process.
But while attention to the issue has intensified, neither local, state or federal officials have truly confronted the problem, said attorney Len Rieser of the ELC. The OCR threw out their complaint that the process was discriminatory.
The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that all classrooms have highly qualified teachers and requires each state to submit plans for doing this. But when plans haven’t made a dent, the Department of Education has done nothing so far. The original deadline of 2006 for states to meet the mandate has come and gone.
“Between OCR refusing to deal with it and state Department of Ed and the NCLB people refusing to deal with this in a head-on fashion, no wonder things haven’t changed that much,” Rieser said.
Likewise, the 2004 teachers’ contract did reduce the role of seniority in allowing teachers to transfer and expanded site-based teacher selection. But no strong incentives were put in place to attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools. The hiring process remains cumbersome, and the changes have had little impact so far on inequitable teacher distribution, the RFA report said.
“I think there’s a major change that’s needed in the teacher hiring and assignment process,” Braxton said. “But creating a change in rules and a change of culture in a large school system takes political will…and that’s the piece that hasn’t happened yet.”
As for continued efforts, Braxton said that his group is still formulating its priorities for this school year. Kronley said that ACORN is considering a focus on middle schools, especially math, since the ability to pass algebra is a gatekeeper to college-level courses. Distressingly few middle schools in ACORN’s neighborhoods have fully qualified math teachers who can adequately prepare students for that challenge, she said. ACORN is doing a study with RFA, which it plans to release this fall, on the extent of this problem.