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A quality teacher in every classroom: A dream deferred?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Despite pressure from No Child Left Behind, changes in the teachers’ contract, some incentives, and a “Campaign for Human Capital,” the School District has been unable to solve one problem that is a big contributor to the academic achievement gap: how to put a high quality teacher in every classroom.

A 2007 report from Research for Action (RFA) cited some improvements over prior years, including a wider applicant pool and significantly reduced reliance on “emergency-certified” teachers. However, the report noted that some racially isolated and high-poverty schools still labor with inexperienced staff, many vacancies, and high teacher turnover.

This fall the District also saw its worst vacancy rate in years, opening in September with more than 160 and carrying 120 into November. Most of those were in low-performing schools serving high concentrations of students of color. Pepper Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia listed nine vacancies in November.

“I think the vacancy issue is crucial to the achievement gap,” said Betsey Useem, who co-authored the RFA report.

Other cities made progress

A mid-November study released by the Center for Policy Research in Education detailed how big cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago had virtually eliminated teacher vacancies through more efficient hiring and compromises with their unions.

“Large urban districts have no excuse for opening school with many teacher and principal vacancies,” said Allan Odden, one of the authors of the report.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has vowed to tackle teacher quality along with many other issues that contribute to the achievement gap. On Nov. 19, she appointed Estelle Matthews of Wachovia chief talent development officer, but crucial hiring months went by without a permanent human resources director.

Ackerman has blamed parts of the union contract for the slow pace of teacher hiring and said she would seek relief from state regulations that make it difficult for terachers with out-of-state credentials to work in Philadelphia. The District and PFT are negotiating a new long-term contract this year.

The current contract guarantees the right of senior teachers to claim vacancies before new hires are placed.

In each of the last two summers, administrative decisions created situations in which veteran teachers exercised their right to choose new positions, grinding the hiring of new teachers to a halt.

In 2007, the School Reform Commission added 130 teaching jobs to reduce class size, creating last-minute openings in many schools. This year, Ackerman eliminated the jobs of more than 200 academic coaches, who then had to pick schools before new teachers could be hired. In both years, vacancies then spiked.

But contract changes alone don’t guarantee improvement. In 2004, the union made some concessions regarding so-called “site selection,” agreeing that for about half of openings principals could interview teacher candidates rather than simply accept the most senior teacher with the right credentials. However, it appears that this change has not resulted in more equitable distribution of high-quality, experienced teachers.

“We hear that some schools in the Northeast get hundreds of applications, while others get no applications,” Useem said. “But there has been no tracking of information.”

Teacher quality matters

The importance of teacher effectiveness has been backed by studies. Researchers at the University of Tennessee showed that, among students who began on the same level, those who then had high quality teachers for three years scored 50 percentage points higher than students who had three years of mediocre teachers, with the most benefit going to lower-achieving students.

On the positive side, Philadelphia has virtually eliminated “emergency-certified” teachers, those who have not passed state teacher tests. It has largely replaced these teachers with recruits from Teach for America (TFA) and teaching fellows from the New Teacher Project. These are graduates of top colleges or career-changers who pass content-knowledge tests and take teacher education courses while working.

The TFA teachers commit to two years, generally in the highest-poverty schools, and are considered certified. Most do not stay on beyond that.

The District also developed an incentive package to attract teachers to 24 hard-to-staff schools, though there is no evidence that it has had an impact. It has also launched a campaign to attract more teachers of color and developed new relationships with area schools of education.

But according to RFA’s most recent data, inexperienced teachers were still concentrated in high-poverty Black and Latino schools.

In 2005-06, 40 percent of teachers had less than three years experience in schools where 90 percent of the students were non-White, compared to 25 percent in schools with more White students.

Useem said in order to make significant changes, Ackerman needs to make a commitment – and also needs something to work with.

“The whole thing depends on money,” she said. “If Ackerman has nothing to bargain with, there may not be a lot she can do.”

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