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Backdrop to contract talks: 163 new teachers are emergency-certified

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

As the District and the teachers’ union try to finalize a new contract, talks may be shaped by a budget crunch, evidence that the city is still having trouble attracting enough qualified candidates, and an intensifying national conversation about new compensation models.

Data provided by the District in mid-November showed that 163 of the record crop of 1,734 teachers hired for September – more than 9 percent – held emergency certifications. That means they either lacked a degree in education, did not major in the subject they are teaching, or did not pass the teacher exams, called the Praxis.

Another 287 of the new hires were from Teach for America or the Teaching Fellows programs. These teachers have intern certifications; while they do not have education degrees, they majored in the subject they are teaching and passed the Praxis test in their field. Considered “highly qualified” in Pennsylvania, these new teachers often come out of top colleges.

A coalition called The Campaign for Teacher Effectiveness has been pressing the District and union to take steps in a new contract to create a more stable, skilled workforce, including incentives for high-quality, experienced teachers to go to the highest-poverty schools. The new data suggest that this task is still difficult. More than a quarter of new hires are emergency or intern-certified.

The District had the most trouble recruiting certified math teachers and counselors. There were 29 emergency-certified secondary math teachers hired, as well as 31 high school counselors. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman initiated the hiring of more than 200 new counselors for middle and high schools this year to reduce the student-counselor ratio.

Substantial numbers of the emergency certifications are in traditional shortage areas such as special education, Spanish, and English as a Second Language. But emergency certifications also show up in areas that generally have gluts: high school English, physical education, and elementary grade teachers.

The District did not provide a breakdown of where the emergency-certified teachers were assigned. It did report that 85 new teachers have left since the start of the school year.

Leaders of the campaign have said that for Philadelphia to attract and retain better teachers, it needs to provide incentives, such as support staff, experienced mentors, and collaboration time, to help those who take on more challenging assignments.

The District is pursuing an opportunity to tap into federal funds to design better teacher evaluation and compensation systems. Philadelphia is working very closely with the state on an application for the Race to the Top Fund, Ackerman said.

The Obama administration’s $4 billion fund seeks to promote “building a workforce of highly effective educators” through reform in teacher pay and evaluation; improve state academic standards and student assessments; and encourage efforts to turn around low-performing schools.

The chance to compete for Race to the Top money creates an incentive for the District and union to revamp pay structures as a way to secure funds that could help boost teacher salaries. Applications are due in early 2010.

Besides Race to the Top, there are also new federal innovation funds and teacher incentive funds the District can pursue.

Ackerman downplayed concerns that District budget constraints are making it difficult to fund a new contract. “We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to come up with a win-win for everybody,” she said.

The District never tips its hand about how much money is available for raises; officials maintain that nothing is set aside in the budget. Teacher salaries consume around 40 percent of the District’s budget.