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Despite progress, problems keeping enough qualified teachers

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

As contract negotiations stretch out into January for the first time in recent memory, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan is concerned that new teachers in city schools still are not getting the support they need to come to the city, stay on the job, and improve their practice.

This year, Philadelphia hired more than 1,700 new teachers and counselors – a record. The high number reflects the addition of nearly 900 positions, coupled with resignations and retirements.

The new jobs were added to improve academic counseling in middle and high schools, reduce class size, allow for common planning time, and add extra teachers in some of the lowest-performing schools.

Nearly one-quarter of the new teachers were either emergency-certified or intern-certified. Emergency-certified teachers have not finished their coursework or demonstrated content knowledge by passing the Praxis exam in their area.

Intern-certified teachers have passed the Praxis, but have not taken courses in education. Most of them come from Teach for America, for recent college graduates, or Philly Teaching Fellows, which recruits career-changers.

The District reported that as of the middle of November, 80 of the new hires had left. Jordan suspects the numbers are even higher, based on reports from the PFT staff.

“I’m hearing from those that are calling the union, new teachers feel unsupported in the buildings,” Jordan said.

A major priority of the Effective Teaching Campaign is recruiting high-quality teachers and keeping them in Philadelphia. While longtime observers say that the District has streamlined the human resources department, speeded up the hiring timeline, and made the application process more user-friendly, there are still concerns.

For instance, 163 of the new teachers had emergency certifications – meaning that even with the recession, the District could not fill its classrooms with people who had the proper credentials.

While the District has made improvements in its recruitment and hiring, “we still have more emergency-certified teachers than we want to have in the system,” said Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a leader of the campaign.

Unlike intern-certified teachers, who have passed the Praxis test in their subject matter, there is no way of determining the qualifications, if any, of those with emergency certifications. Some of them have full credentials from other states, but are still completing their paperwork. Pennsylvania, unlike some other states, does not automatically recognize out-of-state certification.

More than 30 of those 163 teachers were in middle and secondary math. “It’s concerning that there are so many emergency-certified math teachers,” said Ruth Curran Neild, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who has studied Philadelphia teacher supply and demand for years. With emergency-certified teachers, unlike those who are intern-certified, “we don’t know if they know anything about math.”

The District did not provide data about where the emergency-certified teachers were placed, but generally they wind up in needier, hard-to-staff schools because those are where the vacancies are. In many comprehensive middle and high schools, less than 10 percent of students reach proficiency in math on state standardized tests. These students presumably need the most expert math teachers.

Jordan said that despite all the recent attention on supporting new teachers, the District’s system is still lacking. While there are coaches for new teachers who float among buildings, they are stretched thin this year with so many new hires. And most buildings still don’t have mentors in the building who are more readily available to teachers who may be struggling.

“A mentor can say to a teacher, ‘Why don’t you come to my classroom, watch me teach a lesson,’ and talk about it later,” Jordan said. “They would also have support when things were going well.”

Armstead agreed that teacher support is one area where the District has yet to put into place an effective program.

“I think there’s been good progress in some of the qualifications of teachers, but there hasn’t been as much progress in focusing on the mechanics of how you help teachers excel and flourish,” he said.

Adding so many new teachers “is both an accomplishment and a financial risk,” said Bob Strauss, who has done extensive research on the hiring practices of Pennsylvania school districts. He noted that “the state budget is still in chaos,” and that Philadelphia made the decision to expand its teaching force while assuming more state aid than the District ultimately received.

Also, the increase in the District’s budget this year is due almost entirely to federal stimulus money, “and when that disappears, the ability of the Commonwealth to support education at the current levels is a question,” he said.

On the contract, Jordan said that the two sides met through the Thanksgiving weekend in an effort to reach a settlement. They are discussing some weighty issues, including new compensation models, against a backdrop of renewed federal attention on teacher quality. The Obama administration has come out in favor of performance pay for teachers – an idea endorsed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who also said she wants more power to assign teachers where they are most needed.

No Child Left Behind, the federal law passed in 2001, set a requirement that all students would have a highly qualified teacher by 2006, but that deadline came and went with little progress in getting the most experienced, effective teachers to the schools where they are needed the most. The Bush administration did not do much to enforce that part of the law, concentrating instead on student testing and the parts of NCLB that allowed students in low-achieving schools to transfer out or get private tutoring.

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