This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Tomorrow, a coalition of activists that includes students, parents, and teachers will deliver a “Teacher Quality Report Card” to leaders of both the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, demanding changes in the contract that is currently in negotiations.
What do the groups want? Bigger incentives to attract “experienced and effective” teachers to perennially hard-to-staff schools; school-based hiring of all teachers, with decisions made by leadership committees instead of just the principal; uniform performance standards on which to evaluate teachers, and professional development that is driven by teachers instead of dictated from the top.
The action is being organized by the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign for School Reform and the Education First Compact, which are using the occasion of the negotiations to push for initiatives organizers feel with lead to more equitable distribution of quality teachers across the system. Their campaign is called Effective Teaching for All Children.
A Notebook analysis of data received from the District for our summer issue, out Wednesday, confirms that Philadelphia still has a long way to go to assure that high-quality teachers are distributed equitably. Granting that experience and even “highly qualified” status under No Child Left Behind are not necessarily the best barometers of who is an effective teacher and who isn’t, for now they are the only gauges we have. And based on that, our analysis found that nearly one-third of teachers at the city’s highest poverty middle schools have two years’ experience or less, compared to just 12 percent in the lowest-poverty schools.
As for “highly qualified” teachers, in elementary schools virtually all teachers meet this standard and the distribution is even. But, again, once we get to middle and high schools, differences are apparent based on the relative poverty of the school.
As might be expected, middle and high schools with the most impoverished students also have constant teacher turnover. At the end of last year, one-third of teachers left middle schools with student poverty rates above 85 percent; one-quarter left high schools with the same demographic.
Knowing that there are no easy answers to these problems, the teacher quality campaign is nevertheless hoping that pounding away at these issues during the negotiations will at last force some collaborative problem-solving by the two parties.
“The PFT contract is negotiated behind closed doors, but students feel its impact every day,” said Lauren Jacobs of Cross City. “This is their way to say, we’re going to grade you on how well this contract really serves us.”
The big news here is the involvement of some teachers in the activists’ campaign through a new organization called the Teacher Action Group, or TAG. According to its mission statement, it “seeks to strengthen teacher voices in schools and policy decisions while partnering with and empowering parent, student and community groups.”
One of the leaders of TAG is Jim Hardy, a young social studies teacher at Kensington Culinary High School.
“The reason we formed is not to challenge the union, but to be a teacher voice in education advocacy,” said Hardy, who is also a building rep for the PFT at his school. “The times we would see ourselves as disagreeing with the union are rare and not at all the central focus of our group.”
But the group does disagree with the position of the PFT by favoring full site-selection of teachers, rather than continuing a system in which seniority plays a large role in where teachers are assigned. Hardy said that support is conditioned on making sure that teachers who have been chosen by their peers have equal say with principals on hiring decisions through leadership committees. If principals are simply given more power to pick staff, Hardy said, it won’t help the staffing problems at some of the highest-poverty schools.
“The only way I could see site selection helping those schools is if the teachers in those schools are empowered to…be an active part of reform in those schools…by choosing their co-workers,” Hardy said. “The School District says it believes in a model that gives teachers leadership in the school community.” This is their chance to prove they mean it, he said.
At tomorrow’s action, parents, students and teachers plan to make speeches and nail their platform to the door of District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St., Jacobs said. They are not expecting any District officials to come out and listen to them.
Then they will take a bus to PFT headquarters on Chestnut Street. No teachers will speak there, and some teachers won’t even go, still uncomfortable with the idea of publicly disagreeing with their union.
Hardy says he’ll be there. “I’m a big believer in the union, but I also believe there’s a role for subgroups of teachers to advocate for positions that we feel are in the interest of public education in general and teachers as a part of that. We’re hoping that the union will welcome our voice and our contribution and our ideas.”