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District, with fits and starts, inches toward teacher equity

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

The summer of 2002 was a low point in Philadelphia’s ongoing struggle to put effective teachers in the classroom.

The hiring crisis was so severe that nearly half the teacher vacancies were being filled by individuals with emergency certifications. In many cases, they were hired despite weak academic backgrounds, failure to pass licensing exams, and lack of classroom experience.

That fall, newly hired CEO Paul Vallas launched a Campaign for Human Capital to address the paltry applicant pool, the extraordinarily high teacher turnover rate, and the continuing flight of teachers from the system’s highest-poverty schools.

A year later, education organizing and advocacy groups came together around a teacher equity platform to urge the District and teachers’ union to take vigorous steps to ensure a “stable, certified, experienced, and well supported teaching force.” They aimed to put these issues at the forefront in that year’s contract negotiations.

“The unequal distribution of experienced and highly qualified teachers in the Philadelphia public school system seriously undermines the ability of my children and thousands of other children to achieve the quality education to which they are entitled,” parent Dolores Shaw of the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project told the School Reform Commission at a February 2004 meeting.

During the five years of the Vallas administration, experts say progress was made. But since 2007 – a period of major transitions in the District – a Notebook review of teacher data suggests that backsliding has occurred on a number of fronts.

“Responding both to NCLB’s requirement that students be taught by ‘highly qualified’ teachers, and to local reform efforts launched in 2002, the District slashed the number of teachers with emergency certifications, substantially reduced classroom vacancies, and raised the certification rate for the teaching workforce, especially among new teachers,” observed the authors of a 2007 Research for Action study of District staffing problems.

A new Web site and new university partnerships helped boost applications. The districtwide core curriculum put in place starting in 2003 provided a vital support for new teachers, and it was backed up by a large cohort of coaches. New partnerships with alternative certification programs – Teach for America and later The New Teacher Project – played a big role in alleviating shortages.

Over five years, the number of emergency-certified teachers in the District dropped by more than 2,000. In September 2006, school opened with just 51 teaching positions unfilled – a record-low number of vacancies.

Nonetheless, things were far from rosy. The steady decline in the number of African American teachers in Philadelphia schools continued. And glaring disparities among schools in vacancy rates, turnover, and teacher qualifications also persisted. Schools with predominantly low-income student and students of color continued to struggle to attract and retain teachers.

The past two years have been marked by leadership change at all levels among those responsible for putting good teachers in Philadelphia classrooms. The positions of CEO, chair of the School Reform Commission, head of human resources, and director of teacher recruitment each have changed hands twice in two years.

Along with turnover at the top, the vacancy numbers have ballooned. On the first day of school this year, there were 146 vacancies, back to where things were in 2002.

Total applications for teaching positions dropped off by almost 30 percent in 2007 and only recovered partially in 2008.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s creation of a top-level executive position of “Chief Talent Development Officer” last November put a renewed focus on addressing the District’s human resources challenges.

“Great staff” is one of the five major goals of Ackerman’s recently adopted strategic plan, Imagine 2014. The document envisions beginning “every school year with a full complement of highly effective staff that reflects the diversity of our student population.”

Measures underway this year under Chief Talent Development Officer Estelle Matthews include moving up the bulk of new teacher hiring from August to June and increasing the recruitment of teachers of color.

New initiatives planned and budgeted for the first year of the District’s plan include the development of uniform teaching standards, a new Office of Teacher Affairs, an expanded peer assistance program for struggling teachers, and increased funding for professional development.

Meanwhile, just as in 2004, an array of community and education organizations have come together to call for action on a set of proposals to address inequities in the distribution of teachers, with the aim of influencing this year’s contract negotiations.