This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
We know that good teaching can make an amazing difference in the lives of children. Reams of research tell us that the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor in student achievement.
In recent years, Philadelphia has made strides in improving the caliber of its new teachers. But inequity in teacher distribution among schools is still intolerable. There is no more urgent need than putting top-quality teachers, both new and veteran, in the District’s neediest and hardest-to-staff schools – and then keeping them there.
Among the 30 highest-poverty schools in Philadelphia, a majority have 10 percent or more of their staff who are not deemed highly qualified. Among the 30 lowest-poverty schools, the comparable figure is 4 percent or less.
The problem of rapid teacher turnover in high-poverty schools is not unique to Philadelphia. Nationwide, this costs $7.3 billion a year, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. They’ve estimated it costs as much as $15,000 to replace each teacher who leaves.
But other cities are further along in dealing with the teacher gap (see Other cities outstrip Philadelphia in recruiting, hiring teachers). They generate a much larger pool of applicants to choose from and then provide more focused induction and mentoring to help new teachers get established.
With new leadership, a supportive mayor and governor, a new president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and an expected infusion of federal stimulus funds targeted toward enhancing teacher quality, there is no better time for the District to study and strive to surpass the successes in other cities.
The District and the PFT have a contract to negotiate by September, which could lay the foundation for enhancing teacher quality and equity across the system. In the past, the two sides have failed to come up with agreements for getting more teachers where they’re needed. The District has brushed off the task of providing top-notch leadership and staff support in all schools, while the union has dug in to protect the seniority-based system for teacher assignment.
But this year there is a broad community push for change, coordinated by the Education First Compact and the Cross City Campaign for School Reform. Their commonsense Teaching Quality and Equity Platform calls for meaningful incentives for accomplished educators to work in the neediest schools and a commitment to assigning effective principals where the staffs are most inexperienced. It also calls for diversifying the applicant pool and putting extra funding into improved working conditions by reducing class size, adjusting teacher loads, increasing support staff, and providing additional classroom materials.
Granted, there are other serious obstacles to retaining teachers – not the least of which is the consequences of concentrated poverty. Teacher pay in Philadelphia lags behind most suburban districts. And the current obsession with improving test scores at all costs, most intense at the highest-poverty schools, takes a toll on teachers’ sense of themselves as creative professionals.
But many of our problems can be more immediately addressed. Over the coming months, we must turn up the heat on both the District and the union to do so. We can’t squander this opportunity, once and for all, to tackle the disparities in access to good teaching.