This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Teacher unions in general, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in particular, have moved beyond a concentration on “bread and butter issues” to actively engage in education reform, according to PFT president Jerry Jordan.
“Our biggest fights are dealing with educational issues and what’s best for kids,” Jordan said in an interview.
Jordan, a onetime social studies teacher who was elected president of the PFT in February 2008 after more than 20 years as a staffer and officer, said that there is no evidence teacher unionization per se stands in the way of student performance.
Across the country, “in states and school districts that have unions that student performance is higher than it is in states that do not have teacher unions,” he said.
Jordan cited the PFT’s constant call for smaller class size, for in-house suspension rooms staffed by teachers, for libraries in every school, and for more pro-active policies against school violence and bullying as examples of the union’s educational focus.
The movie “Waiting for ‘Superman’” dramatized for the general public the long-held contention in some school reform circles that unions protect bad teachers and resist common-sense changes that could improve schools.
Jordan denied this is true. But he did acknowledge that there was a time when the PFT fought every effort to fire a teacher, regardless of the merits.
“In the past, this union took every termination case, for whatever reason, to arbitra
tion,” he said. The grievance committee today, which he chairs, “review[s] every case…we get all of the background information before making a decision to go farther.” He said the practice changed at least 10 years ago.
What others call protecting bad teachers Jordan describes as guaranteeing due process – the long-held union position.
“They’re entitled to a hearing,” he said. “They’re entitled to have the principals make recommendations…to improve their practice….If a teacher is not doing well, if a teacher is harming children, the members of the PFT in that building don’t like it, and they speak out against it.”
Many viewers gasp at the data presented in the film that only one in 17,000 teachers is terminated for poor performance. Jordan said that the number is misleading because high percentages quit within five years – many of them, he said, because they know they aren’t being effective.
Just that day, he said, staff had told him of “a couple of schools where teachers have just resigned because they’re not being successful. They know it, and they decide to leave.”
Last year, the PFT negotiated a process called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), that provides new and struggling teachers with intervention – something the union has sought for 16 years, Jordan said.
Instead of being told to “sink or swim,” new teachers now get a consulting teacher who for the first year will give demonstration lessons, assist with classroom management, and help them manage their time. Experienced teachers having trouble can also be placed in the program. Jordan said he hopes PAR will help teachers improve and keep more in the profession.
For much of its history, the PFT had contentious relationships with city and District leaders. It developed a national reputation for lagging behind even its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, in seeking ways to improve education and hold teachers more accountable.
In 2001, Harrisburg stripped the PFT of some bargaining rights in the legislation that gave the state control of the city schools in 2001, with both Democrats and Republicans complaining of union intransigence.
In the time since, which has also seen the rise of the charter school movement, the union has accepted changes that wouldn’t have seemed possible in its early history.
It has agreed to “site selection,” which makes the process on how teachers are assigned to schools less dependent on seniority. It negotiated terms supporting school turnaround through the Renaissance Schools that have longer days and impose more requirements on teachers.
The Renaissance provision “was a huge, huge step that we made,” he said.
Jordan sticks to traditional union principles in defending seniority when it comes to potential teacher layoffs. He also rejects performance pay that ties teacher compensation – as opposed to schoolwide bonuses – to student achievement. These ideas are gaining traction among those who say weakening union rules will help improve the quality of teaching.
The decision of who goes or stays in schools, if it comes to that, “should not be subjective,” Jordan said. “We don’t have the research that tells us how you measure what an effective teacher is.” He also said that in difficult budget circumstances, “if layoffs are not done according to seniority … people who have the highest salaries will be the ones who will be laid off first. And that would be patently unfair.”
Regarding performance pay, he said he “just has not seen” another system that works better or fairer than the longstanding practice of paying teachers based on their years of service and degrees attained.
Jordan says that his biggest challenge now as a union leader is to respond to what he called efforts to “dismantle” public education: “fighting to make sure that the kids in the School District of Philadelphia are getting the kind of education that they rightfully deserve…it’s the only way for poor kids to get out of poverty.”