This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
[Updated, 5/23 with additional reaction]
A report by a national nonprofit studying Philadelphia has concluded that the District does a poor job of hiring and assigning teachers, fails to effectively evaluate or support them, and overrelies on seniority to govern placement and layoffs.
The report, from the National Council on Teacher Quality, also said that Philadelphia pays salaries competitive with surrounding districts and most charter schools for the first 10 years, but then rapidly falls behind — largely because the only way to get a raise after that, besides a negotiated percentage increase, is for a teacher to accumulate more graduate credits.
While the NCQT report found much to criticize regarding the teachers’ contract — now being negotiated — it also found many shortcomings in District practice and state law. It described what many observers have long considered to be a dysfunctional hiring system, outlining long-standing problems that have resisted solution for decades. The biggest of these is a late hiring timeline that lets the best candidates get away and results in staff instability at many schools, usually the District’s neediest.
Plus, the report said, the District "appears to provide little support to its principals to help them make a good hire, either by way of screening candidates or providing guidance on sound hiring procedures and strategies." The confusing site-selection process is not working very well, it concluded, and the Peer Assistance and Review program, in which the District and union collaborate to identify and coach struggling teachers, has resulted in very few teacher dismissals.
Less than 0.5 percent of teachers are rated unsatisfactory, it found.
"There are a lot of things you can change without making adjustments in contract or state law," said NCTQ’s Nancy Waymack, one of the report’s authors. She described some of the "lowest-hanging fruit," besides moving up the hiring timeline, as better use of data to track teacher applications and qualifications, more robust principal training, and a more effective teacher evaluation system. New state requirements mandate a new evaluation system to start in 2014.
The report was funded by the Philadelphia School Partnership, and NCTQ is partially supported by the Gates Foundation. The involvement of PSP and, indirectly, Gates, made the findings an immediate target of criticism from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and others who fear that its purpose is to provide justification for the District’s pursuit of deep union concessions this year as it seeks to maintain its financial viability. The District wants $133 million in concessions from the union to help fill a $304 million hole in its budget.
The report makes some significant recommendations that are anathema to the union. Among them: Offer higher salaries to top teachers while "phas[ing] out salary differentials for earning course credit and consider[ing] alternatives to the traditional teacher pay scale." This idea was immediately dismissed by PFT president Jerry Jordan as unworkable.
"The recommendation to ‘offer higher salaries to the top teachers who consistently produce the greatest learning gains’ is problematic because these ‘gains’ need to be clearly defined, and equal opportunities need to be provided to those teachers who don’t teach subjects measured on standardized tests. It’s also ironic to note that the NCTQ seems to think there is little value in educators pursuing advanced degrees. At best, this sends a mixed signal to teachers and students about the value of education," Jordan said in a statement.
Of the groups supporting the study, Jordan said, "They have their agenda."
But the report also includes a few surprises. Philadelphia teachers are the only ones in the region, and among the few in the country, that don’t pay anything into their health premiums. Rather than look for significant savings there, the report suggests that this perk should be advertised more widely and used as a recruiting tool. It also suggests a big salary hike when a teacher earns tenure, but suggests that not occur until after a teacher has been in the system for five years instead of three.
The report cites other cities that use more complex rubrics for teacher evaluation than standardized testing — among them, student input. It recommends that students have a role in teacher evaluation, even including a sample questionnaire for students to fill out. And it includes a graph maintaining that the most rigorous studies in the field have found little connection between the degree attainment of teachers and their classroom effectiveness.
In an interview, Jordan said that there is no magic bullet in changing teacher evaluation. He said that different evaluation systems pursued in other districts have not yielded a much higher percentage of teachers being rated unsatisfactory.
Overall, Jordan said, the 75-page report offered "very few new insights or ideas on how to raise teacher quality" and ignored the issue of making sure that the District has enough resources to "provide our children with the materials and programs they need for a quality education."
The union was invited to participate in the data collection and to review a draft, but declined on both counts. Jordan said it was inappropriate to do so during negotiation. Individual teachers and principals were interviewed and participated in focus groups, but an attempt to get most to fill out a survey got little response.
The District did participate and provided requested data. Superintendent William Hite, who has publicly sought significant contract changes — including the elimination of seniority in teacher placement and layoffs — also issued a statement. He called it "an impressive review" of the District’s policies and said that many of its recommendations are in line with his strategic plan.
Hite was not made available to be interviewed about the report.
[Update: Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) said that none of the improvements and changes called for in the report — including more principal training, more support for new teachers, and earlier hiring — will be possible if the District is constantly fighting for adequate resources.
"It is impossible for the School Reform Commission and Superintendent Hite to carry out the report’s best recommendations if the District is forced to make $300 million in budget cuts," Cooper said.]
Other controversial findings and recommendations from the report:
- It proposed making the school day at least eight hours long. Philadelphia’s school day, at 7 hours, 4 minutes, is among the shortest in the area. The report says this does not provide enough time for teacher planning and collaboration.
It said that the District’s sick-leave policy offers the perverse incentive to veteran teachers to be absent more often, doesn’t promote good attendance, and is costly. Philadelphia has among the highest teacher absenteeism rates of any large district in the country. "Philadelphia’s policy on absenteeism is relatively lax," it says. The tools to track and deal with absenteeism exist, but principals rarely use them. The report said: "It would appear that a tolerance for high rates of absenteeism has permeated the District culture." Cooper noted that some teacher absenteeism can be attributed to ineffective principal leadership.
It said there is no way to assess whether the $25 million spent on professional development is having a positive impact. Although the contract requires teachers to engage in 28 hours a year, that is hard to enforce, it said.
The District is not just competing with suburban districts for teachers, but also with charter schools, many of which pay competitive beginning salaries and provide some form of performance pay that allows young teachers to move up the salary scale quicker.