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DN Editorial: District must fix teacher policies

A report provides an illuminating glimpse at some key structural problems with hiring, evaluating and compensating teachers.

CONTENTIOUS contract negotiations, like those involving the School District and the teachers' union, are usually at heart a battle of narratives - between management, which is often in financial crisis, and labor, whose narrative is about protecting beleaguered workers from being exploited. They are rarely a celebration of hard data and facts about hiring, compensation and policies.

That's presumably why Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has questioned the timing and the funding behind a new report investigating policies covering teacher tenure, performance and pay at the School District.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, which describes itself as advocating for reforms in teacher policies to increase the number of effective teachers, released a report yesterday on such policies in Philadelphia, and it provides an illuminating glimpse at some key structural problems with hiring, evaluating and compensating teachers.

The report, commissioned and paid for by the Philadelphia School Partnership and the Philadelphia Education Fund, is not a broad indictment of policies or of teachers, but does identify some disturbing facts that should get a full airing - not just in current negotiations, but in the larger conversation about how to best improve our schools. For example:

*  The system for teacher recruitment and placement is not working.

* Principals' authority in hiring teachers is limited; this is troubling since it's hard to create an exceptional school if principals can't build their own team.

* PSD provides unusually generous health-care benefits, picking up 100 percent of those benefits. Districts in the surrounding region require teachers to pay a percentage of their benefits.

* The real red flag, though, is chronic absenteeism among teachers. More than 600 teachers are absent 16 or more days, almost once every two weeks, the report says. Considering that the school year for teachers is 188 days, that means that teachers are out nearly 9 percent of the time.

Couple that with the report's claim that the workday for Philadelphia teachers - just more than seven hours - is insufficient for meeting the needs of today's classrooms, and it's clear that there are some real problems that must be fixed.

In fact, many of the points made in the report are echoed in the district's recent contract proposals for teachers, including lengthening the workday to eight hours, and weakening seniority so that principals have full authority over hiring and firing teachers. (The district also wants teachers to give back 13 percent of their salaries, as part of $120 million it hopes to get from contracts to fix its deficit.)

It's important to note that this report comes from a group that advocates for better teachers, not cheaper districts or more charters or smaller public systems. It's also notable that the PFT declined to participate in the research, which involved interviewing teachers, principals, conducting surveys and focus groups.

We hope the report provides a basis for rational conversation about improving education; it shouldn't get lost in the politicized rhetoric of contract talks.