Our Governor’s Capitulation

Two weeks ago, Gov. Wolf vetoed a bill that would have helped school principals ensure that our most effective teachers are in classrooms for the 128,000 students who attend the Philadelphia School District. This is a missed opportunity to put the needs of kids over the needs of adults.

House Bill 805 would have permitted district leaders, during layoffs, to furlough teachers who get “failing” or “needs improvement” grades on their annual evaluations. Instead, we’re stuck with the old system – one 44 states have left behind – that forces us to look solely at years served, rather than students served.

At the heart of the matter is equity and justice for children

I’ve been a Philadelphia principal for 13 years. I’ve been in schools where the best teachers were experienced veterans. I’ve been in schools where the best teachers – the ones who were really moving the needle on student growth and achievement – were new in their careers. I have also experienced times – during necessary layoffs due to budget problems, enrollment shifts, or student needs – when I’ve had no choice but to give a pink slip to that great young teacher, the one who connects with kids whom others have given up on (while the ineffective teachers keep collecting paychecks).

Students should have access to the best teachers possible. That’s the whole premise of educational justice and equity. “Best” doesn’t mean “years served.” The district doesn’t owe senior teachers anything: We owe our kids the best possible odds of academic achievement.

Too often, people ignore the reality of what schools need to be focused on: the successful delivery of students’ educational rights.

Inflexible Last In/First Out Policies are harmful to our students

Recently, a teacher (and union member) who I respect tremendously offered her take on the issue:

I am a PFT member, and although I value seniority as one factor in teacher hiring, compensation, and retention, I see no reason for it to play the exclusive roll that it does. Many people question the motives and decisions of principals. I question the motives and decisions of the those who crafted the PFT (union) contract that so exclusively relies on seniority in making important staffing decisions. I imagine we’d recruit and retain better principals if they weren’t so confined by seniority rights in handling their staffs. I imagine we’d recruit and retain better teachers, if work quality could actually be rewarded. I’m more interested in discussing how we evaluate teachers than whether or not we should. This argument is not anti-senior-teacher, it is anti-seniority as an exclusive measure for so many key decisions.”

A big part of increasing the odds for student success is giving school leaders the latitude to use multiple measures to increase those odds. When unions (rightfully) demand that multiple measures be used to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness and simultaneously demand that multiple measures not be used to determine layoffs, they violate students’ rights.

There are several methods that can be used to evaluate a teacher’s (and principals’ for that matter) effectiveness: Student Achievement (student growth on benchmarks or on Student Learning Goals), Instructional Effectiveness (observations), Values, Job Responsibilities, Contributions, and Student Perception surveys.

This is not about Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s about money. It’s about power. It’s about the heavy sway of teacher unions in this shortchanged city. It’s about making a choice about what we value more: labor rules or student achievement.

Unions have more sway than student interests

With his veto, Wolf chose adults over kids and union support over equity. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), which supports the bill, put it this way:

“This issue is not about forcing tenured teachers out of the classroom. It is about giving school districts the flexibility to manage their personnel in a manner that is responsible, and responsive to the needs of the students. PSBA believes that effective teachers and the students they teach deserve better. It just makes sense.”

Reversing an obsolete law makes sense, particularly for minority and poor kids who make up, respectively, 86 and 83 percent of students in Philadelphia. Research shows that children of color who come from economically disadvantaged families are much more likely than white and wealthier kids to be taught by ineffective teachers. Perhaps that’s why State Reps. Margo Davidson (D., Delaware), Jordan Harris (D., Phila.), Jake Wheatley (D., Allegheny), and Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.) – all African Americans – support H.B. 805.

Although people claim this is about union-busting, it’s not. It’s about supporting students. In fact, using seniority-based teacher retention during layoffs – and not multiple measures to evaluate teacher performance – is what I call “student-busting.”

The veto of this commonsense bill hurts our schools and our communities, and it puts last those who should be put first: our students. For those of us who work daily with our cities’ most vulnerable children, this is our inescapable reality.

We need courage from our policy makers

The governor’s veto was a shortsighted pander to the traditional power structure and anathema to our battle for student justice and equity. We should expect more courage and integrity from our elected leaders.

This was originally posted here. A few additions to this piece to respond to questions that have been posed, but my thoughts remain the same.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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