On September 28th, we got news that the Penn Alexander School would be named a national Blue Ribbon School. The Daily News followed up with an editorial on, generously speaking, labor practices and building better schools.
I sent my response as an Op Ed:
The Daily News Editorial on the Penn Alexander School’s success provides us with a what educators call a “teachable moment”, about the difference between people playing school and those actually doing it.
Although the DN goes out of its way to be gracious to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, they are fundamentally mistaken on the facts.
The 2009 PFT contract –frozen due to the current ineptitude of the School Reform Commission – establishes “site selection” (page 72), in which Principals, teachers, and student meet to help select new staff. The Daily News Editorial pines for all schools to run this process for new hires. Well, Christmas comes early, folks: The vast majority already do.
According to the contract, every single school designated “High Needs” selects all of their vacancies through site selection. These schools have not become Penn Alexander.
The other schools in the District, magnets, special admit, and school with good test scores, are 50% site-select, with the option to move to 100% by a staff vote. At 50% or 100%, it is safe to say that those school also did not become Penn Alexander.
Dr. Hite has established his own set of “turnaround” schools. In addition to curricular changes, these schools may fire the majority of their staff and replace them at the principal’s discretion. The results? Not Penn Alexander.
In 2014, the School Reform Commission illegally nuked the teachers’ contracts. They also instituted 100% site selection at all Philly schools regardless of previous status. This move, and you know what’s coming, did not result in every single school becoming Penn Alexander. But it did leave thousands of kids with no teachers for an entire academic year, and caused many great teachers to quit regardless of whether their hiring included a demonstration lesson.
The Daily News argument echoes the cacophony of lobbyists who want you to believe that seniority is what ails our schools. But a grand total of zero schools rely on seniority as a way to fill their ranks. When I ran the numbers in 2014, I found nearly 80% of schools do exactly what the Daily News is calling for. Why spill so much ink over a fraction of a fraction of the teaching staff?
Look, it would be great if we could hire teaches like Google, with their legendary intelligence and personality tests. But Google pays six figures, and goes out of their way to keep their employees happy, motivated, and invested in their work. Creating a system where we get 10 applicants for every 1 vacancy, where people really want to go to work, would do more for teachers than any other change in labor rules.
The Daily News notes the considerable resources available at the Penn Alexander School. But take a minute to consider what they don’t have: They don’t have as many children in foster care, or the corrections system. They don’t have as many children from abject poverty or homelessness. They don’t have to worry about their school being closed down or flipped over to a private company (while the SRC and their families take their cut). This is what happens when a school becomes whiter and wealthier – the teachers and administrators have space and resources to do the work of educating young people.
When the wonderful kids travel to Penn Alexander, they pass green spaces and new businesses. When my wonderful kids come to school, only a few blocks north, they see a very different picture. Many of my kids come from South West and North Philadelphia, where there is no “West Philadelphia Initiative” to build supermarkets and provide extra police officers. Many of my kids walk from Mantua. Instead of passing Ben and Jerry’s, they see the Youth Studies Center. They see the shell of West Philadelphia High School, waiting to be turned in condominiums that would not welcome kids from around the block. The message of their value, and their learning, is clear.
The view of schools as a labor problem is pitifully narrow. Next time, ask a teacher.
Teacher, The Paul Robeson High School For Human Services
PFT Caucus of Working Educators