A teachers’ contract not for teachers

What does it mean for parents to support teachers? Philadelphia school activist and parent Helen Gym tells us in this post, which appeared on the Parents United for Public Education website.

By Helen Gym

Like many parents across the city, the preliminary release of some of the terms of the Philadelphia teachers contract made me heartsick. For months I had watched city and district leaders make promises about mass school closings – they were necessary for financial viability, they would concentrate resources in remaining schools, they would put more students in “high performing seats.” Of course, no such promises had ever been delivered upon by over a decade of studies of hundreds of school closings in cities all across the country.

But nothing brought home the betrayal of such statements more than the news of what Philadelphia school leaders like Paul Kihn, a former McKinsey strategist, were really focused on:

  • dramatic wage & benefit concessions – as much as 26% for teachers earning just $55,000 per year;
  • eliminating step increases for teachers who get advanced degrees like masters and doctorates;
  • eliminating class size caps of 30 and 33;
  • reducing elementary school lunches to 30 minutes;
  • eliminating requirements for librarians and counselors, and denying counselors’ right to privacy;
  • eliminating from the contract guarantees around access to adequate textbooks, desks, water fountains, teaching supplies, and “safe and healthful conditions” for non-school activities.

This wasn’t a contract for teachers; it felt like a contract on teaching. In that sense it wasn’t just a document that was directed at teachers but one that spoke to every parent in the city – and not in ways that encouraged us about the future of our schools but made chillingly clear the outlook for our own children’s learning experiences.

In extensive interviews with the Inquirer and the Notebook, Supt. William Hite sought to contain the damage by explaining some of the more outrageous citations.  For example, Dr. Hite said issues about water fountains or copy machines or supplies have no place in a teacher’s contract. Class size caps are restrictive when blended and advanced learning opportunities require “flexibility” and “creativity.”

If one had not taught or parented in the Philadelphia schools for any number of years, that might seem logical. In reality, the teacher’s contract is full of seemingly odd things about building conditions, privacy rights, supplies and mandated positions in part because they have been the only way in which such things can actually be guaranteed. Sure, it seems inconceivable that a school would not have a functioning water fountain. But I have been in schools where fountains have been shut off for any number of reasons. The only reason fixing them became a priority was because the teachers’ contract mandated access to one.

Similarly class size caps of 30 to 33 have been less about restrictions on flexibility and creativity, than the only contractual defense against overcrowding.  Class sizes of 30 to 33, which have not changed in decades in Philadelphia, were supposed to be a maximum. Instead they are commonplace across our schools and routinely violated in far too many classrooms.

What’s shocking is how casually the new rhetoric re-casts enormous class sizes as some sort of perk. My jaw hit the floor when I read about Dr. Hite mentioning 50 students per class for an online Advanced Placement course. My daughter hopes to take AP Government next year at her high school. It’s intensive, challenging and more work than she’s likely ever been exposed to. Children deserve teachers with the time to give them the personal support and attention they need. They also deserve opportunities in every school to take a variety of challenging course material.

As a parent who’s a former Philadelphia public school teacher, it’s hard to describe how it felt to read the District’s message to experienced teachers. Most educators will tell you that the biggest threat to the responsible transformation of a school has as much to do with stability as it does with vision and resources. Having stable, experienced staff is the anchor of any school.

The District’s proposals around dramatic wage/benefit concessions for $55,000 salaried teachers (while select executives this year got enormous salary boosts), the elimination of wage increases for advanced degrees (I thought we valued education?), and the statement that for “teachers to advance, they must move out of the classroom” are heart-wrenching and appalling.

Philadelphia teachers are the lowest paid in the surrounding counties. More than half quit before they make it to five years. I think we’ve been incredibly successful in ensuring that teachers move out of Philadelphia classrooms – it’s just that it’s been for all the wrong reasons.

The fact of the matter is that we need more experienced teachers, not fewer. We need experienced teachers to mentor and help struggling new teachers. We need to figure out not only responsible wages to attract and retain such teachers, we need to address the type of working conditions and professional respect that will ensure teachers stay. We need to recognize that equating professional growth and “advancement” to forcing out the most dedicated teachers from the classroom and into administrative roles is neither sustainable nor desirable.

It should be noted that while Parents United for Public Education believes in partnering with all constituencies and has had a long relationship with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, we are far from union acolytes. We believe in an independent parent voice. In 2007, Parents United campaigned to have parents become a participatory member in the collective bargaining process. We believe, and continue to believe, hat parents should provide input around our own guiding principles instead of being caught between two large institutions. We were offered a seat as long as we were a silent observer and would not report on any details of the negotiations. We turned that offer down.

Many of us have dealt with frustrating situations with our teachers. We believe that social justice unionism is sorely lacking in Philadelphia. We believe that single-minded adherence to issues like seniority have resulted in unfair, inadequate, and inequitable teaching placements citywide. We have longed for an opportunity to provide feedback to teachers without turning it into a hostile relationship.

In other words, we think there’s lots of room for improvement.

But we believe strongly as well that teaching and learning go hand in hand. You can’t talk about changing teaching and not impact learning.

When I talk about supporting teachers, I think about the kind of classrooms and teaching I want my children to have. I want teachers to have collaborative work environments, decent and safe work conditions, to not worry about having enough books and supplies, and to have plenty of opportunity to strengthen their professional practice. To me, parents supporting teachers means linking a vision of teaching and learning – grounded in research, study and a strategic investment of resources – with the practical, nitty gritty distribution of time, wages, and professional courtesy. It means recognizing and prioritizing the gaps and inequity you’re trying to address.

Contract proposals like this lack any intention of addressing teaching and learning. They reinforce the suspicion that “school reform” is not about equity or excellence for children but about something much different. There’s little here that speaks to parents. Instead, the proposals seem more about creating a less stable, less experienced and less expensive professional staff.

As a (particularly brilliant) colleague wrote to me:

“It’s about shifting an already skewed balance of power (from which parents are largely excluded) further towards the side of private consultants and central office bureaucrats who have repeatedly failed the city’s children and are now dismantling the district they have so badly mismanaged. Busting unions, closing schools, and eroding the rights and conditions of those on the front lines of our children’s education have become weapons in this war on public education.”

In this war on public education, count this parent on the side of teachers.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 7, 2013