Eye on the Notebook: Should failing schools overhaul their teachers?


 by Christopher Paslay


In his recent blog, Does reforming high schools require starting with a new staff?, Philadelphia Public School Notebook blogger Eric Braxton explores the idea of overhauling teachers in failing city schools by replacing them, or by making them reapply for their jobs in order to prove their commitment to education. 


As I have said in nearly all of my posts, Braxton writes, I am of the opinion that our neighborhood high schools need a major transformation, not just some small reforms.


The culture and climate in these schools is just not conducive to learning.  Many people argue that creating this new culture requires replacing either all or some of the teachers in the building with a fresh staff that is on board with the school’s mission.   


Braxton acknowledges that this idea is controversial and could be unsettling to teachers, but he admits that he is “not sure there is any other way”. 


To accomplish this sweeping overhaul, Braxton suggests that the district allow all city principals to hand-pick their own staff.  Currently in Philadelphia, “site-based selection” schools can interview and hire teachers as they see fit (there are 82 of them), while non site-based schools are staffed by teachers according to seniority. 


For most business owners (and school principals outside of Philadelphia) the idea of not being able to hire your own staff would be considered ridiculous, Braxton states, but this is Philadelphia.


Although teachers are only one of many factors contributing to a school’s climate and culture, there are situations where teachers are apathetic and burnt-out, and principals should not be held hostage by such staff members; neither should our city’s children, for that matter.


But a massive overhaul of all teachers in a failing school is too radical—not to mention belittling to the majority of educators who work extremely hard on a day-to-day basis, and are already on board with their school’s mission.


The ideas Braxton explores—doing away with seniority and making teachers reapply for their jobs—are not new.  Paul Vallas tried to axe teacher seniority during his tenure, only to see it backfire in his face.  Arlene Ackerman fought for a teacher reapplication requirement while superintendent in San Francisco.  As a result, she damaged relations between herself and the teachers’ union and school board, a conflict that fueled an animosity that eventually led to Ackerman’s early resignation as schools’ chief. 


According to a 2005 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ackerman has consistently fought with board members Eric Mar, Sarah Lipson and Mark Sanchez . . . and has battled over a variety of issues, including Ackerman’s Dream Schools initiative, which aims to overhaul low-performing schools by giving them a more rigorous curriculum, longer hours and Saturday school, but also by requiring all teachers at the schools to reapply for their jobs to signal their commitment to the revamped program.


Lipson, Mar and Sanchez — along with leadership of the teachers’ union — have fought the reapplication requirement, saying it is a slap in the face to educators who have dedicated their careers to working in difficult schools.     


Requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs is indeed a slap in the face.  Braxton, in a sweeping generalization characteristic of most education advocates who have no experience teaching in a classroom, talks of schools needing a “fresh start” when it comes to their teaching staffs. 


In effect, he is suggesting that we throw away the baby with the bath water: Overhaul all teachers in struggling schools, or make them all reapply for their jobs. 


My question is, why all teachers?  Why are we being stereotyped and lumped together as one failing entity? 


I would like to know what Eric Braxton’s image of a Philadelphia public school teacher is, exactly.  From what he’s written in the past, it appears he believes that teachers are chronically late and consistently absent; that they don’t respect their students or give them an adequate voice; that they systematically ruin their students’ love of learning. 


I will acknowledge that on occasion, teachers overwhelmed by the challenges of a large under-resourced urban school system get tired and apathetic; they’re only human. 


But as a whole, the bulk of Philadelphia’s educators work hard and are making a difference given what they have in front of them.  Test scores are going up and progress is being made. 


So why must we wipe the slate clean?  Struggling schools don’t have a single worth while teacher?  Why must we all reapply for our jobs? 


This reasoning is not only insulting, but impractical. 


According to their 2008-09 Vacancy Listing, the Philadelphia School District is still short 185 permanent teachers.  If failing schools “wipe the slate clean,” where are these new and improved teachers going to come from?  If the principals of these failing schools could indeed select their own staff, where are they going to get their applicants?


The reality of the situation is that not many people want to teach in these failing schools to begin with.  Poverty, crime, and the lack of community and parental support cause many educators to look elsewhere; so do the behavior and attitudes of many of the students themselves. 


Teachers in these failing schools should be thanked for their dedication and perseverance, not stereotyped and disrespectfully made to reapply for their positions.  Besides humiliating educators, what would a reapplication requirement honestly accomplish?  If any of us were interested in leaving our school, we would have done it by now. 


Improving teacher quality must be done individually, on a teacher-by-teacher basis.  Sure, most business owners and principals outside of Philadelphia can hire their own staff, but most do it incrementally; it’s very rare that a leader goes in and blindly fires one-hundred percent of his personnel. 


If education reform advocates truly want more quality teachers in Philadelphia, they must stop stereotyping and demoralizing us.  Instead, they should respect teachers and work to win us more resources, which might attract better educators to the system and help replace those who are struggling to succeed. 


2 thoughts on “Eye on the Notebook: Should failing schools overhaul their teachers?

  1. “To accomplish this sweeping overhaul, Braxton suggests that the district allow all city principals to hand-pick their own staff.”

    Isn’t this what we fought to overturn in the 60’s with the union? Do we really want to go back to giving principals total autonomy over hiring and firing?

    As a district teacher, I cannot tell you how many of my colleagues relate stories about their principals, the pettiness, incompetence, lack of vision, egotistical, narcisstic leaders of their schools. Principals who manage to demoralize not only their teaching staff but the students who attend these schools. Power hungry, do as I say, or be punished, principals. Principals who do not work as a team with the staff, but create divisions in their schools between different races and cultures. Principals who during pd’s scream the party line and vision of the district while keeping to their own destructive agendas.

    I would venture a guess that there are many more incompetent principals than incompetent teachers. Why we don’t hear about them?

    In a school setting, the many good teachers that students have can make up for the incompetency of a bad teacher. How do good teachers make up for the incompentency of a principal when said principal holds your career in their hands and is responsible for the culture of the school?

  2. Imagine—–I must attend undergraduate school for 4 years. During these four years, while preparing to be a teacher, I must fulfill requirements for field placements and for student teaching. After earning my undergraduate degree, I then must continue working for my Instructional II certifucate (which was, supposedly, valid for 99 years) and for satisfying the new Act 48 requirements.

    However, in just a magical 10 month Fast Track Program, I can run an entire school as a PRINCIPAL instead of just 5 classes. Is it any wonder that the principalship is a haven for many failed teachers?

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