Monthly Archives: May 2013

Ending the Myth That Seniority Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and seniority are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report “Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the School District of Philadelphia” is a case in point.  According to the Inquirer, the report stated:

Tenure and satisfactory evaluations are virtually meaningless for Philadelphia educators, and bad teachers can linger in the public school system too long. . . . Teacher pay ought to be revamped to keep strong performers, and effectiveness, not start date, should guide layoff decisions.

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom?

Hardly.

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true.

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and seniority, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is loaded with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report, in fact, recycles an old argument, one that Michelle Rhee, former Washington public schools chief, has been pushing for some time.  In a November 2011 Inquirer commentary headlined “Experienced teachers aren’t the problem,” I refuted her claim:

Rhee insisted that Last In, First Out laws are getting rid of our best teachers, arguing that layoffs should be based on job performance instead of seniority. . . . The authors [of the study Rhee quotes] do admit, however, that first-year teachers are generally ineffective, and that it takes a teacher an average of five or more years to become skilled. This is not surprising: New teachers tend to struggle with classroom management, they lack experience and objectivity, and they have yet to perfect their instruction methods.

. . . If all the teachers in a particular school are rated effective, what’s to stop a principal from balancing the budget by laying off the highest-paid teachers and keeping the least expensive ones? What would protect experienced teachers from politically motivated reprisals if they encourage their students to think critically about school reform and other public policies? And what will keep the new teachers we’re relying on from constantly leaving the system? In my 15 years with the Philadelphia School District, I’ve watched at least a dozen Teach for America educators leave after fulfilling their two-year contracts, off to use their urban teaching experience as resumé padding.

“Last in, first out” isn’t causing us to lose our best teachers. Far from it. Ending seniority-based layoffs might occasionally save a young talent. But it would also harm teacher morale, leave experienced teachers vulnerable to budget cuts and experimental reforms, and populate our schools with inexperienced teachers who are likely to leave.

Scrapping seniority isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our city’s best educators.

*This blog post is an adaption from a 3/20/12 post titled, “Ending the Myth that Tenure Protects Bad Teachers.”

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Filed under Achievement Gap, Teacher Bashing

Taxing Nonprofits Could Help Save Philly Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Philadelphia’s multi-billion dollar nonprofit sector must start paying its fair share. 

According to the Philadelphia Foundation’s Nonprofit Study 2010, there are over 3,500 nonprofits in Philadelphia.  In 2007 alone, they made more than $25 billion in revenue, which was 7.7 percent more than they made in 2000.  These nonprofits—which provide services that focus on the arts, the environment, animal rights, education, health, civil rights, housing, food, recreation, and the like—had nearly $47 billion in total assets in 2007.

Interestingly, these nonprofits pay no real estate tax, despite billions of dollars in assets.  For example, the Kimmel Center as of 2010 had $16,449,000 in liquid assets (cash, grants, contributions, etc.) and 267,645,000 in total assets (endowment funds, land, building and equipment, etc.), yet are exempt from paying $5 million in annual property taxes.

According to a 2007 article in the New York Times:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy surveyed 23 cities to try to determine which nonprofits that seek public support — excluding foundations, government and religious groups — receive property-tax exemptions. Such exemptions accounted for more than $1.5 billion a year, with more than half that amount forgiven in New York City and Boston. . . . In terms of value, the biggest exemptions after New York and Boston were in Los Angeles, Washington, Houston and Philadelphia. . . .

The Chronicle’s survey highlighted several well-known properties beyond hospitals that receive big property-tax breaks. These include the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, exempted from $18.4 million in property tax; the Chrysler Building in New York, owned by the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art college, an exemption worth $17.5 million; and in Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, exempted from $5 million in annual property tax.

The Philadelphia School District is facing a $300 million budget deficit next school year.  District officials are asking everyone to make sacrifices to help close this hole, and have demanded that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers make tens of millions of dollars in concessions via wage cuts.  Officials are also asking for an additional $120 million from the state, and $60 million from the city, some of which may come from new property taxes.

Mayor Nutter’s new real estate tax assessment—AVI (Actual Value Initiative)—has ruffled the feathers of some City Council members, however.  According to a February 28th article in the Philadelphia City Paper:

This morning, City Councilwoman Maria Quninones-Sanchez quietly and without speechifying, offered what may be a solution to one of the central problems created by the Actual Value Initiative, the city’s property-tax reform effort. The problem: An estimated $200 million of the tax burden is being shifted from large commercial properties to residential ones, while small businesses are also in many cases expecting to see their taxes skyrocket. Sanchez’s solution: Put some of that burden back onto the large commercial properties by way of the Use & Occupancy (U&O) tax, which is applied to commercial tenants, and let the city keep some of that money to use for tax relief for the rest of us.

What’s curious is that Sanchez didn’t mention the problem with Philadelphia’s 3,500 nonprofits—the fact that they bring in $25 billion in annual revenue and have nearly $47 billion in assets—but pay zilch in property tax, money that could help bail out Philadelphia’s struggling public schools.  Why should our city’s students go without counselors, nurses, sports, art, and music while mega nonprofits like the Kimmel Center are sitting on a quarter of a billion dollars in total assets and get a $5 million break in annual property taxes?

Fight for Philly, “a grassroots coalition of residents, community groups, neighborhood associations, faith organizations and labor groups,” feels mega nonprofits like the Kimmel Center should start pitching in and shouldering some of the load.  Earlier this month, they delivered tax petitions to City Council and Mayor Nutter asking for better school funding, demanding that “mega non-profits pay taxes on their profitable commercial property and contribute fair ‘good neighbor’ payments for city services from which they benefit.”

I agree with Fight for Philly—City nonprofits should no longer sit back and get a free ride.  City Councilwoman Maria Quninones-Sanchez’s new tax reform bill should also include Philadelphia’s 3,500 not-for-profits, which earn $25 billion in annual revenue.  Even a small real estate tax on these organizations could generate millions of badly needed dollars for Philadelphia’s struggling public schools.

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Filed under PFT, School Budget