Philadelphia schools have had to make do with less over the past two years due to budget cuts. And that includes getting along with fewer teachers. This year alone, the district had to lay off 676 teachers as part of a plan to close a $304 million budget gap.
However, many are protesting the way that district officials have gone about deciding which teachers were going to get the pink slip. Specifically, parents and education advocates are incensed because the district couldn't use any metrics that are used to assess the teachers' merit. Based on state-level guidelines, all the city could consider was the teachers' seniority.
To some, this system represents the fairest way layoffs can be decided in a profession riddled with variables and sometimes intangible definitions of "success." To others, it's a policy that sacrifices the great teachers of tomorrow to keep the "burn-outs" of today.
As the Philadelphia school district and the teachers union negotiate a new contract to replace the one that will expire on Aug. 31, the debate is heating up. The district wants to change the rules on layoffs and seniority.
Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a non-profit which works to increase the number of high performing schools in the district, says that this approach is as patently unfair as the much-derided system that relies on standardized test scores to determine teacher quality. According to Gleason, by continuing to insist that "First In, Last Out" be applied for all personnel decisions, the city's teachers union was costing the district a large number of exemplary instructors.
Relying solely on seniority has another unfortunate side-effect. It relieves school leaders and principals of any kind of responsibility and accountability.
"It actually takes accountability away from management," he said, "and then you end up with principals and leaders who can't be held accountable for their results and the whole organizational culture starts to break down at that point."
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers fervently disagrees with this assessment. It says worrying about how lay offs are executed is the wrong focus. It urges people to worry about and work to change the budget-slashing culture that leads to layoffs in the first place.
Pennsylvania isn't the only state where seniority is used as the sole criterion for terminations. New Jersey also uses seniority to the exclusion of all else, but many other states use time on the job as the chief determinant come layoff time. Teacher performance is the main factor in only 11 out of the 50 states.
However, any state that attempted to make teacher performance a key factor not only in staff decisions but also in compensation has run into a serious problem: How do they know which teachers are good and which are not?
As the teachers union and the school district negotiate the terms of a new contract, seniority is one of many places where the district is seeking union concessions. It also wants $133 million worth of givebacks on salary and health benefits. (Amending the seniority rule would ultimately require a change to Pennsylvania's school code)
For parent Jacqueline Bershad, who sides with the teachers on many other issues, getting rid of seniority-based layoffs seems a fair compromise.
"Is there a potential that they may be used unfairly against some one? Yes," said Bershad, "But for anyone who has a job, we all run that risk."