What it means for parents to support teachers

This sign from last summer's Chicago Teachers Union strike defines why and how parents and teachers can align.  (Source: Associated Press)
This sign from last summer’s Chicago Teachers Union strike defines where parents and teachers should align. (Source: Associated Press)

Helen-about usLike 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 13% in both areas 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.

8 thoughts on “What it means for parents to support teachers

  1. Great post, Helen. The SRC and the School District of Philadelphia cannot create good learning environments for our kids if they undermine teachers. This contract proposal is punitive and counterproductive in so many ways. From getting rid of class size, to taking away supplies, to not guaranteeing privacy for discussions with school counselors, to abandoning school libraries, to cutting pay and benefits so steeply that teachers will flee Philadelphia for more reasonable pay…they shortchange teachers and students.

  2. Thank You Helen! Unfortunately this experienced, well seasoned teacher is calling it quits at the end of this year after 14 years of struggling with an oppressive, incompetent school system. Fighting the battles has taken a toll on my health and well being to the point that my doctor advised leaving the Philadelphia schools for a less stressful position in the suburbs, which I have decided to do. As a special ed teacher I have experienced the warehousing effect of special needs children and seen it increase every year. Life Skills classes in Philadelphia use to be considered a Full Time placement, capping the roll of each class at 12. Four years ago the district decided to arbitrarily change the placement category of every LSS class to Supplemental, without holding new IEP meeting with the parents to advise them of this change or get their approval for the change on a NOREP. Changing the placement category to Supplemental allowed the district to now place 20 Intellectually Disabled students in one class room with only one teacher and one class assistant. In addition while the class size went up, on the most needy students in the district, the funding for those classes was cut drastically. Community bus trips, which are a required part of the curriculum for LSS students, was reduced from once a week to once a month. Yearly ACCESS funding was either taken completely by the district or was reduced by half. The Cooking budget, also a required part of the LSS curriculum, has not seen an increase in over 15 years. The teacher is expected to create a recipe, buy the ingredients, and provide the 20 students with a practical involvement in this process for the whopping budget of $10 a week. The district justified this change by claiming the LSS students could not be considered Full Time because they mixed with the Regular Ed students IN THE HALLWAYS and THE BATHROOMS. These LSS students spent all other parts of their day, self contained, with their special ed teacher except for when they attend their specials classes, where they are still self contained with no other students from other classes. Putting 20 Intellectually Disabled students in one class is not only unethical it is immoral. Not only do these children require specially designed instruction but many are non verbal, require hand over hand attention and many have additional disabilities such as ADHD, Speech impairments, Behavior issues, elopement issues, and physical disabilities. I could go on and on about how this is just an outrageous and dangerous situation but physically and mentally I am just exhausted by it. Next year it becomes someone else’s nightmare and I may actually be able to reduce my blood pressure medication.

    1. Thank you for the 14 years Kelly and for the honesty of your comment. I do hope every administrator reads it and reflects on the importance of what matters to teachers. Merit pay & “bonuses” don’t count for much in conditions that don’t reflect pedagogical or moral intelligence..

      1. Helen————–They just don’t care. These are generally poor, kids of color whose parents don’t usually vote. In short, they are collateral damage so the corpoations can make money off them.

  3. I am a teacher outside of Philly and we are really feeling the hammer coming down us. I debate daily whether to stay (after 10 years) or begin a new career. The problem is that I love the kids but the rest is becoming truly impossible. I work with very talented, hard working and innovative teachers who are becoming more and more disenchanted as the days pass. The new PDE evaluations next year are insulting to professionals and most likely unattainable. If you keep demeaning teachers and calling them mediocre, than that is who will be left at the end of the day. We will not attract the best and brightest. Why? To work hard and then be punished? It is really a crime happening right now in America. The students pay the price in the end. We will look back in history and call it what it is; persecution.

  4. Thank you, Helen, for supporting teachers. I share your sense that there is a lot of room for improvement in our union but that in some cases, the union contract is the only thing preventing complete exploitation of students and teachers. I appreciate your support and look forward to opportunities for parents’ groups and teachers’ groups to work together for an education system that is more just and equitable.

    That being said, I think you may have mis-read Hite’s comments on teacher advancement. The Philly Inquirer article you linked to reads: “For teachers now to advance, Hite said, they must move out of the classroom; he wants the new contract to help them progress in their careers while remaining there, if they choose.”

    In a meeting between Hite and Teachers Lead Philly, Hite recognized that one problem with the current system is that teachers must leave the classroom in order to take on substantive leadership roles. I believe that he supports the idea of hybrid positions for teachers, so that teachers can keep one foot in the classroom while also sharing their expertise in other roles.

    I certainly don’t think that your outrage is misplaced, and I wonder whether teacher leaders will even be able to remain in the district (let alone pursue hybrid positions) if working conditions deteriorate even further. But I also want to acknowledge that our current superintendent has shown much more willingness to engage with teachers on this point than our former superintendent ever did.

    Thanks for continuing to advocate for students, parents, and teachers. You are one of our city’s strongest defenders of public education, and I’m happy to have you on teachers’ side.

    1. Thanks for that clarity. I really don’t want to ascribe motives and intent to Dr. Hite when all I’ve got to go on is the lens of another reporter. On the other hand the story was on the front page and despite the stated intention to keep teachers in the classroom, it’s really hard to look at that contract proposal and say, of course it values experienced teachers.

      It really helped that you spoke about his visit with Teachers Lead Philly. I agree with you. Every time I meet Dr. Hite I am so encouraged, then when I read about the District it’s so disheartening. It’s hard to figure things out. Thanks for bringing your personal lens to it Kathleen!

Comments are closed.