We must retain our best teachers

By Grant Oliphant
President and CEO

For years now, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has been on my personal roster of heroes. Their members do challenging, important work educating our kids, and the union's willingness to work in partnership with the Pittsburgh Public Schools has been probably the critical factor in moving forward one of the most promising school reform efforts in the country.

But at The Pittsburgh Foundation, we simply cannot agree with the PFT's flat-out refusal to work alongside PPS Superintendent Linda Lane on finding an alternative to the last-in, first-out rule that will soon result in the furloughing of some of the school district's most effective teachers. If the union persists in that refusal, it could end up gutting the very reform initiative it has helped make happen.

That's why I joined my colleagues at the The Heinz Endowments and Grable Foundation in penning an oped on the subject that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday. This was a difficult commentary for us to write. A decade after our three foundations publicly withdrew funding from PPS in despair over the district's dysfunctions, we  have long-since returned as enthusiastic supporters of a school board, two superintendents and a union who together have held out real hope of proving that urban public education in this country can be dramatically improved. We believe in these folks and what they are accomplishing together.

The heart and soul of this work has been an effort to swell the ranks of highly effective teachers. Teachers matter, and as in any other profession, some are better at it than others. Working on the premise that every child deserves to be taught by teachers who really have the skills to help them learn, PPS and the PFT have partnered in an ambitious program to transform that premise into a reality.

Unfortunately, the district's fiscal crisis has forced it into the unenviable position of having to furlough several hundred teachers in the coming months. State law in Pennsylvania mandates that teachers be laid off solely according to seniority, regardless of how skilled they are at educating students. The good news is that the union, if it wanted to, could agree to set that requirement aside and develop an alternative that would also make some allowance for considering a teacher's performance. The bad news is that it doesn't appear to want to.

In fairness to the PFT, its reluctance is at least partially understandable. Teachers who have been around longer earn higher salaries, and they logically fear being targeted first by the budget-cutting knife. They also note that performance measures can sometimes forget  that high performance in a more challenging school may look different than in an easier setting. And they worry that, historically, methods for evaluating a teacher's performance have done little to inspire confidence that they will be treated fairly.

But all of these concerns either have been addressed in Pittsburgh or can be if approached in good faith. The critical point is that teachers in Pittsburgh are already subject to a rigorous evaluation process that they helped craft. Called RISE, this evaluation system uses a comprehensive set of criteria developed by the District in partnership with the PFT, and it does a good job of identifying how effective teachers are in helping their students learn.

What would it say about our decision-making as adults if, despite having this critical performance information, we would simply choose to ignore it? Can you imagine any organization--public or private--remaining successful by making critical personnel decisions with complete disregard to whether they are actually the best at their jobs? Insisting on pursuing that course will be bad for the students, for Pittsburgh's school reform effort and, ultimately, for the union.

We can do better than this. Against the background of the great work that has been accomplished on reform and building teacher effectiveness so far, we should be doing everything in our power to hold onto every effective teacher we possibly can. For everyone's sake, but most importantly our children's, the PFT and PPS must sit down together to craft a solution that combines respect for seniority with respect for effectiveness, but above all respect for the students, whose learning needs should matter more than anything.

Click here for the editorial published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 29, 2012


Thank you for taking a public stand on this issue and for helping the public understand the need for an excellent teacher in every classroom. The PFT cannot continue to promote the idea that seniority is "the only fair way" when there is absolutely no data to support that claim -- in fact, there is quite clear evidence that a) the quality of teaching matters, and teachers vary dramatically in their ability to enact high quality instruction and b) quality of teaching and associated learning gains is not correlated with years experience.