The Pittsburgh Foundation

Tough Love

Max King

By Maxwell King

President and CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation

If you want a prime example of how blind obedience to party ideology spoils opportunities to improve Pennsylvanians’ lives, look no further than the late, could-have-been-great “Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

Even the title of the bill follows the tired practice of both Republicans and Democrats naming legislation not to describe what it will accomplish, but more to promote a partisan political argument.

The Teachers Act would have removed the requirement that school districts abide by seniority in situations requiring teacher layoffs. Instead, officials would base decisions on teacher-performance ratings. The bill would also allow districts to lay off teachers for economic reasons. Currently, school districts can furlough employees only because of a decrease in enrollment, a change in educational programs or consolidation of schools.

The legislation was birthed by the Republican leadership based on a template followed by Republican-majority state legislatures across the country. It passed both houses along party line votes, then on May 18, it went to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

He promptly vetoed it

If the governor felt the need to kill the bill, he also had an obligation to make clear what approach to tougher teacher accountability he would support. Simply backing the union, and turning his back on this critically important issue, isn’t good enough.

Each side faithfully played its longstanding role: Republican legislative leaders wrote the legislation knowing it would be a poison to teachers’ unions, which have long been base-level supporters of Wolf and other Democratic Party candidates. Wolf paid homage to that base in his veto message when he repeated two common teachers’ union complaints: teacher evaluations rely too heavily on standardized test score results; and provisions that give struggling teachers an opportunity to improve would have been eliminated.

Republican legislators and their outside supporters put on a public relations show to pressure Wolf to sign the bill. After the veto, they warned that upcoming budget negotiations on education funding would now be much tougher. On the other side, teacher’s union officials who helped Wolf ride education funding into the governor’s office expected no less from him than complete protection. The impression from that is that the governor is ignoring expert analysis and overwhelming public support for a rigorous teacher evaluation process. 

It is a completely predictable outcome that doesn’t do much for the nearly 1.8 million public school students in Pennsylvania. Those of us in Pittsburgh who have worked on teacher evaluation as part of local school reform for years would have benefited from stronger leadership.

Wouldn’t it have been great to see a “tough love” approach that reflected more courage on the part of school board members, teacher’s union officers, state legislators and the governor? There actually is precedent for it in our own Pittsburgh Public School system. For a brief, shining period from 2007 to 2010, the district was a national leader in devising a strong and teacher-influenced accountability process.  

The profiles in courage back then went to the reform-mandated Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka, who pulled themselves out of entrenched positions and began working together to overhaul the district's method of evaluating teacher performance. The result was the Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation, or RISE. Each had tough meetings with constituents and took abuse and criticism in response to the tough love approach.

But it worked: the RISE evaluation plan was adopted. The superintendent and the teacher’s union president proved it is possible to collaborate and develop an effective process for accountability that is fair to teachers and that boosts overall education quality.  In school year 2013-14, the District received a waiver to begin using the RISE system. Many believe it has worked well for Pittsburgh.  

Should state officials decide to get serious about teacher evaluation again, the Pittsburgh Public Schools experience offers the example of progress being directly proportional to the degree to which officials are willing to tick off those who are dearest to them on the issue.

That correlative may be even more important in guiding Dr. Anthony Hamlet, the former director of accountability transformation in the School District of Palm Beach, as he takes over as the new superintendent of the Pittsburgh system. Hamlet brings significant experience working with teachers in troubled urban schools, and I, as one working in local philanthropy, hope he and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis will make it a priority to develop their own tough love partnership so that Pittsburgh makes even greater leaps forward in effective teacher evaluation. 

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation