Adjudicating School Reform

Philadelphia uses a new strategy to solve an old problem, observes Saba Bireda.

Richard Cherry Jr., right, 15, departs Boys' Latin School of Philadelphia with his father, Richard Cherry Sr, in Philadelphia on July 15, 2008. The new policies, which the School District of Philadelphia plans to fully implement by next year, include eliminating seniority from hiring decisions and revising the teacher evaluation system. (AP/Jacqueline Larma)
Richard Cherry Jr., right, 15, departs Boys' Latin School of Philadelphia with his father, Richard Cherry Sr, in Philadelphia on July 15, 2008. The new policies, which the School District of Philadelphia plans to fully implement by next year, include eliminating seniority from hiring decisions and revising the teacher evaluation system. (AP/Jacqueline Larma)

The School District of Philadelphia received an unwelcome surprise at the beginning of this school year—nearly 200 teachers failed to show up for work just days before school opening. At the time, some commentators suggested the spate of teacher no-shows were linked to the district’s recently stated intent to change its teacher recruitment, retention, and evaluation systems in the city’s neediest schools.

The new policies, which the district plans to fully implement by next year, include eliminating seniority from hiring decisions, revising the teacher evaluation system, and offering financial incentives to teachers in low-performing schools. These reforms may be unpopular with some teachers and principals—though eventually all of Philly’s educators did show up for work—but they are the types of policies that are needed to ensure every student has access to an effective teacher.

Philadelphia’s new policies are remarkable for another reason—the district is required to implement the changes as part of a consent agreement that ends a 39-year old desegregation lawsuit. That suit, filed by the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, alleged that Philadelphia schools were unlawfully segregated by race and denied minority students educational opportunities equal to white students. The parties agreed to end the lawsuit in July.

The agreement’s emphasis on changing teacher policies at racially-isolated, low-performing schools signifies a new approach to remedying the problems that desegregation lawsuits first attempted to solve. The Philadelphia lawsuit—like many desegregation lawsuits—originally sought to increase racial diversity in the district’s schools through busing and other desegregation plans. But as racial demographics and legal strategies changed over the years, the focus of the lawsuit shifted to the best methods to increase the academic achievement of minority students.

A new strategic improvement plan introduced by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and a teacher quality campaign launched by community groups earlier this year appeared to provide the perfect basis for a settlement. In adopting the new teacher policies as part of the consent agreement, the district is acknowledging what research has demonstrated—that effective teachers are invaluable in reducing the achievement gap

Ensuring students in poverty have access to effective teachers requires the restructuring of a district’s human capital systems, from recruitment strategies to tenure policies. Such changes often represent a radical—and sometimes unpopular—departure from the customary system of hiring and placement present in many districts.

Indeed, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has already expressed concern that the district’s acquiescence to the agreement was an attempt to evade collective bargaining requirements. The agreement still brings together the right mix of policy changes needed to recruit effective teachers at low-performing schools, evaluate and improve instruction, and keep good teachers at challenging schools.

Some of the key provisions of the consent agreement are discussed below. These provisions are all critical components of a robust human capital system for attracting, developing and retaining successful teachers.

Teacher evaluations

Under the agreement, the district will base teacher instructional evaluations on teaching standards and design professional development activities that are based on teacher evaluations. Teacher evaluations often fail to have any meaningful effect on instruction because they are frequently based on arbitrary indicators, do not distinguish between levels of performance, and do not adequately address areas of needed improvement, such as the nondescript “satisfactory-unsatisfactory” evaluation forms.

As suggested in a recent CAP report, teacher evaluations can have an impact on teacher quality when teachers understand what is expected of them and professional development concentrates on how to improve instruction. Furthermore, meaningful evaluations can help principals in selecting and retaining staff that have the most impact in raising student achievement.


In districts such as those in Philadelphia, where teacher placement is often determined by seniority, principals have little control in selecting their own staff. It is unfair to hold principals accountable for the performance of their schools if they cannot choose their staff.

The agreement would allow low-performing schools to bypass the district’s seniority system and give hiring power to the school. School reform advocates have suggested that the hiring decisions be made by a committee of the principal, staff, and community members. Still, the principle is clear: Schools should have the ability to hire candidates who will be the right fit for their particular school community and who are committed to their vision of instruction.


It’s no secret that low-performing schools have a difficult time attracting effective teachers. The consent agreement attacks this problem in two ways. It allows for the “strategic compensation” of staff in low-performing schools. And it uses the actual budgeted costs of teachers to determine resource gaps between high and low-performing schools.

By offering financial incentives to teachers in low-performing schools, the district acknowledges that those teachers face additional challenges in raising student achievement. Financial incentives can also be a powerful tool in convincing talented applicants to work in a more challenging school environment.

Under the agreement, it is also likely that low-performing schools will receive additional financial resources to make up for the gap in spending on teachers’ salaries between high and low-poverty schools. These additional funds will be directed at schools with less experienced teachers and may be instrumental in providing retention incentives for new teachers.

One effective use of the additional funds would be the implementation of formal induction and mentoring programs for beginner teachers. The agreement also requires the District to provide common planning time for teachers. This will give new teachers time to seek out mentoring and collaboration with other staff members.

Weighted student funding

Implementation of the agreement at Philadelphia’s 85 lowest-performing schools will require substantial funding. Fortunately, the agreement also requires the district to institute a form of weighted student funding in a pilot area in the 2010-2011 school year and district-wide within five years. Weighted student funding accounts for the particular needs of students at low-performing schools and provides additional funding based on those needs. Increased funding can provide resources to help low-performing schools recruit and retain effective teachers.

School reform advocates and districts litigating desegregation cases alike have struggled for years to reach agreement on the most meaningful ways to provide minority students with equal educational opportunities. If fully implemented and funded, Philadelphia’s consent agreement will provide a model for districts seeking a similar resolution. Most importantly, it will go far in providing students in the city’s lowest-performing schools with effective teachers—a necessary step in increasing student achievement.

Saba Bireda is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s education policy proposals please go to the Education page on our website.

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