Teacher firing debate continues

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On May 30, A+ Schools Director Carey Harris sent out an email urging citizens to let their voices be heard in the current Pittsburgh Public School District debate over “teacher effectiveness.” As the district faces the furloughs of 400 of its teachers, A+ Schools, an independent community advocate for improvement in student achievement, has joined the district in asking that “teacher effectiveness” be factored into furlough decisions, instead of the current furlough selection method based on seniority.

“It’s not too late for PPS and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers to consider great teaching, in addition to seniority, when making these tough decisions,” Harris said in the email. “You can help by joining the nearly 600 people who have sent emails and postcards to PPS and the PFT urging them to work together to factor in currently-used teaching effectiveness measures when decisions are made about which teachers to laid off and where teachers teach.”

A+ also held an “effective teaching” demonstration at Oliver High School on June 5 to showcase the district’s teachers in elementary and high school.

However, despite these efforts, it seems unlikely the PFT will budge from their current stance of using seniority and certification to determine teacher furloughs.

“This is not a young teacher versus more seasoned teacher thing,” said PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis. “We want all of our teachers to stay, but we think seniority is the only fair way to do things. “

In late April the Pittsburgh Public School Board directed Superintendant Linda Lane to begin working with the PFT to develop a different teacher furlough process that would take into account teacher performance on evaluation methods, such as the Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation, which was developed as part of the district’s Empowering Effective Teachers Plan. Other evaluation methods could include value-added measurement, which looks at student test scores, but Esposito-Visgitis said 63 percent of PPS teachers don’t have scores to compare.

“It sounds pretty and it sounds easy but it’s not,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “There are no objective measures. We have RISE, which was developed by our teachers, but it was never meant to make those kinds of decisions. I was in on the development of RISE from the beginning and it was never meant to compare teachers.”

Esposito-Visgitis said the current furlough system protects teachers against gender bias, racism and other kinds of bias. Disputing the myth that tenured teachers cannot be fired, she said the district’s current system ensures incompetent teachers can be removed.

“The district has always had the ability to exit teachers who are not meant to be teachers,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “You are placed on an employee improvement plan where you work with your principal. It is meant to be a goodwill effort to help a teacher grow. If you do not make improvements, the district has the ability to (exit you).”

While Esposito-Visgitis admitted this was a hard time for the district financially, she said more focus should be put on what improvements the district has seen academically.

“Our district has made tremendous gains and people are failing to focus on that. An urban district making (Adequate Yearly Progress) two years in a row, that’s fabulous,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “Closing the achievement gap by 12 points, we should be celebrating that. We should be celebrating our teachers.”

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