This summer, the Pittsburgh Public School District will be eliminating nearly one in six teaching positions, an unprecedented number in the district’s history. In order to keep the district from losing some of its most effective teachers, the school board approved a resolution for the district to begin negotiating a furlough system that takes into account both seniority and teacher effectiveness.

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING—Superintendent Linda Lane hopes to reach a compromise with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

However, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has come out in opposition to any system using any other factor beyond seniority in teacher furloughs. Still, the district is hopeful they will be able to reach a compromise before their August 1 deadline for staffing schools in time for the 2012-13 school year.

“The problem with just looking at seniority is we’re going to be furloughing some of our most highly effective teachers. Our board voted to direct me to see if I could work with (the union),” said PPS Superintendant Linda Lane at an Editorial Board meeting with the Courier. “The union categorized this as an attack; it was not an attack. Nothing could happen without their agreement. I don’t have a model in mind that it has to be this way and I’m not even saying we have to throw out seniority.”

This method for furloughing teachers has been used in other states. However, under Pennsylvania state law, in order for it to be used in Pittsburgh, both the district and the PFT would have to agree.

“Our goal from the beginning of the reform plan was to get an effective teacher in front of every child every day,” Lane said. “We’re hinging our work on making sure all of our teachers are effective.”

Lane said a furlough system based solely on seniority would cause the district to lose effective teachers in schools that serve some of the city’s neediest students. This includes schools like Faison and King elementary schools, which have received federal and private grants to drive classroom and teacher innovation. As a result, improvements can be seen at both schools, but Faison is set to lose 50 percent of its teachers and King is set to lose 37 percent.

“We’ll get some of them back,” Lane said. “There will be some teachers who leave and because of that large number we don’t anticipate getting them all back.”

The union is against a furlough system that uses teacher effectiveness in its determination because they say the measures are not fair or objective. The measures include a comparison of students’ performance with their own prior performance, student surveys and an evaluation based on classroom observation.

“One part of this is their evaluation. When we were designing that process, there were 150 people in the room and we worked together,” Lane said. “So that evaluation has our teacher’s fingerprints all over it.”

The PFT played a key role in the development of the district’s Empowering Effective Teachers plan, aimed at evaluating and improving teacher effective. Still, some teachers worry about the objectivity of principals performing evaluations and students responding to surveys.

“Kids don’t get to say, ‘I like my teacher, I don’t like my teacher.’ It’s not a popularity contest,” Lane said. “These kinds of questions really do seem to get at what’s going on in the classroom.”

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