A grant of $40 million seems like it would be sufficient incentive for a public school district and a teachers’ union to get along, but a situation in Pennsylvania is proving otherwise.
Four years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $40 million to Pittsburgh Public Schools. The foundation hoped that the money would be used to turn the school district into a model of what can be achieved when quality teachers are found in every classroom.
Pittsburgh Public Schools was given the grant after its political and educational leaders committed themselves to working together. The union and the school district were significant parts of that commitment. Unfortunately, those two parties remain unable to reach an agreement on how teachers will be evaluated under the guidelines of the grant.
The grant’s main purpose was to “reward exceptional teachers and retrain those who don’t make the grade.” Accordingly, teacher evaluations would be based half on in-class observation while the other half would be made up by other criteria like student performance on standardized tests and student surveys.
It is a complex evaluation structure, and teachers do not seem to feel that it is one that promises equity. In fact, a union official notes that the standard for teachers in Pittsburgh is tougher than that in other districts in Pennsylvania and across the country. A teacher who does not receive a satisfactory evaluation two years in a row may be subject to firing. Moreover, while the district wants to rely less on seniority when it comes to layoffs, the union argues in favor of the state law that makes seniority a prime concern when layoffs are being considered.
For now, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is not withdrawing grant funds. However, it has been said that they continue to monitor the situation and have expressed frustration with the impasse between the district and the union. It seems clear that unless district and union officials can reach some sort of agreement on teacher evaluations, the grant funds may be put in jeopardy, and the overall losers in the situation will be Pittsburgh Public School students.