Top-grade: Pittsburgh needs a high standard for teachers

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Anyone who wins a peace prize had better excel at getting along with others.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools and its teachers union, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, won such a prize — in the form of praise and a huge investment of dollars because of their long history of cooperation and ground-breaking collaboration on how to evaluate the work of teachers.

Unfortunately, after years spent toiling with school officials on detailed ways for determining teacher effectiveness, the union is resisting the performance standards just when they’re about to count.

Early work by the district and the union on this difficult issue was among the key features that attracted interest from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in 2009 selected Pittsburgh for a $40 million grant aimed at improving the quality of teaching. Likewise, the current discord has drawn attention from the foundation, which said in a recent statement that it “has made no secret of our frustration about the impasse between the district and the union.”

So far, the foundation has made no threat to withdraw the $15 million that remains from the original grant, but the matter is so serious that Mayor Bill Peduto has intervened.

More costly than the possibility of losing funds would be the harm to the district’s reputation if Gates pulls out. Even more damaging could be the impact on students if a fair system of evaluating teachers is not in place to assure they are receiving the best instruction.

A test run using data from the 2011-12 school year showed that, had the new ratings been in effect, 9.3 percent of the city’s teachers would have received failing grades and another 5.3 percent needed improvement. Only 3 percent actually received unsatisfactory ratings that year under the old system. Now, in 2013-14, teachers who fail to receive satisfactory ratings will be required to undergo additional training and they could be fired if they receive two consecutive subpar scores.

Superintendent Linda Lane said she has already reduced the scores required for a satisfactory rating twice and won’t go any lower. The union says the system is punitive and holds Pittsburgh’s teachers to a higher standard than the rest of Pennsylvania.

The union is correct that Pittsburgh’s standards are more stringent, but that’s not a bad thing. According to the district, if levels set by the state Department of Education were used here, virtually no teachers would be deemed unsatisfactory. The state has given Pittsburgh a year to use its own standards instead.

The school district has an obligation and an opportunity to raise the bar for teachers, and the union should not be standing in the way. What good are performance standards if they are too low?

The city school board must maintain its commitment to the high standards that have been established, and the teachers’ union must recommit to peaceful coexistence with district administrators. Pittsburgh’s students are depending on it.

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