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Tough Subject: PPS, union differ on usefulness of teacher-quality report 

"What the district can do is look for more inventive ways to get teachers into high-needs schools."

A recently released report from the National Council on Teacher Quality lists Pittsburgh Public Schools' ability to work with the local teachers union as a critical component in improving teacher quality.

That relationship, however, has become more and more strained over the past school year, following the district's implementation of a new teacher-evaluation system that the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers says is too harsh. Now the NCTQ report is just one more thing the district and the union disagree on — and, says the union, it's being used as another tool to blame teachers for poor student performance.

"We did not endorse [the NCTQ report]," says PFT President Nina Espositio-Visgitis. "We discouraged members from participating, based on the NCTQ's track record. They continue the over-focus on teacher quality and what we want is a broader effort to strengthen schools."

As an advocate for teacher-policy reforms, NCTQ has completed reports in nearby school districts including Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Dayton, Ohio. The Pittsburgh report recommended ways for improving the "recruitment, development and retention of effective teachers."

Among the findings is the difficulty the district has in staffing high-needs schools. According to a report, high-needs schools tend to have a higher number of low-income students and lower state test scores.

On a central office survey of teachers who attempted to transfer voluntarily for the 2013-2014 school year, nearly half of the respondents said they would not move to a hard-to-staff school.At the NCTQ presentation on May 22, Superintendent Linda Lane found this statistic especially troubling.

"If you're coming to us saying, 'I don't want to go to your most challenging schools,' then maybe you should go to [another school district]," Lane said. "Those are not the teachers we need."

Esposito-Visgitis, who declined to attend the report presentation, told City Paper that the district is responsible for these teachers' responses.

"If the district would address the teaching and learning environments in these schools, we have shown that not to be the case," Espositio-Visgitis says. "Put a good principal there and people would flock there."

But Lane says some teachers' aversion to working in high-needs schools comes from the challenges of working with students of diverse races and those living in poverty.

"We have to be honest about the fact that there are professionals who don't want to deal with either of those issues [race and poverty]," Lane said.

According to NCTQ, a recent study by Mathematica — a public-policy think-tank — found that teachers can be incentivized to transfer to high-needs schools when they are given a combination of increased compensation and support.

"It's not necessarily racism; it's not that teachers don't want to work with poor kids," says Kate Walsh, NCTQ president. "I think what the district can do is look for more inventive ways to get teachers into high-needs schools. It's not money that's getting these teachers into high-needs schools."

The report was funded by local education-advocacy organization A+ Schools, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Overall, it recommended removing state-imposed restrictions on hiring and school staffing.

"There are a number of policy barriers working against getting the most effective teachers in front of the most vulnerable kids," says Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools.

Some of these state restrictions include use of the eligibility list, which is a state-required ranking of teacher applicants, in hiring and staffing decisions. According to NCTQ, the list keeps administrators from interviewing candidates who might not be at the top of the list, but would still be a good fit for a high-needs school.

Other recommendations include having Pittsburgh continue to use its new evaluation system and allowing performance to be a factor in determining which teacher will be laid off.

PFT President Esposito-Visgitis sees these recommendations as yet another attack on her members, and another way for the district to place blame on teachers without looking at additional factors that impact student performance.

"It's always the same," Esposito-Visgitis says. "It doesn't address poverty; it doesn't address school leadership. It's the same old, same old for years."

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