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Set Up to Fail

By Bendix Anderson
January 30, 2011

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his new Schools Chancellor Cathleen Black continue to press for what they call “accountability” in the New York City school system.

But union leader Mike Mulgrew says the city’s criteria unfairly favors some small schools over large ones in the competition to stay open, and favors inexperienced teachers over teachers with seniority in the competition to be rehired after schools close.

Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, spoke January 26 at the Center for New York City Affairs.
Limited testing
Mulgrew questioned the tools used to rate teachers and schools. ““Nearly useless test scores were used to make a number of high stakes decisions: Which students to promote; teacher bonuses; school progress report grades, the creation and retention of charter schools…”

Discredited New York State tests once showed strong, positive results for New York City schools since the mayor took control of the school system. A second set of tests, the widely-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) tests of reading and math, also show clear, if less dramatic progress – though even the NEAP tests are limited by a narrow focus.

“Principals of elementary and middle schools, knowing their jobs were on the line, focused all their attention on test preparation in reading and math, to the detriment of basic subjects like history and science, not to mention art and music,” Mulgrew said.

Mulgrew calls for a more comprehensive school progress report that would “provide a valid roadmap to success for each and every school.”

Schools set up to fail
In contrast, the city seems committed to close the schools it judges to be failing.
Mulgrew argues that the city has stacked the odds against many larger schools in favor of smaller schools. For example, in recent years the city placed dozens of homeless of children at P.S. 332, a large K-through-8 school in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, without giving P.S. 332 the resources it needs to support of these children and their intensive educational needs. The school received three C grades in a row on its annual Progress Reports. Last year, P.S. 332 was one of 19 schools slated for closure, though closure has been delayed by a UFT lawsuit.

“We cannot afford — financially or otherwise — to continue to give up on our schools at the first sign of trouble,” said Mulgrew. “There is no clear-cut reasoning behind closure decisions.”

Experienced teachers put in limbo
School closings can seem like part of a strategy to push out older, experienced teachers who draw higher salaries in favor of younger, inexperienced ones who earn less pay. After a school closing, teachers are put into a pool called the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) and must apply to principals for new classroom assignments. Often principals, who must balance their own budgets, avoid hiring teachers with more seniority and higher pay.

Even with threatened budget cuts for the school system, these teachers can’t be laid off. Under current state law, layoffs start with the teachers with the least seniority. A teacher with seniority can’t be fired without a performance review and the due process required under civil service laws.

However, the city wants to change this. “As we face enormous budget challenges and the harsh possibility of teacher layoffs, there is no way we can afford to lose our brightest teachers,” said Schools Chancellor Cathleen Black.

“We need to change the last-in-first-out policy so that we are helping our best teachers, above all, regardless of how long they’ve been in the system.”
Mulgrew argues that the Absent Teacher Reserve includes many talented teachers. “The teaching profession is enhanced both by new teachers brimming with enthusiasm and veteran teachers whose wisdom and experience helps their newer colleagues,” Mulgrew.

The city currently spends $5 million a year on its New Teacher Project even when there are no teacher vacancies. The city should scrap expensive programs like this one and focus instead on reassigning the teachers in the ATR, said Mulgrew.

At its peak two years ago, there were more than 3,000 teachers in the ATR. Roughly half of those have found new assignments. The rest now serve part-time as substitute teachers.

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