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Walcott: City won't wait for evaluations to tackle teacher quality

Even without a new teacher evaluation system, New York City will ramp up efforts to weed out teachers who “don’t deserve to teach,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today.

In an early-morning speech to the Association for a Better New York, a business and political group, Walcott said the city would adopt new policies to insulate students from teachers deemed “unsatisfactory” under the current evaluation system. Under the new policies, no student will be allowed to have a teacher rated unsatisfactory multiple years in a row, and the city will move to fire all teachers who receive two straight U ratings.

“If we truly believe that every student deserves a great teacher, then we can’t accept a system where a student suffers with a poor-performing one for two straight years,” Walcott said. “One year of learning loss is bad enough — but studies indicate that two years could be devastating.”

The policies would go into effect if the city and union do not agree on new teacher evaluations by September, when the new school year begins. Under the existing evaluation system, two consecutive U ratings can trigger termination proceedings but do not have to. Two “ineffective” ratings on teacher evaluations now required under state law would automatically trigger termination proceedings.

Walcott also announced that the city would capitalize on a clause in its contract with the teachers union to offer a resignation incentive for teachers who have spent more than a year in the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent positions. Buyouts would have to be negotiated for each teacher, and Walcott promised that the incentives would be “generous.” The move represents a shift in approach for the Bloomberg administration, which has previously sought the right to fire members of the ATR pool.

Walcott’s complete speech, as prepared for delivery, is below. We’ll have more on his proposals later today.

The following is text of Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott’s address as prepared for delivery at Association for a Better New York breakfast event on May 17, 2012

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor. It’s been an honor to serve in your administration for the last ten years. And thanks to Bill Rudin for your leadership and for making New York City a better place.

“Good morning. Let me start by thanking ABNY for hosting us today. It’s a pleasure to be joined by so many New Yorkers who share a passion for this great city, especially those who work hard on behalf of our students. I’ve attended my fair share of ABNY events over the years, so I am truly honored to speak to you this morning as your Chancellor.

“Today, I’d like to talk about the extraordinary work happening in our 1750 schools, and discuss some bold new ideas we believe will make a lasting impact on the lives of our students.

“Let me start with some perspective on the size and complexity of our school system. Everyone, please take out a piece of paper and sharpen your number two pencils. It’s time for a test. First, does anyone know how many meals we serve each day in New York City public schools? Eight hundred thousand. Other than the US military, no single organization buys more food than we do.

“Here’s another question: if our public schools were a large US city, how do you think it would rank compared to the population in other cities? 20th in the nation? 15th? The population of our public schools would make it the 10th – largest city in the United States, right behind Dallas.

“Think about this for a second: with over a million children in our schools, one in every 311 Americans is a New York City Public school student.

“I have one more question: how many languages are spoken by students in our public schools? Any guesses? By our latest count, it’s 184. Some of our fastest-growing languages include Punjabi, Albanian, Mandinka and Fon, to name a few.

“So with those facts in mind, let’s talk a little bit about how we got where we are today. I remember that summer day in 2002, at an East Harlem school, when I stood with Mayor Bloomberg to celebrate a pivotal moment in New York City history. State lawmakers had just voted to give control of New York City’s public schools to our elected Mayor.

“Remember that for decades, the quality of education in our schools was stagnant. Student performance was flat and high school graduation rates hovered at 50 percent. Only one in two students who started high school left with a diploma.

“In some corners of the city, jobs at schools were handed out as favors. A well-connected parent could make a phone call and get their child into a particular school. No one was held accountable. And I assure you, no one talked about a school’s college and career readiness rates.

“So in 2002, our first priority was to reform a broken system that didn’t serve our students. And that’s what we did. Under mayoral control, we have improved teacher quality and created schools that put students on a path to success. Instead of making excuses for those schools that graduated as few as one in four students, we took action.

“It wasn’t easy, but today, with higher standards, graduation rates are at an all-time high, and the dropout rate has been cut in half. We made our schools safer. Today, crime is down by almost 50 percent. Working together with the New York City Police Department, we have made our schools some of the safest of any large American city. We infused more money into our schools. Since 2002, the Mayor has increased funding for schools by more than $11 billion – that’s up over 100 percent.

“We created the best school choice system in the nation, as recently recognized by the Brookings Institution. Ten years ago, a child could be forced to attend his or her neighborhood high school, no matter how bad it was. This is no longer the case.

“We empowered principals to manage their own budgets and become the CEOs of their buildings. Before 2002, the school system was designed around compliance and following the rules, and that stifled creative thinking. Now, principals are encouraged to innovate, problem-solve, and make hiring decisions to help their students succeed.

“We instilled a culture of accountability throughout our organization. Today, the conversation in schools and across America is focused on student achievement – that simply wasn’t the case ten years ago.

“We created 535 new public schools, including 139 charter schools. Together, they would make up a school district comparable to the size of Philadelphia. We will continue this strategy into next fall, bringing the total number of new schools created to 613. And our new small schools work: students in these schools are graduating at rates 20 points higher than graduates at schools they have replaced.

“Some of our most exciting new schools are Career and Technical Education models, or “CTE”.  Just two weeks ago, TIME magazine highlighted the positive impacts of CTE schools for students, businesses and communities. CTE schools are perhaps the best way to train students for the jobs that exist today and those that will be created tomorrow. That is why I am thrilled that we will be opening 12 new CTE schools in the next two years, on top of 18 we’ve opened since 2002.

“We’ve also recently taken on a problem seen throughout the United States: the lagging achievement of students in middle school. In the next two years, we will open 50 new middle schools and embark on a citywide campaign to improve literacy in those grades.

“And we’ve doubled down on efforts to make parents our true partners and find new ways to communicate with them through surveys, meetings, and online tools. Next fall, we will launch a Parent Academy to help parents reinforce learning and help their children with homework. And we will begin a new series of webinars for parents on a range of topics.

“To those of us who work in our schools, it’s clear that lawmakers made the right choice in 2002. And they did so again by renewing Mayoral control just a few years ago. It’s important to take stock of what this means for our students – and, more broadly, for New York City. We would not have been able to give students and families more options, make schools safer, and improve teaching and learning without this authority.

“But it’s still not enough. In some areas, we continue to do things the ‘old-fashioned way.’ We know that teachers are the most important factor in helping their students learn and grow. The data is clear: during the course of a school year, a student can learn three times as much material from a high-performing teacher as they would from a low-performing teacher. Even more: an above-average teacher can help their class earn an additional $400,000 over their lifetimes. That’s the effect of just one year of great teaching. If you expanded that to our entire city, we are talking about adding billions of dollars to the city’s economy, just by improving teaching.

“The facts speak for themselves: teaching matters. That’s why we’ve gone to great lengths to make New York City a more attractive place for aspiring educators. Mayor Bloomberg has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation, raising teacher salaries by 43 percent.”

“But if we can’t find a way to improve teacher quality even further, it will be impossible to ensure our students are being taught the skills to succeed beyond high school. Unfortunately, in many of our efforts, we have been unable to find a partner in our local teachers union, the UFT. In some cases, they have even stood in our way.

“But that’s no reason to stop trying. Today, I want to share a few key ideas that I believe will help greatly improve the quality of our teaching force.

“Right now, our teacher evaluation system is outdated. More than 97 percent of teachers get “satisfactory” ratings. The ratings offer no feedback to help teachers improve, and leave us unable to remove teachers who get low ratings in multiple years.

“The teachers union knows this. In February, the UFT committed to a new evaluation system that would allow us to identify great teachers and reward them accordingly, support those who are still developing, and allows us to remove those who are poor-performing. The UFT President celebrated this deal with Governor Cuomo in Albany, and I applauded him for it. Three months later, we have made little progress. As each day passes, we are still waiting for the UFT to return to the table and finalize this agreement.

“If you don’t know me, I’m an eternal optimist, and I am still hopeful we can complete this deal in time for next school year. But right now, the clock is ticking. Rather than come together on behalf of our students, the UFT takes every opportunity to stall, often suing us in court and complaining to a State panel when they don’t get their way.

“We don’t have time for stalling tactics. We need the UFT to finalize a citywide evaluation system before it’s too late. Until that happens, our 1.1 million students – the 10th largest city in the country – are stuck in this system. It is upon us to find another way.

“Early in this administration, we made a decision not to force any principal to accept a teacher they don’t want. We believe that principals should be empowered to make the best choices for their students. As a result, some teachers have ended up without permanent teaching jobs, and are placed in something we call the Absent Teacher Reserve, also known as the ATR pool.

“Unfortunately, we, the taxpayers, continue to foot the bill. If they can’t get hired by another principal – and even if they don’t try to find a job at all – we still have to pay their salaries. There have been over 3,600 teachers in the pool at some point this year, and that’s now down to 800.

“But those who remain will cost the city an estimated $100 million in salaries. That’s a huge, wasteful expenditure that doesn’t help our students succeed. More than a quarter of these teachers have been disciplined for bad behavior. Almost half of them have not even submitted a job application or attended a recruitment fair in the past year. That’s unacceptable.

“Think about that: when unemployment is still high and budgets are tight, we are spending more than $100 million on teachers who aren’t interested in teaching.

“Today, I am proposing an idea. If you’re a teacher who can’t find a permanent job in our schools after a year, we will offer you a generous incentive to resign and pursue another career. It would reduce a significant burden on our budget, allowing us to divert millions of dollars back to schools. Every dollar we save, we can use to benefit our students, instead of wasting it on teachers who probably chose the wrong profession. This buyout proposal will be more attractive than any we’ve seen across the nation—for teachers, and for the taxpayers of New York City.

“Of course, we can’t limit ourselves to focusing on teachers in limbo. We need to find a way to ensure every child has a good teacher right now, and support or remove those who can’t get the job done. But without a meaningful evaluation system that allows us to remove ineffective teachers, we are left with few options.

“Now, let me be clear: singling out bad teachers for the woes of education is a convenient, over-simplification of our problems, and I won’t stand for it. The vast majority of our teachers deserve our praise and support. Blaming them for our challenges is simply unacceptable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evaluate teachers based on how much our students are learning.

“When I think about the fact that a child’s future could be opened up to great opportunities – or closed off forever – by a single teacher in elementary school, I am both hopeful and worried. Teaching is just that important. Plain and simple: we need a way to ensure that no child gets stuck with one of the few teachers who are ineffective, especially in the early grades.

“So today, I am proposing a solution. If the new evaluation system isn’t in place by the beginning of next school year, I will implement a new policy that would protect these young students:  First, it would prevent any elementary school student from being taught for two consecutive years by a classroom teacher found to be incompetent.

“If we truly believe that every student deserves a great teacher, then we can’t accept a system where a student suffers with a poor-performing one for two straight years. One year of learning loss is bad enough—but studies indicate that two years could be devastating.

“Second, this new policy would set a trigger: after any teacher receives two consecutive unsatisfactory ratings for incompetence, we would remove that teacher from the classroom and seek their dismissal from our public schools. In my view, if you are one of the few hundred teachers who gets poorly rated two years in a row, you don’t deserve to teach in our schools and in front of our students.

“That’s the spirit of the new evaluation system—so we will move forward, whether or not the union decides to join us.

“The union and others would rather stay silent than cheer the progress our students have made since 2002. Some would even disparage the hard work of our students and staff these past few years.  So you have to wonder: with students doing better by every measure, who is the union trying to protect?

“We are focused on the students, and the reasons are obvious: The effects of these proposals will pay dividends now and well into the future. We know that higher levels of education lead to greater incomes for individuals and their families. And that’s true today more than ever.

“Over a lifetime, a high school graduate makes half a million dollars more than a dropout. And a college graduate makes even more than that. Only 11 percent of jobs today are available to those without a high school diploma—that’s way down from just a few years ago. And the fastest-growing industries – such as healthcare, engineering, and education – require college diplomas.

“So we’re not going to stop at high school graduation: in this economy, our students need to be ready for college and careers. That’s why we are hard at work introducing the new Common Core Standards in our schools. This year and next, students in every school will be exposed to more critical thinking, essay writing, and real world problem-solving.

“New York City is leading the way in these efforts. While most states are waiting until 2014, our work has been underway since 2010. Next year, we’ll expand it even further. Today, I am proud to announce that the GE Foundation has decided to renew their commitment to our students with a gift of $14.3 million. This gift will build upon GE’s previous investment and help give our students the tools they need for college.

“So, increasing graduation rates isn’t just about data—it means thousands of families being put on the path to economic-self sufficiency. And as more and more New Yorkers earn their high school diplomas and complete college, New York City’s workforce will become more globally competitive.

“Now, this is really personal for me. I am the son of a high school dropout, a city worker who enabled me to stand before you today. As many of you know, I am a graduate of New York City public schools. I still live approximately two miles from the elementary school I attended as a child.

“Every morning, when I see children in my neighborhood and across the city attending our public schools, I think about their futures. I know that the workforce and the economy today are far different than they were when my father dropped out of high school. If he was navigating today’s job market, his prospects would be bleak.

“So my message to you today is this: if we’re going to make college and careers a reality for all our children, we need to continue our bold approach to reforming education. I know that some adults might not like it. The teachers union may stand in the way. But the best interests of our students need to come first.

“We can’t rest until every family in New York City can send their children to an excellent public school. I believe, and I hope you do too, that a better school system today will mean a better New York City tomorrow.

Thank you.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director