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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.

What's your education story?

Leaving finance was easy, teaching was hard, but this educator realized: ‘I’ve got to figure it out.’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Tom Hakin is an assistant principal at Cold Springs Elementary School in IPS.

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Tom Hakim is now an assistant principal at Cold Springs Elementary School in Indianapolis Public Schools. He’s been an educator in Marion County for eight years.

I worked in corporate finance for four years — I was a finance undergrad — in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was always involved and volunteered a lot in high school and college and did a lot of things in the community … (As an adult), I was a big brother in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and I was coaching rec league basketball, I was teaching Junior Achievement, so that was actually my first experience going into a classroom teaching kids.

But through all of that, (those activities were) what I was really getting excited about in my days, not so much the day-to-day work I was doing in my current job.

So I just started looking at education and what options might be out there. And I read an article in the Detroit Free Press about Teach For America, and I had never heard about it prior to that. This was a chance for me to transition very quickly into a career that I think I may want to do, and that happened.

Even in a program like that, where you get the “meat and potatoes” of training of how to be a teacher, your first couple years, it’s just so hard.

But there was more of an idealistic commitment to it. This is what I think I really want to do, so despite the challenges, I’ve got to figure it out.

I was part of the 2009 (TFA) corp, taught in the charter world for five years here in town, and then had an opportunity three years ago to move to Washington Township. It’s actually the only place I’ve ever lived in Indy, and it was kind of the right fit at the right time.

I was a department chair at one of their middle schools. It was one that was the lowest performing at the time, Northview.

I think for the first time in my teaching career, I felt, in addition to working really hard and wanting to provide a great education for the kids of the school I was working in, I also felt that bigger commitment of the community because that was where I was living. My own children are going to school (there).

So it made it even more real for me, the “why” behind what we do.

I grew up outside of Detroit. When you really look at it, some of the issues that plague Detroit Public Schools are some of the same things we see here in Indy. My experience was not comparable to what I see some of our kids going through on a day-to-day basis.

So I think there’s the initial shock of that, but then there’s this next phase, where if I’m really going to be a part of this, I’ve got to understand all the factors that are really involved and going on here, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy work.

Over two years (at Northview), we went from lowest performing to highest math (test scores) in the district in my time as the department chair, which I primarily attribute to the team I had around me.

I was teaching one grade level, but again, it gets back to this idea that when you get the right teachers on board, growing in the same direction and pushing for the right things, pretty great things can happen.

unpaid leave debate

Colorado Supreme Court weighs challenge to law governing job protections for teachers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
The Colorado Supreme Court.

Are good veteran teachers still guaranteed jobs in Colorado, provided they don’t mess up?

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on that issue and others related to a landmark 2010 state law that changed the rules for teacher evaluations and assignments.

Lawyers for Denver Public Schools squared off against lawyers representing individual teachers in two separate lawsuits. One case was brought on behalf of seven current and former DPS teachers. It challenges a provision of the 2010 law that allows school districts to, under certain circumstances, put effective teachers who’ve earned job protections on unpaid leave.

The other case was filed by a single teacher, Lisa Johnson, who was put on unpaid leave.

In both cases, lawyers for DPS argued that putting experienced, effective teachers on unpaid leave is not the same as firing them — and thus doing so doesn’t violate their due process rights.

But lawyers for the teachers said unpaid leave is essentially “an end run” around those rights.

To understand both lawsuits, it helps to have some background on the 2010 law, known as Senate Bill 191. It did several things, including change the way teachers earn “non-probationary status,” which affords them job protections. To earn that status, teachers must now have three years of effective ratings instead of just three years of employment.

Earning that status is desirable because non-probationary teachers can only be fired for a limited number of reasons, including insubordination and unsatisfactory performance. In addition, non-probationary teachers are entitled to a hearing before being fired.

The 2010 law also effectively eliminated a practice known as “forced placement.” Before the law, teachers who lost their jobs not for cause but due to circumstances such as a decrease in student enrollment were assigned to open positions at other schools.

DPS officials didn’t like forced placement because most teachers were placed at low-income schools, which they said led to the neediest kids being taught by teachers who didn’t choose to be there. So after Senate Bill 191 passed, DPS changed its policy. The district now gives teachers who lose their positions temporary assignments with the expectation that they will look for “mutual consent” positions, meaning a school’s principal agrees to hire them.

If a teacher doesn’t find a mutual consent position within 18 months, he or she is placed on unpaid leave as per Senate Bill 191. The teacher is welcome to continue looking for jobs in DPS and is entitled to his or her previous salary and benefits if hired.

Since Senate Bill 191 went into effect, at least 1,113 non-probationary DPS teachers have lost their positions due to a decrease in student enrollment, the closure of a school or other similar circumstances listed in the law, according to data the district provided at Chalkbeat’s request.

The majority of them have found mutual consent positions. Sixty-two teachers are currently on unpaid leave because they were unable to do so, according to DPS.

However, that number doesn’t include teachers who resigned or retired rather than be put on unpaid leave. That information is difficult to gather, a district spokesman said, but DPS did tally some numbers in response to an open records request the Denver teachers union submitted in February. As best the district could tell as of earlier this year, 39 non-probationary teachers who lost their positions between 2010 and 2014 resigned and seven retired.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the teachers who brought the lawsuit argued that state law has historically afforded teachers a “basic bargain:” if they work for three years and are asked to come back for a fourth, they’re entitled to job protections. Lawmakers were wrong to alter that under Senate Bill 191, attorney Philip Hostak told the seven justices.

But DPS’s lawyer pointed out that the historical idea of tenure no longer exists — and hasn’t since lawmakers stripped the word from state law in 1990. “There is no indication in the legislation itself … that these folks are permanent teachers,” said attorney Eric Hall.

Pushing back on Hostak’s argument, Hall said lawmakers can amend laws however they see fit — and in the case of Senate Bill 191, they added the mutual consent provision and unpaid leave.

A lawyer for Johnson also challenged that provision and argued that Johnson shouldn’t be subject to it because she lost her position for a reason not listed in Senate Bill 191.

“The legislature tells us exactly which teachers can be displaced,” said attorney Eric Harrington.

However, the lawyer representing DPS in the Johnson case, Jonathan Fero, argued that the reasons listed in the law aren’t exhaustive and mutual consent applies to all teachers.

The lawyers did not debate the reason Johnson lost her position except to say they disagreed on the facts but that those facts aren’t an issue for the Supreme Court to decide.

The justices typically take months to issue an opinion.