First Person

Just How Many Ineffective Teachers Are There In NYC?

How many New York City public schoolteachers are so incompetent that they should be fired? That’s the $250 million question that must be addressed by both sides wrangling over what kind of teacher-evaluation system the city is going to build.

For months now, despite a state mandate to build such a system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city’s Department of Education have been locked in a stalemate with the United Federation of Teachers over the terms of a teacher-evaluation process that, by law, must be agreed to via local collective bargaining.

The parties have already missed a Jan. 17 deadline set by the governor, sacrificing a 4 percent increase in state aid for education to the city. But the governor and other state officials should have known that punishing the city and its children by withholding this aid — and future funds as well — would be both bad public policy and an ineffective strategy to force an agreement.

This dispute is about principles that each side believes to be far more important than the money at stake, and at the heart of the disagreement is just how many teachers we’re talking about calling incompetent — and therefore unsuited to educating our kids.

The mayor’s stance is clear: there are good teachers and bad teachers in New York City, and a teacher-evaluation system must be able to identify and fire consistent low-performers. Their replacements are likely to be better teachers, and children’s achievement will increase as a result. If these new teachers have lower salaries than the ones they are replacing, so much the better.

Published reports suggest that Mayor Bloomberg quashed a tentative agreement between the Department of Education and the union due to a “sunset” clause providing that the agreement would be in force for two years and then be renegotiated. Indignant, the mayor said that any agreement that would end before the completion of a process to remove a teacher rated “ineffective” in two consecutive years was a sham. If the agreement would expire before any teacher had been fired for cause, he argued, it was worthless.

The union’s stance is equally clear: A teacher-evaluation system must be fair to teachers, providing an accurate picture of their performance and an opportunity to improve if their performance is not up to snuff.

The issue of accuracy is a serious bugaboo: Estimates of teachers’ contributions to student learning, whether in the form of value-added measures or growth percentile scores, are imprecise, and, if they fail to take account of factors beyond a teacher’s control, unfair. Moreover, many teachers fear that an unscrupulous or incompetent principal will rate a teacher unfairly when observing him or her in the classroom. The union thus seeks to build procedural safeguards into the evaluation system to minimize the risk that a teacher will be unjustly identified as ineffective, and subsequently terminated.

Lost in this clash of principles — efficiency vs. fairness — is the question of just how many teachers ought to be judged ineffective and fired.

Is it 2 percent? Five percent? Twenty percent?

If you believe our schools are failing kids across the board, you’d likely set the number high, citing the very low number currently fired as utterly unacceptable. But if you’re a parent, typically satisfied with your child’s own school and teacher, you’re likely to set the number low. If you’re Mayor Bloomberg, you might covet the flexibility and cost savings that would come with dismissing a large number of highly paid teachers and replacing them with malleable and cheaper novices. And if you’re the teachers union, your legitimacy is in the hands of your members, none of whom wants to be fired, especially for reasons they deem unfair.

The truth is that, no matter how much we try to craft teacher-evaluation systems that are fair and impartial, the question of how many teachers should be rated “ineffective” and dismissed is still a value judgment. And that fact reveals just how arbitrary the new world of rating teachers can be.

A little over a year ago, Bloomberg told a group of students at M.I.T. that given the opportunity, he’d fire half of New York City’s teachers and double the compensation and class sizes of the remaining “good” ones. That’s a lot more than the 18 percent that a Department of Education official said an evaluation system piloted at 20 New York City schools identified as “ineffective.” (The department later said that number was actually 10 percent.)

But 18 percent is a big number, too. In Washington, D.C., which has pioneered an evaluation system similar to the one New York City might adopt, two percent of teachers are rated “ineffective,” and an additional 14 percent are rated “minimally effective”—but two consecutive ratings of “minimally effective” can result in termination.

In New Haven, Conn., which also uses a system similar to what’s being developed in New York, 10 percent of teachers received ratings of “needs improvement” or “developing,” the two lowest categories in a five-category evaluation system. Hillsborough, Fla., the nation’s eighth-largest school system, initially proposed that at least 5 percent of tenured teachers would be dismissed each year for poor performance under its new teacher-evaluation system. But with experience, the district has determined that only about 1.5 percent of teachers are unsatisfactory, and another two or three percent receive a rating of “needs improvement.”

Are we really to believe that the quality of teachers varies so dramatically across districts and over time? It’s far more likely that these figures reflect local values and priorities. And this is the heart of the New York City dispute. Mayor Bloomberg prizes efficiency and believes that the discretion to fire a large number of teachers is essential. The UFT champions fairness and due process, asserting that teachers who’ve been awarded tenure by the city have demonstrated their effectiveness, and that very, very few have received unsatisfactory evaluations from their principals. The values conflict boils down to a big number versus a small number.

As Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor winds down, he’ll seek to cement his legacy, with education as a signature issue. An evaluation deal that is too easily undone will tarnish that legacy. Conversely, the UFT, aware of the mayor’s disdain for the teachers of New York City, is content to wait him out, betting that a new mayor will be more favorably inclined toward teacher evaluation, and perhaps working conditions and compensation as well.

Neither side is likely to agree to an evaluation system that gives the other party too much control over who gets fired. Perhaps the current standoff wouldn’t be intractable if the two sides could at least agree on some bounds for the number of teachers who will be judged “ineffective” and subject to termination. But what’s the magic number?

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.