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

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.