New York City teachers will be screened for ‘suitability’ under new union contract

If teaching in New York City is going to burn you out, the school system wants to know before you set foot in a classroom.

As part of a new contract deal, the city and its teachers union agreed to develop a “suitability” screening for new hires. Their goal: to weed out prospective teachers who would be unlikely to succeed in the city’s schools.

It’s a strange initiative to include in a contract that also makes new resources available to fill “hard-to-staff” positions in lower-performing schools that have high turnover. Why raise the bar to enter city classrooms when so many have vacancies?

“Are we doing better than a lot of other school systems in terms of being able to attract teaching talent? Absolutely,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a Thursday press conference. “Are we in a perfect situation? No, we’re not in a perfect situation.”

Chancellor Richard Carranza echoed the message.

“Again, this is a way to explore: Is there a way to have pre-service screening that gives us an indication that, ‘Yup, you’re suitable for this profession,’ or ‘Perhaps you should do something else,’” Carranza said at a press conference.

In pursuing the pre-hire screening approach, New York City would join several other cities that screen aspiring teachers for suitability before letting them interview at individual schools. Notably, Los Angeles screens applicants based on their college GPAs, sample lessons, and other application materials; research has found that Los Angeles teachers who scored higher on the screen’s metrics eventually boosted their students’ test scores more, received higher ratings, and had higher attendance.

The approach marks a sharp turn from other recent efforts in New York City and beyond to boost teacher quality that have focused on developing teachers once they are in the classroom — and pushing out those who turn out not to be effective. Those efforts have proved onerous and, in many cases, divisive.

The screen has the added benefit of scrutinizing only educators who are not yet part of the teachers union — potentially making the move an easier sell for the union, whose members must sign off on the contract deal.

Pre-hire screening in New York was the city’s idea, but union president Michael Mulgrew said he decided to support it largely because the city plans to review different options.

“They said, ‘Look, we’re just trying to get some sort of suitability assessment,’” Mulgrew said. “I said, ‘Yeah, when I came into the system there were types of things like that in place, but over the last about 18 to 20 years it’s just been a college degree.’ So I said, fine.”

It’s unclear exactly what the screen will test for, since the city is still developing the idea. The next step is to request proposals for the screen.

While parameters are not yet nailed down, officials likened the test to psychological profiles, workshops, and stress tests that police departments use for job candidates — can someone do the job without burning out?

Evidence from other cities offers a mixed review for the approach. In Los Angeles, the system seemed to slightly bump up test scores in schools with more new hires. But the study did not address how the screen affected teacher diversity — another priority for New York City, though not one addressed in the new contract.

“There’s a focus in diversity and hiring in a lot of other things we’re doing,” de Blasio said at the press conference. “We have to create a more diverse teaching corps as another one of the elements of succeeding.”

And in Boulder, Colorado, a screening mechanism drew criticism after it became clear that former teachers who were reapplying for jobs weren’t scoring high enough on the screen to be considered for positions where they had formerly succeeded. In one math teacher’s case, her former students and their parents showed up to support her at a school board meeting, and the board reconsidered the screening mechanism that was in place at the time.

That mechanism was developed by Gallup. Other screening services are sold through companies such as TalentEd and the Haberman Educational Foundation. Mulgrew said officials have been in touch with “very, very reputable institutions” that might create New York City’s mechanism but didn’t elaborate.

What the union would oppose, he said, are screens tied to students’ test results.

“We want to make sure it’s appropriate for you to work inside the New York City public school system. I cannot stress this enough. This is a very difficult profession,” Mulgrew said at the press conference. “We are in a high-stress environment a lot of times here in New York City. We welcome that as educators, but it’s not for everyone.”