NYC moves to clear controversial Absent Teacher Reserve, but it’s probably here to stay

An empty high school classroom.
The New York City education department is taking aggressive moves to place educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into permanent positions. But without an agreement between the city and teachers union to remove teachers who can’t find jobs from the payroll, the pool could build up again. (Jetta Productions / Getty Images)

No, the controversial Absent Teacher Reserve isn’t going anywhere — despite recent headlines trumpeting its end

But the education department is taking aggressive new moves to significantly whittle down the reserve. Often referred to as the ATR, it is a costly pool of educators whose positions were eliminated when their schools lost enrollment or changed programming, or who faced disciplinary issues. 

“We never announced to principals, superintendents or to press that the changes we are making mean the end of the ATR, full stop,” a spokesperson for the education department wrote in response to questions from Chalkbeat. 

The policies at play here are complicated. But they are worth understanding because they could have some unintended consequences — and real effects on the quality of teachers who end up in front of some of the most vulnerable students in the city. 

What is the ATR and why is it controversial?

The ATR is a pool of educators without permanent positions. Teachers in the pool have traditionally served as roving substitutes, filling in at different schools and collecting their full salary and benefits. In 2018, the pool cost the city about $136 million

The ATR was created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wanted to give principals more autonomy, while the union wanted to protect its members from the whims of school leaders. The result: Principals got more control over who they could hire, but the ATR allowed teachers to keep their paychecks if they couldn’t find a new job. Teachers can also enter the pool after facing disciplinary charges, as it can be incredibly difficult to fire teachers in New York City.

Historically, a higher share of teachers in the ATR have low ratings. About one in five scored one of the bottom three rankings, according to data from the 2015-16 school year, the most recent the education department has shared publicly. (Around that same time, about 93% of teachers not in the pool were rated “effective” or “highly effective.”) Teachers in the pool argue the system is stacked against them, because there’s a stigma attached to the ATR and because they don’t spend enough time with students to build relationships. 

Teachers in the pool also tend to be more senior, and therefore earn higher salaries, creating a disincentive for principals to hire them. 

What the ATR is not: The pool is separate from the city’s notorious rubber rooms — basically holding rooms where teachers facing disciplinary charges waited to have their cases heard. The education department has claimed multiple times to have ended the rubber rooms, though in practice, some teachers still wind up with little to do while collecting a full paycheck and waiting for their cases to wrap up. 

How the education department is trying to drain the pool

Mayor Bill de Blasio has previously taken aggressive moves to drain the pool, including offering buyouts and subsidizing teacher salaries if principals hired from the ATR.

The latest move: With many schools facing a staffing crunch during the pandemic, and the need for teachers for both in-person and online classrooms, the education department placed ATRs in year-long assignments this year, rather than having teachers bounce around as subs. Now, those placements will become permanent, the education department announced last week. 

“Our new approach to the ATR will provide much needed stability to school communities after a challenging year,” said department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon. 

Since the education department says that all ATRs were placed in these year-long assignments, the move will go a long way towards clearing the pool. Offering a carrot to school leaders to keep teachers from the reserve, the central education department will pick up the tab for those salaries for as long as those teachers remain on the school’s staff.

The teachers union says this will help lower class sizes. Since the ATRs will be paid for by the central education department, principals still have their full school budgets to make more hires. Plus, the city has boosted school budgets as a result of increased funding from the state, and lifted hiring freezes that had been in place for certain positions. 

How that could affect students and schools

The education department has said the “vast majority” of teachers in the ATR have “no adverse history,” and that most landed there because of budget changes or school closures. But officials did not provide any updated figures for what that percentage is.

Critics of the ATR argue there’s a reason why teachers in the pool struggle to find jobs and previous data show they are much more likely to have received lower ratings by principals. Meanwhile, schools with retention and recruitment challenges — schools that tend to be in underserved areas of the city, where students are more likely to come from low-income families and be of color — are more likely to have open positions. They argue those schools are the most likely to have ATRs placed there. 

“It trumps the interest of kids,” said Dan Weisberg, chief executive officer of TNTP, a nonprofit focused on teacher quality. He is a former Bloomberg administration official who helped negotiate the contract, in 2005, that created the ATR. 

“We will go back to the days of inequity where it’s the schools serving kids mostly from low-income backgrounds, mostly kids of color, that get more than their fair share of force-placed teachers,” he said. 

Veterans of New York City schools policy say more forceful efforts to place ATRs in schools could have unintended consequences. It could potentially lead to principals concealing when they have open positions to avoid having a teacher they didn’t hire being placed at their school, and having unwanted teachers shuffle from campus to campus each year — a phenomenon that in the past has been derided as a “dance of the lemons.” Both are problems that the ATR was intended to fix, Weisberg said. 

Why the ATR isn’t likely to go away

The city and union still have not agreed to remove teachers who don’t find positions from payroll, which means the ATR is likely to persist. 

The city has faced major enrollment drops during the pandemic, which could lead to positions being eliminated, or “excessed,” at schools. That could grow the reserve once more. The education department argues the opposite, saying that increased school budgets (which are funded through a formula called Fair Student Funding, or FSF) should mean that principals can retain the same staffing levels they had pre-pandemic. 

“As we round the corner on COVID-19, we anticipate that schools will utilize the record FSF investments to stabilize their budgets to prevent further excessing and to retain and hire more staff,” O’Hanlon wrote. 

Another reason why the pool might grow: Principals can appeal to remove the ATRs that were placed in their schools this year, which might send teachers back into the pool. 

The education department points out that most teachers who end up in the ATR are able to find new jobs through the regular hiring process. And to help avoid another buildup, the education department said district staff will now place teachers from the ATR into open positions that are permanent, bypassing the central pool of substitutes that has traditionally existed. 

But the education department has done something similar since 2017, when officials started assigning teachers to yearlong positions in schools that had job openings past the hiring deadline. Few teachers wound up in these assignments: By midway through the 2018 school year, only 75 were placed, though the city had hoped to find positions for up to 400 teachers. 

The principals union noted that after this year, schools that are assigned teachers from the ATR will take a hit to their budgets. Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, equated the assignment of teachers to schools as harkening back to an unpopular policy called “forced placement,” another problem that the ATR intended to address. (The education department has contested that it has brought back forced placements, since teachers with more seniority can no longer bump less experienced members from staff, as was the case historically.) 

“We commend the DOE’s commitment to fund the currently assigned reserve teachers already placed in schools. However, we are disappointed that going forward, forced placements will impact school budgets and limit a principal’s authority to fill vacancies with the candidate that best fits the needs of their school community,” Cannizzaro said in an emailed statement. 

There are other reasons why the pool may not go away. Some teachers who end up in the ATR may simply not have the credentials necessary for open positions — though the union says that “except for a very few licenses, there are usually vacancies in the district, especially early in the hiring process.” Others could end up in the pool after their discipline cases wrap up, which could happen at any point during the school year, when there may not be many openings. 

“There’s going to be excesses and there’s always going to be some number of teachers who get disciplined,” said Weisberg, the former Bloomberg official. “And taxpayers are going to pay that person’s salary for potentially decades.”

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