human capital

Dispute over layoff bills boils down to a question: now or later?

The argument that heated up today between city officials, Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the state legislature over abolishing the state’s seniority-based layoff system for teachers essentially boils down to one thing: timing.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Department of Education officials want to do away with the “last-in, first-out” system immediately so that they can use new criteria to lay off teachers at the end of this school year. Cuomo and other state officials — several of whom support changing the layoff system generally — counter that abandoning seniority-based layoffs must wait until the state has a better system it can use instead.

Yesterday, Cuomo introduced a bill that would speed implementation of the teacher evaluation bill that Albany passed last May up by a year but did not propose any changes to the layoff system. City officials immediately blasted the bill as “a sham” and a distraction, and Bloomberg said today the governor’s proposal “simply kicks the can down the road.”

Part of the disagreement lies in whether or not the city and the state have time to kick that can. City officials speak of the need to change the layoff system with a sense of urgency, arguing that a budget crisis necessitates laying off more than 4,000 teachers this year.

But many people — including the teachers union, the governor and some state legislators — are skeptical of the mayor’s timeline. The union accuses the city of scare-mongering and argues that the city has the funds to preserve teachers’ jobs. The governor has said that his proposed cuts to education funding also should not prompt teacher layoffs this year.

“There are many in the legislature who are not convinced that the mayor’s layoff threats are real,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. “Over the last several budget cycles, the mayor has threatened layoffs that have never come to pass.”

Jeffries said that he was willing to consider changing the seniority-based layoff system. But he said that he is not willing to grant the city greater flexibility in choosing which teachers to fire before a more objective system is put in place. And he said that he is not yet convinced that the city does not have the time to develop that system.

“To what degree is the layoff threat real? Is there reserve funding sufficient to prevent layoffs? What amount of additional state funding is necessary to ensure that not a single teacher is laid off this year?” Jeffries said. “This information will be necessary for the legislature to make any sort of informed decision over the coming weeks.”

Cuomo has said repeatedly that he believes that merit should eventually be a factor in determining which teacher lose their jobs. His bill is meant to address the concern — voiced by critics of the mayor’s push to lay off teachers based on merit rather than seniority — that the city and state do not yet have a reliable method to determine “merit.”

Critics of State Senator John Flanagan’s complex bill, which is backed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed the Senate yesterday, argue that it relies too heavily on principal’s subjective evaluations of teachers, which in some documented cases have been abused.

“It is time to move beyond the so-called ‘last in, first out’ system of relying exclusively on seniority,” Cuomo said last night in a statement. “However, we need a legitimate evaluation system to rely upon. This will help make a statewide evaluation system ready and allow us to replace ‘last in, first out.'”

City officials and opponents of seniority-based layoffs countered today that abandoning “last-in, first-out” cannot be done incrementally as the teacher evaluation system improves.

Joe Williams, the head of Democrats for Education Reform and one of the most outspoken critics of the current layoff system, said he agreed with the governor that a robust and fair evaluation system should be put in place. “However, that system must be instituted alongside a crystal clear law that eliminates [last-in, first-out] and forces merit to be taken into account when laying off teachers,” Williams said.

Under the original evaluation law that Cuomo wants to change, only teachers of tested grades and subjects would start receiving rankings next school year. If Cuomo’s amendment is passed, all teachers in all grades would be ranked next year.

That would mean that by next year, state and local districts will need to come up with a system to judge student growth in all grades and subjects that currently don’t have standardized tests. State officials are currently developing regulations to guide those new measures; the bill gives officials a June deadline to complete those guidelines.

But the original evaluation law also requires districts to negotiate parts of how they will measure student growth with their local unions, and Cuomo’s bill is silent on those negotiations. City officials argued today that could allow the new evaluations — and therefore, a merit-based layoff system — to be delayed if negotiations stall.

“The acceleration of the timelines in the bill is artificial, as districts and unions are not compelled to change their current evaluation process until they’ve successfully negotiated new collective bargaining agreements,” wrote Deputy Chancellor John White today in a memo released to reporters.

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”

Back to school

Newark officials deliver a message to students on first day: Keep showing up

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León spoke to seventh-graders at Hawkins Street School on the first day of school Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street School Tuesday morning, eighth-grade teacher Jasmine Johnson was at the whiteboard writing her students’ goals for the new school year — complete all assignments, get into a great high school — when in walked two unusual visitors: Newark’s mayor and schools chief.

Luckily for Johnson, Mayor Ras Baraka’s message was also about goals — namely, the lofty goal of perfect attendance.

“Try your best to get here and be in these seats every single day,” the mayor told the students as a phalanx of TV cameras captured his remarks from the back of the room. “It’s very, very important. The superintendent is super focused on that.”

Superintendent Roger León, who started in July and is the city’s first locally selected schools chief in more than two decades, told employees last week that he wants the district to achieve 100 percent attendance. That is a hugely ambitious, if not impossible, goal considering that the average daily attendance was 90 percent in 2016-17 and — even more troubling to experts — about 30 percent of students were chronically absent.

To assist in the effort, León has promised to rehire the attendance counselors who were laid off by former Superintendent Cami Anderson and to restore the truancy teams that in the past roamed the streets searching for students who cut class. He also ordered every district employee to call five students’ families before the start of the school year to remind them that school began Tuesday.

“It’s important for everyone to worry about student attendance,” León said during the all-staff meeting at the Prudential Center last Tuesday.

At a school board meeting that evening, district officials said that an analysis of state test data had shown a strong connection between attendance and test scores: Students who regularly showed up to class earned markedly higher scores.

Research shows the reverse is also true. Students who are chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school days, tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

Peter Chen, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New Jersey who co-wrote a report on Newark’s high-school absenteeism problem last year, said in an August interview that schools often take a compliance-driven approach to attendance. After students miss a certain number of days, staffers may call or write home and inform families of the problem.

He said that a more effective, but also more resource-intensive, strategy is to analyze why certain students are frequently absent — for instance, are they suffering from mental-health challenges or struggling with school work? Then social workers and other staffers should try to help remove those obstacles that are keeping students out of class, Chen added.

He also pointed out that León’s state-appointed predecessors, including Anderson and Christopher Cerf, also came up with plans to reduce absenteeism. But top-level mandates only go so far, Chen said.

“What we’ve seen is that leadership at the top matters,” he said. “But on a day-to-day basis, what happens in school buildings is often more a function of the school-building leadership.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Seventh-graders listened to Superintendent León on Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street, Principal Alejandro Lopez said his school’s attendance task force had already devised its own plan to boost attendance.

Students with perfect attendance each week will earn “Hawk bucks,” named for the school mascot, and be entered into raffles to win prizes. Also, the three classes with the highest attendance rates at the end of the year will take a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure theme park.

Meanwhile, support staff will look for ways to help students who are frequently absent. In 2016-17, 45 percent of Hawkins Street students missed more than 10 days of school. Getting them to show up every day this year will be hard, Lopez said — but doing so is crucial.

“If you’re not present, you’re not going to learn,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

After leaving Johnson’s room Tuesday morning, Mayor Baraka and Superintendent León stopped by a seventh-grade math class where teams of students were building towers out of noodles and marshmallows.

León told the class that he had attended Hawkins Street as a child, before growing up to become a teacher, principal, and now, superintendent. Baraka, another Newark Public Schools graduate and former principal, told the students he loved them and would make sure they got whatever they needed to succeed.

After the city officials left to visit two high schools, 12-year-old Angeles Rosario said she was excited about the new school year — and dance classes, in particular. That the mayor had chosen to visit her school first on Tuesday only added to her excitement, she said.

“There are many other schools in Newark,” she pointed out, “but he decided to come to ours.”