Double-down

In lieu of new evaluations, city looks to options in union contract

Chancellor Dennis Walcott speaks to business leaders at the Association for a Better New York breakfast.

After years of trying to win new powers to fire under-performing teachers, the city is turning to rights it has had all along.

Speaking to a coalition representing the city’s business elite this morning, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that the city would move to fire any teacher who receives “unsatisfactory” ratings for two years in a row. He also announced that the city would ask the UFT to allow buyouts for teachers who have been without permanent positions for more than a year.

Both policies are already permitted under the law and the city’s contract with the teachers union — a fact that drew ridicule from UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

“It’s theater of the absurd. It’s getting old,” he said. “I think they believe that everyone’s a fool. They’ve made an announcement about something they already have the ability to do.”

Mulgrew noted that the union contract already allows Department of Education officials to do exactly what Walcott’s two plans announced today would do—incentivize teachers without permanent jobs to take buyouts, and require schools to remove teachers who receive consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. He also said the buyout plan was proposed by the union several times over the past three years, but the city rebuffed it.

“In their own minds they’ve convinced themselves they’re out there making news and being bold,” he said, adding that the city should already know the union is willing to negotiate a buyout program. “I don’t know how you can negotiate just by making a speech.”

Negotiations between the city and union over new teacher evaluations broke down in December. Those evaluations would have done away with the current teacher rating system and made it harder for teachers to earn top ratings and would have required the city to try to fire teachers with the lowest ratings.

Walcott said today that the city still wants to adopt new evaluations — and that the new policies would not go into effect if new evaluations are in place by next year — but the announcement shows that the city is seeking a plan B.

The question of how to rid the school system of weak teachers has perplexed the Bloomberg administration for years. The Department’s attempts to fire teachers in the ATR pool when Joel Klein was chancellor fell short, as did efforts to end the last-in-first-out policy that governs which teachers principals can ask to leave schools.

Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, also suggested that the city’s plans were un-novel solutions to a bigger problem: the lack of a teacher evaluation deal.

“These are band aid solutions,” the organization’s founders said in a statement. “The only way to ensure that students are in classrooms with effective teachers is for both sides to finally negotiate a meaningful multi-measure evaluation system that gives educators the support, feedback, and recognition they deserve and need.”

Walcott declined to take questions from reporters, an atypical choice for him, but department officials filled in some details this afternoon.

Of the 831 teachers now in the ATR pool, most would be eligible for the program if it begins this fall, officials said. The program will be open to any teachers who have spent one year or more in the ATR pool, and its start date will be determined during union-city negotiations, which are scheduled to begin next week.

City officials said the buyout offers will be more generous than a similar buyout program that has been used in other cities, including Dallas and D.C.. Depending on their number of years teaching, city teachers can expect to receive offers ranging from $1,000 (for one to five years of teaching) to $20,000 (for 20 years) or more.

According to statistics provided by the city, the average salary for members of the ATR pool is $82,420, plus an average of $30,000 in annual benefits. ATR teachers are expected to actively search for permanent jobs while they are fulfilling their week-to-week assignments. But officials said nearly half of the ATR teachers have not submitted a single city job application or attended a city recruitment event in the past year.

The total cost of the ATR pool has ranged over the years, and the exact figure has been a source of disagreement between city and union officials. But the city has never strayed from its position that the cost is too high.

Other figures the city provided portray the ATR pool in a somewhat bleak light: Nearly a third of its teachers were removed from their last permanent job assignment through some formal disciplinary action, nearly a quarter have been in the pool for two or more years, and nearly one fifth have received at least one U-rating. 

The ATR pool could grow this summer as the city moves to close more schools at once than ever before, and relocate many of their teachers. Department of Education spokesman Matt Mittenthal said the pool has been shrinking this year, perhaps thanks to a policy change that requires ATRs to act as substitute teachers, rotating through schools from week to week. That change has motivated some principals to offer permanent jobs to teachers they may otherwise have never met, but it has also encouraged some teachers to quit their jobs or retire.

But without this extra push from the city, Mittenthal said, “We don’t think the pool is going to get much smaller, given how it is now.”

The city’s second proposal of the morning, to prevent elementary school students from being taught by a U-rated teacher for two years in a row, would affect the student class assignments for 217 elementary school teachers who received U-ratings in 2011. The city is planning to issue some kind of policy guideline to principals that they may not assign the 4,000 students being taught by those teachers this year to another U-rated teacher in the fall.

The third prong of Walcott’s announcement calls for schools to formalize a practice already in use—the removal of classroom teachers who have received U-ratings in the past two years. 235 teachers fit that bill, and half of them are still teaching in permanent classroom jobs. The rest are either in the ATR pool or are awaiting dismissal decisions.

Many of those teachers have appealed their second U-ratings. If the U-rating decisions are upheld after the appeal process, the city will formally see their dismissal. Officials said the DOE currently relies on principals to file these charges against teachers, but principals often decide not to. In the future, the DOE will initiate the dismissal process from its central office.

survey says

We asked Indiana teachers why they’re leaving the classroom: ‘Death by a thousand cuts’

PHOTO: Getty Images

In her first classroom at Indianapolis Public School 79 in 1977, art teacher Teresa Kendall had five whole potter’s wheels to herself. Plus clay. And a kiln.

She was under orders from her principal, she remembers, to make sure her students “have all the art they can have.”

Nearly 39 years, five layoffs, and four school districts later, she returned to Indianapolis Public Schools, where she was told there were just a handful of potter’s wheels in the entire district. She managed to get her hands on one, rescuing it from an unused classroom at Arlington High School.

Chalkbeat asks Indiana teachers: Why did you leave the classroom?

“It’s a huge difference,” Kendall said, comparing her situation to other schools she’s seen. “It just puts a knot in my stomach when I think about it … I think about what my kids at [School] 105 have to do without.”

Kendall said she spent hundreds of dollars on supplies, and she was overwhelmed by having to configure her 28-seat classroom to accommodate 62 students. At the end of last year, she decided to leave teaching altogether.

“It was the most solid community school I’ve ever been in, in all of my career,” Kendall said. “I miss it tremendously. But I couldn’t stay there.”

Carrie Black, an Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman, said classes might have been large at one point when the district was working to hire a substitute for a teacher on family leave, but the principal at School 105 said there were enough tables and chairs for the whole class. The principal also said teachers were told they could be reimbursed for supplies.

“Under no circumstances was she required to supply her art room in any way, shape, or form,” Black said. “So if she did, those were decisions she made on her own.”

More than 60 former Indiana teachers responded to a Chalkbeat survey about why they decided to leave teaching, a problem that policymakers and state lawmakers have said is part of the reason behind this year’s efforts to raise teacher salaries — which some educators and advocates say don’t go nearly far enough. Across the country, teachers have gone on strike and protested to demand better pay and working conditions, stirring up national conversation about the challenges they face.

Kendall, who has two master’s degrees, made $48,000 when she left IPS. The most she’d made, she said, was close to $62,000 when she taught in Lebanon. Now, she’s a paralegal.

The former teachers, from schools all over the state, reported a wide range of salaries over the years — from as low as $26,000 to more than $66,000. Now out of the classroom, they have found jobs as nurses, bus drivers, engineers, insurance agents, and seasonal park rangers. Some are unemployed, stay-at-home-parents, or graduate students.

While many former teachers said low pay or stagnant salaries contributed to their decisions to find other careers, more cited increasing responsibilities for reporting and testing, dwindling support and coaching from administrators, and “punitive” teacher evaluations.

Here is a selection of their reasons for leaving, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Too little pay

  • I had a third child and my entire paycheck was going toward insurance and childcare. I couldn’t afford to work.
  • State laws were being introduced that would make it next to impossible to ever increase my salary, or even to bargain to try to keep pace with the cost of living.
  • I was 20 years into teaching and felt undervalued, overworked, and underpaid for my education, training, and role as a teacher. I had reached the top of the pay scale and there was not room to advance. I didn’t want to become an administrator. Our insurance was steadily rising and with no pay raises, we were making less than what I had started with 20 years ago. My wife and I were both teachers and we both had to take part-time jobs to help pay the bills.
  • The level of stress, the constant demand on more and more of my time and energy with no compensation, and the low wages! Also the constant micromanaging!
  • In my 12th year I was making less than I did in year one. Health insurance was too costly, parents were overbearing, and the amount of accommodations needed for students was out of hand.

Too much testing, politics, and red tape

  • I couldn’t take any more of the state legislature’s disrespect of teachers. The loss of school funding, punitive evaluation methods, and absolute lack of willingness to truly listen to educators about our needs and what goes on in a classroom made me realize it wasn’t worth it anymore.
  • The constant change in state testing.
  • I had had it with ISTEP and school accountability practices demanding measurable outcomes and driving learning away from what we all know are best practices.
  • There was constant assessing without allowing kids to be kids and grow socially and mentally. Spent more hours assessing than teaching.
  • The time required to be spent on more red tape and paperwork instead of just doing what I knew was best for kids was too much.
  • I was working 10-12-hour days just to get state-mandated paperwork done AND papers graded. I loved my kids, I loved my school, I loved my principals, but I hated meetings every morning to appease legislators who are clueless, and I hated having to prove what a great teacher I was.
  • The time the job required meant my son and I were at school until 8 or 9 every night. All that time and dedication with no guarantee of a job? No thanks.
  • Teachers were treated as if we were entry level employees who could not make any decisions for themselves.
  • My afternoon classes had 39, 38, and 40 students. The Rise rubric [for teacher evaluations] made everyone feel like they were failures before even being evaluated.
  • I was dealing with burnout, and I was tired of working as many hours as I did and being as undervalued as I was. It felt like I constantly had administrators, parents and community members telling me what was wrong with how I did things.
  • I was expected to assign at least 10 math problems to every student every night. Since I had about 100 students, that’s about 1,000 math problems every night. Bottom line, time with my family is more important.
  • I felt overwhelmed by what the legislators were inflicting on us, the lack of true support from administrators, and just the stress that is teaching even in the best of times. Most of all — I was exhausted, I guess. Death by a thousand cuts, more or less.

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”