draining the pool

Five things we still don’t know about who is in New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve

A new city policy that will place hundreds of teachers without permanent positions back into classrooms this fall has revived a longstanding debate over forced placement — and raised questions about the teachers themselves.

Who are they? What are their track records like? Are they even certified to take open jobs? The truth is, we know very little about the teachers in the pool.

The Absent Teacher Reserve originated with the 2005 union contract between the city and the United Federation of Teachers during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first term in office. The contract ended a policy of placing teachers whose positions had been eliminated into other jobs — sometimes forcing other teachers with less seniority out of their schools. Instead, teachers without regular positions were placed in the Absent Teacher Reserve at full salary.

The approach became a problem after school closures and financial recession swelled the pool’s size, and the city has been trying to reduce the pool ever since — through rotating the teachers into temporary positions, offering buyouts and incentives for schools, and now what critics see as a return to forced placement. The city said it would place roughly 400 teachers into vacancies in October. The plan has drawn an outcry from some principals who say it infringes on their authority, and could hurt their budgets.

There’s no way to fully predict the impact of the policy without knowing more about the teachers themselves. The city’s education department and teachers union have been unwilling or unable to share data on the pool, despite multiple Chalkbeat requests. We’ve also filed a public records request with the city that is still pending.

Here are the five main things we’re eager to learn about the current ATR pool.

What is the average years of experience among teachers in the pool?

To estimate the potential impact of an ATR placement on a school’s budget, one would need to know how senior the teachers are.

We know that over the last school year, the ATR pool cost the city a total of $151.6 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. That means, on average, each of the 1,304 teachers in the pool as of last October received $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits. (By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher is $54,000.)

Historically, the ATR pool has been comprised of teachers who are, as a group, more experienced than their peers.

Data from 2010 showed that teachers with 15 to 25 years of experience made up 31 percent of the ATR pool, as compared to 19 percent of all active teachers. In comparison, more junior teachers were underrepresented in the pool — 13 percent, compared to 29 percent of all active teachers.

What percentage of ATR teachers are in the pool for disciplinary reasons?

Unlike the infamous “rubber rooms,” which were used for teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings and were formally phased out under Bloomberg, the ATR pool is not designed for teachers who have been accused or implicated in misconduct. It is meant for teachers whose jobs were eliminated or schools were closed. But some joined after disciplinary proceedings.

A 2014 report from the advocacy group TNTP estimated that 25 percent of teachers in the ATR pool then had been brought up on disciplinary charges.

The Department of Education could not estimate how many teachers now fall into each group. It also has not made clear whether any of the ATR teachers placed into schools this coming fall could have backgrounds of misconduct.

“The DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement, and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past,” said officials in the city’s education department.

How long have the teachers been in the ATR pool?

Even if teachers are strong performers when excessed from their schools, one principal told us, the time they spend outside the classroom and in the ATR could be harmful, since they are unlikely to receive the same professional development as teachers in full-time positions.

We do not know how long, on average, individual teachers have been in the pool. According to data from the 2014 TNTP report, half of the teachers in the pool at that point had not held a classroom position in at least two years. That proportion is likely to have grown as more teachers have exited the pool on their own, but the city has not made that information available.

Where have ATR teachers worked in the past?

Prior to the city’s announcement that it would be placing teachers from the ATR into classroom vacancies for yearlong positions this fall, ATR teachers were rotated through schools on a monthly basis. “ATRs have been assigned to schools based on short- and long-term need,” city officials said. But we don’t have the list of schools where they were sent.

That matters because some critics have raised concerns that the teachers would be placed primarily in low-income areas of the city, in the struggling schools likely to suffer most from teacher vacancies.

What areas are ATR teachers certified in?

Another question is whether members of the ATR hold certifications that make them difficult to place. Data from 2010 showed that almost 25 percent of ATR teachers then held licenses to teach courses such as swimming, jewelry-making, and accounting, among other subjects that have almost entirely disappeared from public schools.

We do not currently have the breakdown of licenses held by teachers in the pool. That number could be important in showing what percentage of teachers can, realistically, hope to find permanent positions, and how many might need retraining.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: