Teacher Churn

40 percent of teachers were gone from struggling New York City schools after two years, union data show

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School in Queens had the highest turnover rate from 2014 to 2016: 90 percent.

Almost 40 percent of teachers working at low-performing schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program in 2014 were gone two years later, according to data compiled by the city teachers union — a far higher share than the 23 percent of teachers who left the city’s other schools during that period.

The high turnover rate among 78 schools in de Blasio’s “School Renewal” program is partly intentional: Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has encouraged principals to remove teachers they feel aren’t up for the job, and officials have forced the entire staffs at eight Renewal schools to reapply for their positions.

But it also reflects difficult teaching conditions in struggling schools that are under immense pressure to show gains; sagging enrollment that creates the need for fewer teachers; and dysfunctional or rotating leadership that can leave schools adrift. (As Chalkbeat reported last month, almost 60 percent of Renewal schools have seen at least one leadership change since the start of the program, which funnels extra social services and academic support into the city’s weakest schools.)

The degree of turnover varies widely among schools in the $582 million Renewal program, according to the data collected by the United Federation of Teachers. Schools with the greatest teacher churn often suffer from unstable or unsupportive school leadership, union officials said, noting that the turnover can undermine the city’s reform efforts.

“For schools like these to stabilize and improve,” said Janella Hinds, the UFT’s vice president of high schools, “the [education department] has to stabilize the workforce in these buildings.”

The variation among Renewal schools is dramatic.

At August Martin High School in Queens, 90 percent of teachers left or were replaced during the program’s first two years — the result of the city-union deal that required all the school’s teachers to reapply for their jobs. Just eight August Martin staffers were rehired; across all the schools with forced “restaffing,” about half the staff members were offered their positions back.

By contrast, just 16 percent of teachers at Brooklyn Generation School left during this two-year period.

In all, 50 out of 78 Renewal schools saw a third or more of their teachers leave, while just 10 schools had turnover rates lower than the city average during that time.

“We will continue to use all tools and resources — including re-staffing — if we believe it will help students get a better education,” department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. The staffs at two more Renewal schools will soon be forced to reapply for their jobs.

While teacher turnover stems from many factors, research generally shows that it can be destabilizing for students and lower their academic achievement — especially among black students or those who are already low-performing.

“On overage, when a teacher leaves a school that has a negative effect on outcomes,” said Jim Wyckoff, a University of Virginia professor who has studied teacher turnover in New York City and Washington, D.C. There are some cases where removing the lowest-performing teachers can be beneficial, but that’s generally rare, he said.

The UFT compared employment records at Renewal schools in October 2014 and October 2016 to get a snapshot of teacher turnover over that period. However, the data do not show turnover trends during those years, nor do they reveal why teachers left or the experience level of those who replaced them. (The figures include teachers whose positions were eliminated due to declining enrollment, and excludes 16 schools that started in the program but were later closed or combined with other schools.)

Ann Neary, a former New York City teacher who spent 11 years at DeWitt Clinton High School before taking a teaching job in Connecticut, said she’s seen the effects of staff turnover firsthand. As the school’s enrollment sagged, she watched dozens of her colleagues forced out as their positions were no longer needed. Eventually, the same thing happened to her.

In the first two years after Clinton became part of the Renewal program, about a third of its teachers left, according to the UFT’s data. Its remaining staffers will soon be forced to reapply for their jobs.

“Kids get unsettled,” Neary said, “if they think the people they’re expecting to be there for them won’t be there.”

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”