Two news items sparked disagreements in our comments section over the role guidance counselors play in schools this week.
First, we reported that the city would be rotating guidance counselors and social workers who lack permanent positions between multiple schools throughout the year. In past years, the nearly 300 counselors who are members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, (the pool of teachers who lack permanent jobs) stayed in one school for the length of a school year, or longer. But this year they will rotate from week to week to different schools, where they will perform administrative duties, but probably won't be working one-on-one with students.
Then City Comptroller John Liu called for an increase in school counseling positions during a speech outlining his educational policy ideas that could help students prepare for college. Liu, a likely mayoral candidate, said city students so badly need help applying to college that it would be worth spending the money to hire 1,600 new guidance counselors—more than double the city's current fleet of 1,300.
Commenters on the stories argued about the merits of both of these plans. Many, but not all, said hiring more guidance counselors would be an unequivocally good idea, particularly at a time when fewer schools have the budget to take on extra support staff.
"Mikemadden" described guidance counselors as "the lifeblood" of their schools:
The average person on the street cannot understand how valuable Guidance Counselors are to the students. Guidance Counselors provide social emotional support for kids in high needs. Guidance Counselors work with staff including Principal, Asst. Principals, teachers in planning out student success paths. Guidance Counselors provide all the programs for students, program changes, transcript reviews with students. college planning with students, family meetings with parents, attendance monitoring.....should I keep going...
Most teachers without permanent positions are looking forward to a greater chance of stability after the city and teachers union last month agreed to place them in long-term substitute slots before rotating them to different schools weekly, as happened last year.
But the 300 guidance counselors and social workers in the Absent Teacher Reserve are gearing up to begin cycling from school to school for the first time.
Last year, even as other members of the ATR pool, the group of educators whose positions have been eliminated, began the rotation system, the counselors were assigned to a single school so they could work with individual students for extended periods of time. But starting next week, they will be assigned to different schools each week, dramatically changing their roles and responsibilities.
Instead of working with students one on one, the counselors will take on shorter-term tasks, city officials said. The tasks could include making classroom presentations on graduation requirements, conflict management, and the college or high school application process; organizing records; supporting the school's college counselors; and reviewing student schedules at the start of the semester.
Coming at a time when many schools have trimmed support services because of budget cuts, the change has some educators and researchers raising their eyebrows.
For the last six months, teachers whose permanent positions were eliminated have known that the city might offer to pay them to leave the city's payroll. But they haven't known how much the option could yield, complicating their job-hunting calculus.
Now, we know, sort of — a day after UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the Wall Street Journal that the option was "dead in the water."
The option might have been $14,000, or $25,000, or 25 percent of a teacher's annual salary, or 20 percent, according to conflicting information the union and city released today. But both sides agreed that the deal stalled after the city made the buyout offer contingent on a different city proposal to give raises to top-rated teachers, a plan that the union had rejected back in January.
In dueling press releases, city and union officials sparred over what terms they had discussed for the buyout. City officials said they had offered to pay $25,000 to teachers who had spent more than one year in the Absent Teacher Reserve if the teachers would resign from the Department of Education.
But union officials said the city's numbers were misleading. The $25,000 option, they said, would only have applied to ATRs with enough education and experience to put them at the top of the city's salary scale. Other teachers who had spent more than a decade working in city schools would have netted much less, they said, because the city wanted to cap the offer at 20 percent of each teacher's annual salary. (The city said the cap was 25 percent of the annual salary.) One-fifth of the average salary of mid-career teachers in the ATR pool, union officials said, would have amounted to just a $14,000 payout.
The city-union dispute over numbers reflected far more significant ideological differences over how to reward excellent teaching and urge weak teachers out of the system.
A year after starting to rotate teachers without permanent positions into different empty slots weekly, the Department of Education has settled on a way to evaluate them.
But the plan, hiring administrators to observe and coach the teachers in multiple placements, could be stymied if the department cannot find enough available evaluators who are up to the task.
Last year, when the city launched the rotation system for members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, it left up in the air the question of who would be responsible for evaluating them. Previously, ATRs were typically assigned to one school for the entire year, so principals could rate them as they did any other teacher on staff.
For almost all of the roughly 830 teachers in the pool at the end of last year, district superintendents ended up issuing the annual ratings with input from potentially dozens of principals who supervised each teacher — in most cases, without conducting the formal observations that teachers are required to receive each year.
But in Brooklyn, which had about 250 ATRs last year, the city took a different approach. It interviewed and selected five administrators who had also lost their positions to budget cuts or school closures to visit the teachers in their classrooms and give them feedback about their performance.
Inside a Columbia University building, hundreds of teachers rubbed shoulders while chatting up recruiters from 80 schools.
A late-summer city teacher recruitment fair bustled with newly-trained Teaching Fellows and experienced teachers still looking for jobs yesterday.
But no one was lined up to talk to leaders from Food and Finance High School shortly after 4 p.m.
The school has top marks from the Department of Education and a graduation rate that far exceeds the city average. But the fair was less than fruitful, recruiters said, because they only have one position available: a social studies job that is subject to city hiring restrictions.
"All of these young candidates are coming in bright eyed, and yet there's a freeze on history," said Joseph Clausi, the high school's recruiter and an assistant principal. "They come here with these great resumes, and we can't even talk to them."
His was among close to 80 schools attending the fair. Others, like Pelham Academy of Academics and Community Engagement, a Bronx middle school the Bronx Theater High School, and representatives from the New Visions Network of schools had lines snaking around the rows of booths set up in an auditorium at Columbia University.
The city has been slowly lifting its three-year-old hiring restrictions, which have limited the numbers of new teachers who can compete for jobs with teachers currently in the city's system. But there is still a hiring freeze on some teaching areas and subjects, such as high school social studies and regular elementary school positions.
The event was open only to city teachers hunting for new positions, as well as Teaching Fellows, Teach for America recruits, and teachers from outside the school system who had registered with the Department of Education. City officials told principals not to advertise the time or location, which were once posted on the internet but later removed.
The principal of Fort Hamilton High School is under investigation for underpaying more than a dozen new teachers, sources say.
A scheme to underpay more than a dozen teachers at a Brooklyn high school has landed the school's longtime principal under investigation.
The scheme, which investigators have been probing since this spring, could also put Fort Hamilton High School on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay to teachers so desperate for a position that they accepted one with low pay, no benefits, and little security.
The Department of Education's Office of Special Investigations is in the process of investigating Jo Ann Chester, principal of the Bay Ridge school since 1999, a department spokeswoman confirmed. Sources close to the investigation say investigators have been digging into payroll practices at the 4,200-student high school since at least April. The school was already under investigation because of test scores that the city deemed suspicious.
Last week, a grievance from a teacher who had been underpaid was sustained, entitling him to back pay, union officials confirmed.
The scheme allowed Chester to circumvent three-year-old hiring restrictions and blocked the school from being assigned short-term substitutes from the Absent Teacher Reserve, the city's pool of teachers without permanent positions. It also saved the school hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even without a new teacher evaluation system, New York City will ramp up efforts to weed out teachers who "don't deserve to teach," Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced today.
In an early-morning speech to the Association for a Better New York, a business and political group, Walcott said the city would adopt new policies to insulate students from teachers deemed "unsatisfactory" under the current evaluation system. Under the new policies, no student will be allowed to have a teacher rated unsatisfactory multiple years in a row, and the city will move to fire all teachers who receive two straight U ratings.
"If we truly believe that every student deserves a great teacher, then we can’t accept a system where a student suffers with a poor-performing one for two straight years," Walcott said. "One year of learning loss is bad enough — but studies indicate that two years could be devastating."
The policies would go into effect if the city and union do not agree on new teacher evaluations by September, when the new school year begins. Under the existing evaluation system, two consecutive U ratings can trigger termination proceedings but do not have to. Two "ineffective" ratings on teacher evaluations now required under state law would automatically trigger termination proceedings.
Walcott also announced that the city would capitalize on a clause in its contract with the teachers union to offer a resignation incentive for teachers who have spent more than a year in the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent positions. Buyouts would have to be negotiated for each teacher, and Walcott promised that the incentives would be "generous." The move represents a shift in approach for the Bloomberg administration, which has previously sought the right to fire members of the ATR pool.
Walcott's complete speech, as prepared for delivery, is below. We'll have more on his proposals later today.
In the last month, nearly 10 percent of teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve have found new positions, according to data the Department of Education released today.
Chart showing the exit paths of teachers from the ATR pool during October
The hiring took place during a time when the department shuffled teachers in the ATR pool to new positions every week, under the terms of an agreement with the teachers union.
The city and UFT say the agreement is meant to match more teachers with open positions. But at a union meeting for ATRs last month, some teachers speculated that the weekly assignments were intended to frustrate ATRs into resignation.
Numbers from the first month have not borne out that theory. Of the teachers who left the pool, 172 found new positions, 11 took a leave from the DOE, and 18 exited the school system entirely. Altogether, nearly 750 teachers have exited the pool since mid-August, when the city said 1,940 teachers were without permanent positions.
The new numbers show that the pool of teachers without permanent positions has settled at roughly the same size every year for three years, even though principals faced with shrinking budgets have cut jobs each summer. There are currently 1,200 teachers in the ATR pool, 77 fewer than last year at this time and 47 fewer than in November 2009.
The Department of Education is preparing for the high volume of new assignments it will have to make starting Tuesday, as Absent Teacher Reserve teachers are shifted to a new school every single week.
Starting next week, the nearly 1,300 teachers in the ATR pool will report to a fresh school every Monday, an arrangement set in a deal between the city and teachers union to avert teacher layoffs. Teachers enter the pool when their positions are eliminated, usually because of budget cuts or school closures. While some teachers quickly find new positions in the city schools, others do not, and some stay in the pool for years without finding a new position.
A computer algorithm and multiple DOE staffers are tasked with making matches between ATR members to their weekly school placements, DOE officials told reporters today in a telephone briefing. The officials said the process is a work in progress, acknowledging that it may require more time and energy from central office staff and principals than the previous ATR arrangement. Previously, ATR teachers held long-term assignments. The relatively comfortable stability was seen by some as a reason why longstanding members of the pool failed to find new positions.
Union officials explained to skeptical teachers in the ATR pool earlier this week that the arrangement is meant to help them land permanent positions.
DOE officials echoed that explanation. The placements should be seen as a tryout that could easily result in a full-time position, according to Larry Becker, the chief executive officer of the DOE's human resources division.
Tensions ran high at the United Federation of Teachers Brooklyn office on Tuesday, as union officials volleyed questions, demands, and some cries of exasperation from nearly 100 teachers without permanent positions.
The union office was hosting the second in a series of meetings for members of the Absent Teacher Reserve — the large pool of teachers whose jobs were eliminated when their schools closed or cut costs.
The union is holding the meetings to explain changes to the way teachers in the ATR pool are deployed, based on an agreement struck this summer between the UFT and the Department of Education that stipulates that ATRs must travel to a different school each week. The first weekly assignments are set to start going out today.
But union officials spent much of the meeting deflecting criticism from teachers who charged that the constant upheaval would not make use of their expertise and make them less likely to land permanent positions.
Amy Arundell, a UFT special representative, told the roughly 100 teachers at the meeting that the point of moving teachers weekly is to position them for jobs that could open up at the schools where they are temporarily assigned. The previous arrangement, in which members of the ATR pool often stayed at one school for an entire year, allowed principals to use them as free labor, she said, without necessarily incentivizing them to offer the ATR teachers permanent jobs.
Budget cuts caused principals to cut thousands of positions this year, but the total number of teachers without permanent jobs rose only slightly, the Department of Education revealed today.
The Bloomberg administration also announced plans to lay off nearly 800 school employees who do not belong to the teachers union, which negotiated a deal in June to avert layoffs. Most of those employees — 737 of 777 — belong to DC-37, which represents school aides and other auxiliary school personnel. The layoffs are set to start in October.
When the city announced in July that schools would have to cut an average of 2.43 percent from their budgets, many principals complained that they had little fat to trim. They said they would have to turn to eliminating necessary positions and sending junior teachers to the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers whose positions were cut or lost as a result of school closures or enrollment changes.
In the end, they sent 2,186 teachers to the ATR pool this summer. More than a thousand of those teachers have already left the pool, either by finding new positions or leaving the system. A DOE spokeswoman said many of the teachers were rehired by their original schools after funding became available to keep them there.
That leaves 1,940 teachers in the ATR pool with just weeks before the start of the school year. Last year, the pool contained 1,779 teachers just before classes began.
Though small, the growth in the size of the ATR pool still places added financial stress on the department.
Guidance counselor Joe Nofal at work in East Flatbush. (Courtesy of Nofal)
Like all of his colleagues, Joe Nofal begins his work day by 8:05 a.m., when staff members at the Brooklyn middle school hold a morning meeting. But Nofal technically isn't on the school’s staff.
That's because Nofal sits in the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers whose jobs have been eliminated but who are still being paid by the Department of Education.
The city assigns teachers in the reserve, known as ATRs, to work as long-term substitutes. But officials say they would rather take ATRs off the payroll altogether. Ex-Chancellor Joel Klein's last message to principals before he left the DOE took aim at ATRs: He asked for permission to lay off the reserve teachers, saying that the city was spending as much as $100 million a year to support teachers who "don't care to, or can't, find a job."
Nofal’s daily life troubles Klein's characterization. Having worked as a guidance counselor for six years, Nofal both wants a job in a school and is working in one: The DOE assigned him to a middle school in East Flatbush, where he is one of three guidance counselors offering mandated counseling sessions to 40 students a week. He also sits on a team of teachers that assesses students before recommending them for special education services, has worked directly with parents, and once brought in a representative of the District Attorney’s office to speak about gang activity.
Most of Nofal's day, like that of many guidance counselors, is spent responding to events as they arise. “A lot of the day is handling crisis situations," he said. "If a kid is having a hard time in the classroom, we’ll pull them out and speak with them."
Nofal's work at his current school closely resembles what he did for four years as a guidance counselor at Brooklyn's P.S. 114, which cut his position last year: "I'm still in charge of mandated [for special education services] kids," he said. "I'm still helping in the classroom. It's basically the same."
The final installment of Joel Klein's weekly memo to principals
In a nostalgic final missive to city principals this week, outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein suggested three things to do once he's gone.
He urged lawmakers to end the last-in first-out process of teacher layoffs, pushed for an end to the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, and underlined his belief in the importance of closing struggling schools.
Klein's statement that "we have to eliminate the ATR pool" ratchets up the city's position on the pool of teachers — city teachers who lose their positions, don't find new ones, but stay on the city payroll anyway. Previously, the city has asked the union, in contract negotiations, to add a limit to the amount of time a teacher can spend in the reserve pool. That would make the pool smaller, but it would not cause it to disappear altogether.
Describing the costs of keeping those teachers on the city payroll as exceeding $100 million a year, Klein argues:
We cannot afford it, and it's wrong to keep paying this money. It amounts to supporting more than a thousand teachers who either don't care to, or can't, find a job, even though our school system hires literally thousands of teachers each year. That's money that could be spent on teachers that we desperately want and need.
Klein also describes teacher layoffs as a sure thing. "I wish it were otherwise, but the economics of our state and city make this virtually impossible to avoid," he writes.
The Bloomberg administration has a history of being bullish on layoffs in order to push for the end of the state law regulating how teachers lose their jobs. Klein reiterates that case in his letter:
If we have layoffs, it's unconscionable to use the last-hired, first-fired rule that currently governs. By definition, such a rule means that quality counts for zero. Our children cannot afford that kind of approach. They need the best teachers, not those who are longest serving. (If you had to have surgery, would you want the longest-serving surgeon or the best one?) This doesn't mean that many of our longest-serving teachers aren't among the best, but this is not an area for "group think." We need individual determinations of teacher effectiveness to decide who stays and who doesn't.
Klein also quoted his favorite T.S. Eliot poem, "Little Gidding," excerpting four cryptic lines that seem to summarize his "odyssey" as something more complex than a straight line of a progress:
We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.
Other curious lines from the poem:
... Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. ...
Klein has sent a memo to principals every week for years. Read the full letter here and below.
Rhetoric around the city's excessed teachers has cooled off since last year, but the issue hasn't disappeared. More than 1,700 teachers remain on the city's payroll without full-time teaching positions, officials said today.
Teachers enter the so-called Absent Teacher Reserve pool when they lose their jobs to budget cuts or school closures. At the ATR pool's height this summer, nearly 3,000 teachers were in excess. Just over 40 percent of those teachers either found jobs, retired, resigned or went on leave, leaving 1,779 still without positions.
That's roughly the same number who lacked teaching jobs at this time last year. DOE spokeswoman Ann Forte said that there are currently just over 1,200 vacancies in the city's schools, around 100 fewer open positions than there were just after the start of school last year.
Principals are currently only allowed to hire teachers already on the city's payroll, except in certain areas like special education, science and some foreign languages. Earlier this summer, the city also relaxed its hiring restrictions for schools in the Bronx that were having trouble filling their open positions.
In the debate over whether to close 19 schools this year, the city and its opponents have mulled possible effects on student achievement, attendance, and the drop-out rate. But one thing that remains unclear is what will happen to the approximately 1,000 teachers working in these schools.
Teachers who work at shuttered schools lose their positions, but — because of a deliberate line in the labor contract — they do not fall off the city payroll, even if they don't find a new position at another city school. In the past few years, the contract line has meant a ballooning set of teachers receiving regular paychecks even though they don't hold regular jobs. Between 2006 and April 2009, these members of the Absent Teacher Reserve cost the DOE approximately $193 million. This year, conservative estimates put the cost at $90 million.
In 2008, a report by The New Teacher Project, a New York-based research group, said the hiring process was "hard-wired for failure." The report also found that 70 percent of excessed teachers from closing schools in 2007 were immediately hired at other schools.
But the situation next year could look worse.