Sunday, March 19, 2006

Accountability for performance in the NYC public school system 

A former teacher in the system relates...

From Shut Up and Let the Lady Teach, by Emily Sachar, Poseidon Press, (Amazon) Chapter 19:

I spoke for several hours with representatives of the Board of Ed and the UFT (teachers union) [about accountability of teachers and principals for job performance] ... The statistics were eye-opening. During the most recent school year, of 62,000 NYC teachers, only 606 -- less than 1% -- were rated Unsatisfactory (U) by their principals.

"In a school system where more than 99% of teachers are rated satisfactory, there is no accountability and no need for a rating system," said James Stein, Director of the Office of Appeals and Reviews for the NYC Board of Education, whose office is responsible for helping principals get rid of bad teachers. "Nowhere in the world, in any workforce of which I am aware, does the percentage of satisfactory ratings come close to what we have at the Board of Ed. So we must conclude that the current system is meaningless."

Randy Weingarten, counsel to United Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman, agreed....

But principals were even less likely to receive unfavorable reviews. Of the more than 1,000 principals in the NYC school system, only one had received a U rating the prior year..

"Is that because everyone's doing such a fine job?", I asked Stein.

"No," he said. "It's because supervision and accountability are nonexistent in the NYC schools ... We will not solve our problems until we resolve whether we are a keeper of the public trust or merely an employment agency".

The greatest impediment to giving U ratings to teachers is that after giving one to a teacher, the principal can not transfer the teacher out of the school for three years. Stein says, "Principals tell teachers: 'You deserve a U but I'll give you an S if you agree to teach somewhere else'. It's like a game of Old Maid."

Even when given, a U rating has little long-term effect on a teacher. If the teacher has not yet reached maximum salary, pay may be frozen for a short while. But at the maximum pay level, U-rated teachers receive the same wage increases set for all by collective bargaining, and do not lose their license or job, nor any benefits or job rights. Some teachers have received U ratings year after year for periods as long as nine years in a row.

Tenured teachers are virtually impossible to dismiss. Over the prior 11 years the Board of Ed had dismissed only 19 teachers for incompetence -- less that 2 per year from a work force of over 60,000. "Once you've got tenure, you've got a suit of armor around you", says Stein.

Because of this, a principal's most potent weapon against incompetence might be thought to be tenure review, which follows a three-year probation period. But in the prior year, of 7,000 teachers reviewed, only 10 were denied tenure.

Dismissals of teachers for incompetence became much rarer after 1979, when decision making power in such cases was removed from the Board of Ed and invested in a costly and time consuming arbitration process. The typical case now takes 15 months to decide, and the Board of Ed spends $33,000 per day on salaries for teachers suspended with pay while awaiting decisions.

Arbitration panels are composed of three members -- one selected by the teachers union, one by the Board of Ed, and one by the other two. Decisions are almost always compromises. Even in cases where panels find as a matter of fact that the most extreme abuses have occurred, discipline typically consists of job transfers and referrals to training programs -- virtually never dismissal.

Records of cases where teachers are found innocent are sealed. But in cases where teachers are found to show incompetence or be guilty of an abuse, panel findings become part of the public record. Among these cases:

[] A first grade teacher, enraged by her students, took off a high-heeled shoe and used it to strike a boy repeatedly in the head. She then stalked across the room and repeatedly hit another seven-year-old boy. Both boys needed hospital treatment and multiple stitches to close wounds.

The panel reported:

"First, Respondent did not intend to inflict harm, but wanted the students to refrain from disrupting the educational problem (sic) ... Second, while Respondent struck two students at the opposite ends of the room, these acts were only a single event ... It would be unduly harsh to discharge a ten-year teacher for having 'lost her cool' for a few moments on a single day"

She was returned to teaching.

[] In the case of a teacher whom the Board attempted to dismiss for incompetence, the panel found:

"The Respondent needs work on organizing his thought processes. His analysis is foggy and leads him to teach in a disjointed and disorganized manner. His lesson plans bear evidence of this -- for instance, his use of a McDonald's franchise to illustrate colonialism was incorrect. His refusal to acknowledge these weaknesses is indeed disturbing..."

The teacher was allowed a fresh start at a new school.

[] In another case of alleged incompetence, a teacher let students play cards in class, required no notetaking, spent entire days on introductory problems meant to be covered in five minutes, and had incoherent lesson plans among many other failings. Observers found class attendance was often below 50% and those students in attendance often sleeping. Many parents had asked that their children be transferred out of the class.

The panel's finding:

"While the respondent has displayed incompetence on numerous occasions, we are convinced he can be an effective teacher. He has adequate subject matter knowledge and now knows he must follow the rules."

The teacher was assigned to a new school.

[] In the case of a teacher who refused to take lithium medication, a panel found that he had committed 42 separate violent physical and verbal attacks on fellow teachers, school supervisors and students.

He had repeatedly called fellow teachers "wimp fucks" and other obscenities and had threatened to "bash their brains in" with a statue; had publicly called the principal and assistant principal "shitheads who stand with their hands in their pockets and wear ties"; and told his students that they "had shit in their blood" and that he, as their biology teacher, could prove it. The Board of Ed said the teacher continued to refuse to take his lithium even during the arbitration process.

The panel's ruling:

"We conclude that the Respondent's behavior, even if unusual and bizarre, should not prevent his return to teaching duties. It is clear that these were isolated incidents."

The panel ordered the teacher to pay a fine. He is now teaching in a High School in Queens.

Concerning these cases and others like them, Stein says the dismissal guillotine does not fall fast or often enough.

The UFT's Weingarten says, "We are simply better at defending teachers than the Board is at prosecuting them. Is that the Union's fault? That's the least we owe our members."...

~~ end quote ~~

Postscript: In the years since this book was written some things have changed -- some (not all) marginally for the better in NYC. Mayor Bloomberg gained "control" over the system (more than anyone else has had) and installed some improvements.

But the fundamentals described above continue on, such as 98% of teachers having their performance rated "satisfactory" so the game of Old Maid continues ... teachers having ironclad tenure protection so only a miniscule number are ever dismissed for cause ... teachers who are subject of disciplinary proceedings receiving full pay for years without doing any work while being assigned to "rubber rooms" ... and so on.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg purchased his modest reforms at major cost -- a 43% pay increase for the teachers, with salaries for the most senior now exceeding $100,000 (not counting some of the most benefits in the world). And union counsel Randy Weingarten, quoted above, has risen to be president of the national union.

Don't think the New York City public schools are particulary bad as public school systems go. Even as described above they were considerd about the best managed, with the best student results, of any urban school system in the U.S. For instance, when the Newark, New Jersey, school system was taken over by the state, "expert managers" from the NYC were brought in to turn it around. (Think what those schools were like ... ~ shudder ~.)

Update: A report on today's "rubber rooms", where teachers charged with malbehavior and incompetence go to get paid $100,000 a year plus benefits for doing nothing, for years on end, in The New Yorker.