Keeping the Best Teachers in City Classrooms
Study after study shows that, with the exception of parents, the single most important ingredient in a child's success in school is the quality of the teacher in each classroom.
We at the United Federation of Teachers have some specific ideas about how to help make our schools better, make teaching more effective and-perhaps surprisingly-how to help people for whom teaching is not the right career.
Helping students succeed
Most of this city's teachers are extraordinary people who work hard to help their students succeed. Just last month, the results of annual nationwide math and reading tests showed that our public school students outperformed students in other major urban school systems across the nation. And earlier this month, the number of low performing schools in the city, cited by the state, reached an all-time low-down to 46 from a high of more than 100.
Good teachers are leaving in droves. We're now seeing a record number of retirements among our most experienced teachers. And every year for the past five years approximately 20 percent of our new teachers haven't returned for a second year while 35 percent don't make it past their third year.
This combination of newer talented teachers resigning and older more seasoned professionals retiring has become a formula for disaster.
Professional salary and respect
In order to ensure a qualified instructor in every classroom the city should start by providing a salary that enables teachers to live a middle class life without a second or third job. Even with the pay increases we got in our last contract-which expired last summer-New York City school teachers still earn $10,000 to $15,000 less than their colleagues in surrounding areas.
Second, the city needs to treat teaching as a real profession. Currently, the only way for a teacher to advance is to leave the classroom for an administrative post. The teaching profession should have a career ladder similar to what you see in the medical profession.
Third, administrators should respect teachers' professionalism. Today, even the most experienced and highly-educated teachers are being told what colors to use on their bulletin boards, where to place wastepaper baskets and how to arrange classroom chairs. This micro-managing directly contributes to the retention crisis.
Helping struggling teachers
The city also must do a better job of helping struggling teachers. City Hall and the Department of Education constantly charge that the teachers' union or the union contract drags out disciplinary hearings to get rid of bad teachers, but it's the school system that needlessly stretches out the process. And while newspaper accounts might imply a large number of incompetent teachers, in any given year only about 1,000 people are given unsatisfactory ratings. Another 200 to 300 teachers are cited for charges that can range from chronic absenteeism to corporal punishment. That's fewer than 2 percent of the city's 80,000 teachers.
Over the past several contracts we've worked out methods designed to cut the time needed to adjudicate such charges, but the education department still insists it can't complete these cases in less than two years.
Here's our common sense and humane way to solve these problems:
The education department should stand aside and allow the union to work with these teachers. If we can't help them within 90 days, we would recommend that they no longer teach and we would help them find employment in other professions.
This proposal is based on a program that we've run successfully on a limited basis for 15 years.
Ending the backlog
At the same time, more than 200 teachers accused of other serious offenses, regardless of their innocence or guilt, are out of the classroom languishing in education department offices around the city-so-called rubber rooms-for years in some cases.
The education department and the union should jointly appoint a special master to work with a staff of pro bono attorneys to hear such cases and get rid of the backlog promptly. At the same time, all controversies-be they disciplinary cases or contract disputes-could be handled within three to six months between the accusation (or dispute) and resolution. Such a step would help ensure that justice is done in a timely way. And the dollars that are saved could be used for supplies, equipment and lowering class size.#