and Reality of the Teachers’ Contract
As the city and the
teachers’ union have been trying
to reach a new contract to replace the one that expired more
than 1-1/2 years ago, a number of myths about the current agreement
are surfacing, distractions that make it difficult to resolve
the real problems of our schools.
Let me shatter a few of those myths:
Myth #1: Because of “the union” it
takes forever to dismiss incompetent teachers.
Reality: Reforms negotiated in the 2002 contract cut the time it takes to adjudicate
teacher discipline cases (once they are filed). Last year more than half the
cases were concluded in less than three months.
The union has also proposed a program under which struggling
teachers would be given help to improve, and if the assistance
failed, the union would counsel them out of the profession. The Department of Education, which made supportive noises
when I announced this proposal in January, 2004, has not followed
Myth #2: Seniority rules permit teachers with experience to
constantly move to new and easier assignments, while new teachers
are concentrated in the toughest schools.
Reality: Less than 1 percent of the teaching force transferred last year under
seniority rules, generally to move closer to their homes. But
the department had to find more than 7,000 teachers to replace those who retired,
or left frustrated by low pay, overcrowded classes, lack of support by the
system, and other tough conditions.
Nor do all new teachers
end up in the toughest districts. The department’s
own figures show that at the beginning of the last school
year, three of the highest performing districts in the city,
received 462 new teachers. Meanwhile only 375 new teachers
went to three of the most struggling districts.
Myth #3: The union insists on lockstep pay with no recognition
of special needs and circumstances.
Reality: This year we negotiated a project in the Bronx that
gives additional compensation to “master teachers”—one the school system is
now touting. The union assisted Chancellor Rudy Crew to design and create the
Chancellor’s District, a special district for struggling schools where
teachers worked longer hours in exchange for higher salaries. Scores in the
Chancellor’s District went up dramatically, but despite national recognition
as a fantastic school turnaround strategy, this successful experiment was one
of the first casualties of the new administration.
Based on the success
of the Chancellor’s District, the
union suggested earlier this year that—simultaneously
with providing competitive salaries for all New York City teachers—the
system establish an Enterprise Zone where everyone willing
to work at 200 selected hard-to-staff schools would receive
a 15 percent differential.
The response from the Department on this suggestion? Silence.
Myth #4: “Work rules” make
it impossible for schools to be managed.
Reality: Which work rules? The one that prevents the Department
from cramming more than 34 students into a high school class
and 28 into fourth grade? (While these limits are still too
high, it is only the fact that they are in the contract that
makes the Department comply.) Other “work rules” include
allowing teachers to have lunch, or have a break after teaching
three classes in a row.
Dealing with reality
The critical truth
about our schools is that teachers here have the largest
classes in the state, teach some of the most challenging
students, work in overcrowded and sometimes unsafe buildings
without proper equipment and supplies—and still
make $10,000 to $15,000 less every year than their colleagues.
Those able to retire have been doing so in droves. Nearly half
of new teachers leave within six years for jobs in the suburbs
or other careers.
Solving the system’s
real problems means providing competitive pay and better
conditions for teaching and learning in all our schools.
But these are goals we can never reach as long as the city
and the Chancellor continue to cling to the myths rather
than reality of our schools.#
Randi Weingarten is the President, United Federation of Teachers.