FIRST PERSON: Teaching Under Assault: Two visions of education clash as Bloomberg prepares to lay off 6,400 teachers
Issue #
152

ILLUSTRATION: DANIEL FISHEL

After teaching elementary education for 27 years at PS 147 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I was offered a technology job at the district level in 1998. When my new boss informed my principal, she practically leapt for joy. “My car was stolen today,” she said, “but this makes up for it.”

I had been the teachers union chapter leader at the school for the previous three years, and for 20 years I had insisted on some degree of academic freedom so my colleagues and I could teach our students in the ways that best met their needs. This included speaking out openly against our principal’s “test prep all the time” policy — often to little avail. This principal’s favorite teachers were often the least respected and least effective in many ways. These teachers knew where the bread meets the butter — support the principal in every way, no matter how bad the policy, and try to undermine the union within the school. There was no question, that given a choice, my principal would have chosen loyalty over competence.

This kind of favoritism and arbitrary leadership has, if anything, grown worse in the intervening years since Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his handpicked Schools Chancellor Joel Klein took control of the school system in 2002. With 6,400 city public school teachers facing layoffs this year due to proposed budget cuts, it is important to keep this in mind when self-styled education reformers call for junking seniority as the basis for administering layoffs. At stake is not just the principle of seniority, but also two different visions of teaching.

TWO VISIONS

The educational model public schools have operated under for the past half-century envisions teaching as a career path for highly trained professionals. Veteran teachers cost more and will someday receive pensions. But they also develop their skills over time, are in a position to mentor younger teachers and are able to anchor a school community across generations.

At PS 147, I not only taught the younger siblings of former students and came to know their parents, but later in my career was teaching the children of former students. No metric can measure the value of these bonds; they are real and make a difference in a teacher’s ability to understand and respond to the needs of the students, families and communities they serve.

The vision espoused by Bloomberg and Klein and others like them across the country is that of a nonunionized, Peace Corpstype teaching model in which young, bright (and mostly white) college graduates are recruited through programs like Teach For America and thrown into inner-city schools with little training, often forced to work long hours under grueling conditions with minimal rights. Quickly burned out by their assembly line-like conditions, many of these young teachers move onto other pursuits (like graduate school) within a few years. It’s education on the cheap dressed up in idealistic garb.

Klein has carefully laid the groundwork for this kind of system in New York City during the past eight years while running circles around the hapless leadership of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union that represents 87,000 New York City public school teachers.

Soon after being appointed by Bloomberg in 2002, Klein began arguing for the right to loosen seniority protections so he could transfer teachers anywhere he wanted, saying he wanted to keep experienced teachers in poorer performing schools. Now that argument has been reversed. It appears his intention all along was to manipulate the situation with an ultimate goal of getting rid of the highest-paid teachers.

Klein continued to undermine seniority protections, with UFT complicity, in the 2005 contract, which created an openmarket system that allowed principals to fill teaching openings on a non-seniority basis. Klein then instituted a funding formula for schools that penalized those with highersalaried teachers (the difference between a first-year teacher and a 23-year teacher is more than $50,000). When schools determined to be “failing” were closed and veteran teachers lost their positions, many could not get rehired and were turned into full-time substitutes.

INCOMPETENT PRINCIPALS

For as long as I can remember, there have been incompetent school principals who rule over their fiefdoms like petty despots. But the problem has become increasingly severe in the past eight years as Klein installed more principals who are guided by corporate managerial ideology but know little about education.

Expected to run their schools like a business, principals face a singular mandate: increase “outputs” (i.e., standardized test scores) while making do with fewer “inputs” (i.e., funding). Eliminating experienced teachers saves money but at the expense of the expertise and institutional memory carried by long-time educators. This approach is also about centralizing power; veteran teachers are more likely to buck the testprep script and rely on their professional judgment about how best to educate their students. They are also more likely to defend the rights of their colleagues to do the same. Given the incentives that currently exist to purge veteran teachers, it is naïve to believe that most principals have a nobler agenda of keeping the best teachers while rooting out the lazy and the burned-out ones.

Nonetheless, in his latest attacks, Klein calls for eliminating seniority as a criterion in executing required layoffs and measuring teachers’ abilities using their student’s standardized test scores and other purportedly objective standards. While he has not won approval for this proposal, look for attempts to move the New York Legislature to change laws on teacher seniority.

The current battle over seniority goes to the heart of the national attack on teachers by proponents of corporate-style education reform, who have been getting support from many traditional teacher allies within the Democratic Party. An all-out push is under way to place urban public school systems in the hands of private interests under the guise of employing market-based forces like competition and choice. To these education deformers, the very existence of union labor rules constitutes an infringement of freemarket forces. Destroying seniority and tenure protection — pillars of teacher unionism — is a necessary component of the plan.

This anti-union bias is a major motive underlying the current craze for privately run charter schools that are being sold to the public as the panacea for all educational problems. It is also one of the reasons why large corporate, financial and other business interests have poured enormous amounts of funding into charter schools, which are still mostly supported with public money — money that is drained from the unionized public schools. The end game: privatize massive chunks of public school systems in favor of schools with nonunionized teachers and break teachers’ unions as a force in urban education.

Before this sacking of experienced teachers is carried out here in New York City and elsewhere, we as a society should think carefully about what sort of educational future we want for our children. The decisions made around this issue in the coming months and years will have an enormous impact for decades.

Norm Scott worked in the New York City public school system from 1967 to 2002. He publishes commentary about current issues in New York City public education at ednotesonline.blogspot.com.

The New York Legislature voted May 28 to more than double the number of charter schools in the state over the next four years from 200 to 460. New York City saw its charter cap lifted from 100 schools to 214. The vote followed months of wrangling over the future of charter schools, which receive public funds but are privately managed.

Under the agreement, charter schools will be publicly audited for the first time and no new charters will be granted to for-profit operators. In a setback for public school advocates, charter schools will still be able to be co-located into existing public schools without the approval of parents, something that has roiled neighborhoods across the city in recent years. The legislation only calls for creating advisory councils at schools that share a building to monitor space usage and conflict.

Supporters of the legislation hope that it will improve New York’s chance of qualifying for as much as $700 in federal aid under the Race to the Top program. However, critics say Race to the Top money will do little to help cash-strapped school districts but will instead enshrine a number of new wasteful programs including additional rounds of standardized testing.
—John Tarleton