June 15, 2009

Woof, woof!

A parent recently contacted a couple of us to express a serious concern — one that I remember having when my own kids were attending public schools, here in NYC and in the suburbs.

She wrote:
I support your goals of supporting neighborhood schools, smaller class sizes and reducing high stakes testing.

Unfortunately, I disagree with you about teacher seniority. Our Principal is unable to replace a teacher who is ineffective simply because this teacher has seniority. This is not good for our schools or our children.

Here is how I answered this sticky question — given the circumstances teachers we're in dealing with this mayor, his thug of a chancellor, and our let's-play-dead union prez.

Dear Mrs. Parent,

I write to you as a long-time teacher in the school system.

In any profession, there are workers who are less "good" at their job than others, and in the private sector they can be fired at will.

But, in teaching and other civil service jobs, there are two ways already in place for terminating someone. There's a probationary period, 3 years for teachers, during which time administrators evaluate whether tenure should be granted. The teacher can be easily terminated once a principal decides he or she has little chance of success at the job.

If over time a teacher develops a questionable performance record, an principal can file 3020-a charges and the case goes up for review. Educators can also be hauled off to jail when the situation requires it, hopefully in the rarest of cases.

In a climate of union-bashing and corporate models of public school management, which we have here in New York for a decade, administrators are disregarding their contractual responsibilities and using instead some rather harsh techniques to remove not individual teachers, but categories of them from their budgets. These include:
— teachers who are competent in many or even all ways but who disagree with them,

— senior teachers, who cost way more then newer teachers. The situation is made worse for veterans because of the chancellor's decision to give principals more control over their budgets. Expensive teachers take a bigger chunk out of the budget, so principals think twice how many of them they want to keep around.

— unionists and activists, and

— whistleblowers.
When I say harsh, I refer to the so-called rubber rooms, where not only supposedly poorly performing teachers are sent for months or years until their cases are heard, but many others as well, of the kinds mentioned above. Regardless of the charge, putting a person in a rubber room to wait for a verdict is tantamount to deciding someone is guilty until he or she is proven innocent.

In the old days, if a teacher's judgment were called into question, he or she might be summoned to the principal's office for a "chat." Klein's corporate methodologies place no value on informal chats whatsoever. He has instead given administrators a neat set of tools to demolish the careers of people they don't want to deal with — even before a case is decided in favor or against.

We are finding out that most of the people sent to rubber rooms are at the end of their ordeal returned to a classroom. That is because "competency" is not a finite term, and in the cases mentioned above, it actually had never really been an issue in the first place. Some teachers are asked to pay a fine, which is frequently just a whimsical pay-to-play scheme.

If teachers sent to the rubber room choose to tolerate this "prison" environment from 9 to 3 every day, they'll continue to draw a salary. To some that is a fair exchange. Others resign. But, whatever they choose to do while they wait for their hearing, they endure this situation without actually being proven guilty of the charge against them. Even probable criminals are out on bail and free to continue working.

Some very strong, committed educators, union activists, and civil servants now have their careers in ruins because of Klein's methodologies.

We are not against decertifying people who clearly cannot teach. We seek, however, to establish some safeguards for people who are improperly marginalized by a non-educator chancellor and a union president who is very much a collaborator in the demise of public education, and who makes it clear she is not so willing to defend the contract that she herself negotiated.

For these reasons, we have become activists — not to defend poor quality, but to make sure there are watchdogs in a system that has been so thoroughly contaminated.



  1. Woolass:

    I might have responded differently but it was a great response to the parent.

  2. The responses from parent are important for the institution. But replacement of the teacher especially a senior teacher is not the solution. Let the decision come from the managing body of the institution.

  3. What a wonderful response! I'm curious to know how (if) the parent replied.

  4. Sadly, no. But I'm hoping the message will reach more and more people, whether it comes from here or somewhere else.