Commentary Magazine


NYC Teachers’ Union’s First Priority Still Isn’t Students

For the sixth time in recent weeks, an employee of the New York City school system has been arrested for allegedly sexually abusing students. This latest case involved an instructor reportedly forcibly touching a 14-year old student at the High School for Graphic Communication Arts. The city is proud that such cases are down from 2007′s high of 619 complaints; last year there were 561 formal complaints filed, a 9 percent decrease. While not all of these formal complaints were found to be of merit, there are certainly unreported cases each year as well. In the midst of this flurry of negative publicity involving the city’s teachers, the main union representing the city’s teachers is actually on the offensive against the city.

This week, the names and scores of 18,000 of the city’s teachers were published, outraging the city’s teachers’ union that has battled for two years to keep the information private. The New York Times reports:

In the days leading up to the release on Friday of the city’s Teacher Data Reports, which are an effort to assess how much individuals added to the progress of students in their charge, many critics worried about the shame and humiliation low-scoring teachers would be subjected to, especially given the ratings’ wide margins of error.

Critics of the release are concerned about hurting the feelings of adults who have been told they are not effectively doing their jobs. The formation of the ratings, however, seems more than fair to this former grade school teacher. Forty percent of the score is based on test performance; half of this is based on students’ progress from one year to the next on state standardized tests. The other 20 percent allows school districts to measure achievement based on their own benchmarks, for example,”the progress of specific groups of students, like those who are not proficient in English or have special needs. They also could devise their own tests, or use tests developed by a third party, provided that the tests were approved by the state.”

Teachers often complain about the inability of tests to measure student growth, knowledge and achievement. The ratings aim to make up for this by basing the remaining 60 percent of the rating on principal observations, which teachers then complain are too subjective. If they don’t want tests (even if they design them themselves) and they don’t want observations, how exactly are their performances supposed to be measured?

Teachers who are rated as “ineffective” can appeal to an independent panel and outside observers, in addition to the principals who decided 60 percent of the rating, who would reevaluate performance after a development plan is devised. The real issue, I suspect, is the leverage the scores now gives the city in hiring and firing decisions:

In cases in which the observers back the principals’ findings, the city would move to fire the teacher with a presumption of incompetence and an expedited procedure. Currently, the city has the burden of proof, making dismissal much more difficult.

New York City is famous for its “rubber rooms” – a place for teachers to read, sleep and play games on the city’s payroll to spend the day outside the classroom because they have been deemed unfit to teach. While the rooms have since shuttered, teachers are now assigned office busy work while the Department of Education pursues cases to fire teachers on the basis of incompetence or misconduct, which on average takes 18 months to accomplish.

Unfortunately for New York’s students, their teachers’ union prioritizes keeping every teacher in the classroom and on the payroll, fighting to make sure teachers can hide their incompetence. A recent story from the school district of the city of Rochester exemplifies just how difficult firing teachers for alleged sexual misconduct can be. How many of the teachers with complaints made against them in recent weeks will be kept on the city’s payroll for months or years more, incapable of being fired? How many will be let back into the classroom to perhaps abuse again?