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Posted at 3:29 PM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Absent teachers reserve 'crisis' created by Klein, Bloomberg, union

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marc Epstein, who has been teaching history at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y., for the past 15 years. He has also served as its dean of students. His articles on school violence, curriculum, and testing, have appeared in Education Next, City Journal, along with the New York Daily News, Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun, and blogs for the Huffington Post. He was a contributor to A Consumer's Guide To High School History Textbooks, edited by Diane Ravitch. Epstein earned a PhD in Japanese - American Diplomatic history. This post first appeared on Huffington Post.

By Marc Epstein
When there is evidence of bad public policy, you can safely assume that it took two parties working collaboratively to create the swamp.

New York's Department of Education and the teachers' union have found themselves mired down in a dispute over the fates of more than a thousand teachers, many of whom have no assigned teaching position, but continue to collect full-time salaries.

This group of teachers is collectively referred to as ATR's, or the absent teacher reserve. Large numbers of ATR's are not instructing students in their licensed areas. Instead they often find themselves working as substitute teachers.

At various times these teachers have been labeled incompetent or too lazy to seek positions by Joel Klein, [the soon to be ex-chancellor]. He wants to fire them.

To judge from his statements and newspaper editorials, we are simply facing a case of old time union featherbedding.

If the problem isn't resolved over the next few weeks Cathie Black will inherit this mess [when she becomes schools chancellor], and all her public statements to date indicate that she has bought Joel Klein's narrative hook, line, and sinker.

The primary reason that so many teachers are out of a job stems from Klein's policy of closing comprehensive high schools, declaring them "failed" enterprises, and replacing them with small high schools.

Since the closing is a "hostile" takeover the teachers too are "failed" and sent packing, rather than placed in the new small schools.

If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can lose your position with either a short time served in the system or with 20 plus years on the job.

When you impose this method of staffing on the largest school system in the country, something has got to give. In fact, it's only logical that a number of teachers would find themselves inhabiting the limbo world of the "ATR."

This limbo world can find a music teacher covering classes for absent social studies teachers, while his music program is assigned to a social studies teacher. I know because this precisely what occurred in my school.

The sooner the myths about public school staffing are dispensed with the better the public interest will be served, because this is Joel Klein's self-created crisis.

Tenure: tenure for public school teachers is not a lifetime sinecure. In most respects it is no different from civil service protections for police, fire, and sanitation workers. You have to have due process in order to fire an employee.

We should recall that the civil service laws first instituted on the federal level were the direct result of a presidential assassination in 1881, when a disgruntled officer seeker shot President Garfield.

Back in 1883 the cities of New York and Brooklyn served as the model for civil service reform nationwide on the local level.

The New York City schools once had a rigorous accreditation process for teachers. It included a meaningful written examination of the subject area and an oral exam. The Board of Examiners wrote and administered the tests.

As standards ebbed, the once vaunted Board of Examiners was whittled down until it was quietly put out of business in 1990.

The once demanding exam was replaced by a ludicrously easy interview and a more questionable statewide written exam.

It's no accident that the dumbing down of the hiring requirements coincided with the dumbing down of state testing for our children too.

Mayoral control gave Michael Bloomberg the power to re-establish a Board of Examiners with the stroke of a pen, but nothing has been done to return rigorous standards to the hiring process.

Perhaps Bloomberg, who didn't grow up in New York, is unaware that a Board of Examiners ever existed? After all, it's far easier to run a PR campaign than it is to institute real reform.

The union, never one to miss an opportunity, has yet to call for a return to the hiring standards under the Board of Examiners that helped make New York's schools the finest in the country.

Why should an experienced teacher have a tough time landing a new position you might ask? Well, along with the downsizing of schools came Klein's decision to budget schools according to the actual salaries of their teachers.

Before mayoral control, a high school teacher counted as a "unit," which meant whether you had a school with lots of experienced teachers or mostly rookies, the cost for staffing the school was the same. The teacher "unit" would represent the average price of compensating one of the 80,000 teachers in the system.

If a school closed, or its population declined, teachers who were no longer needed there were placed in available slots without having them go into the so-called "open" hiring market.

By forcing the principals to figure the real salary of each teacher into their budgets, they have every incentive to hire younger lower salaried teachers and to avoid the more experienced ones, who were too expensive. In Klein's universe inexperience and lower salaries becomes a virtue, while experience be damned!

Would critics of tenure suggest that if a firehouse is closed because of a reorganization move by the department, the firemen are responsible for finding a new job within the system? Would these critics claim that young inexperienced firefighters are preferable to experienced ones?

With the press providing the wind for his sails, and Bill Gates funding the small school voyage, Klein's assault on teachers and comprehensive high schools proved irresistible for someone with no real administrative skills. Ask yourself which role is easier, playing Tom Silva on This Old House, or just taking a wrecking ball to the whole place?

Around now, you might be asking yourself why the teachers union acquiesced to the ATR? To say that the union has taken a pounding in the press and from the chancellor over the past seven years is an understatement.

In typical New York fashion, the union stood by when a good policy, the School Based Option Staffing and Transfer Plan was being strangled, and agreed to the ATR pool.

The SBO had a cooperative team of teachers and administrators select new faculty members collegially. If someone with loads of seniority applied for a job and had nothing else going for them except time in the system, they could be rejected.

The SBO was already in place and had been spreading throughout the system when Bloomberg took over the schools. So Klein's claim that he was being strangled by union seniority rules was simply a myth.

If the union was as omnipotent as the editorialists claim, why didn't it block, or wage a PR campaign against this new fatally flawed hiring process and fight for the SBO?

There's no way to divine the answer to that question. In all likelihood the United Federation of Teachers knows that no matter how much ink is spent reviling them; no arbitrator would overturn the civil service laws and allow unassigned teachers who otherwise have satisfactory performance records be fired.

Yet the public discourse is diminished by the union's failure to make its case for the rank and file teacher to the public.

In the end, the DOE and the union have been clever by half. Hundreds of millions have been wasted. The hiring process hasn't been improved, and teachers who remain the vital component in the education process are further diminished.

If this self-inflicted "crisis" were given to a business management class as a case study, it's likely that they would conclude that the negotiators on both sides of the table were idiots.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 8, 2010; 3:29 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  cathie black, cathleen black, joel klein, new york city schools, nyc schools, teacher assessment, teacher tenure, teachers  
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Next: Kohn: Remember when we had higher standards? Neither do I


As I always say, it's the adults, not the children (who are the problem).
One thing charter schools do right is allowing principals to hire the teachers. If a principal hires lousy teachers parents respond by choosing another school. If you wanted to fly an airplane would you hire a flight instructor who just learned how to fly? In war, the people most prone to dying are the least experienced. Thinking that inexperienced teachers are 'no less effective' than experienced ones borders on Orwellian/bizarro world, since no one applies that logic in any other profession or endeavor.

Posted by: pdfordiii | December 8, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Thank goodness. An article written by a real teacher who is still on the ground, inside those 4 walls, pursuing his goal of being the best teacher he can be. It's a lowly, thankless job, but someone has to do it. In all the interviews I've had over the years at inner city schools, I've never been interviewed by a science teacher. Never been asked about content. Never had to produce a lesson plan, though I have enough in my head to rattle off at a moment's notice. The Board of Examiners sounds like an almost ideal method of hiring teachers. And good/great teachers are definitely being dismissed because of salary issues, at least in my district.

Don't let the facts hit you in the face, superman.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 8, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Why should you need 'due process' to fire a teacher. If we expect a principal to run a school shouldn't he or she be able to have the staff of his or her own choosing?

Posted by: heverlyj | December 8, 2010 10:28 PM | Report abuse

@heverlyj: Even though principals generally hire the staff of his/her own choosing, 'due process' is necessary because principals, being human, are just as prone to error and open to influence as the next person. And some have huge staffs, making occasional mistakes in personnel even more likely.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 8, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

"One thing charter schools do right is allowing principals to hire the teachers. If a principal hires lousy teachers parents respond by choosing another school"

No, the parents do not choose another school. They keep their students in the same school. Parents rarely move their children around from school to school.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 9, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse


"It's a lowly, thankless job, but someone has to do it."

I'm glad you decided to become a teacher. But I'm encouraging young people not to go into teaching. Teachers get kicked around too much.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 9, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Why should you need 'due process' to fire a teacher. If we expect a principal to run a school shouldn't he or she be able to have the staff of his or her own choosing?

Posted by: heverlyj


Schools are not businesses. The principal is not the business owner. The school is paid for mostly by property taxes.

Some principals fire teachers (before tenure) for reasons not having to do with good teaching. Some of them fire teachers for their political beliefs, for not giving in to their sexual advances, or to give their friends jobs.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 9, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

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