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New York Daily News

 

Failing To Learn

June 01, 2014

By Sol Stern

A “historic” new deal with the teachers union ensures more of the same old thing in our schools

The new teachers' contract negotiated by Bill de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers was presented to New Yorkers as no mere labor agreement, but a shining example of what the new mayor's progressive political agenda will mean for disadvantaged children in the public schools.

De Blasio called it a “profound,” “historic” “landmark.” UFT head Michael Mulgrew declared on these pages that teachers — not “so-called reformers” — would take the lead now. And Diane Ravitch, the former conservative who's emerged as the voice of the union charge, proclaimed that the deal “should explode many of the myths that corporate education reformers like to spread about teacher unions,” and proves “unions and districts can come together and agree on innovations that make sense for students.”

But what's most striking about the “historic” deal is how much it remains the same old, same old. Is this really the best the city can do for students?

Like its predecessor agreements, the new contract undermines excellence in the schools — and thus strengthens the reformers' critique of resistant-to-change urban public school systems.

In almost 200 pages full of mind-numbing bureaucratic restrictions, the contract details how principals are allowed to organize their individual schools — from the number and duration of staff meetings, to the convoluted regulations governing out-of-classroom assignments for teachers, to the stipulation preventing principals from asking teachers to show up for a few days before the beginning of the school year to do some planning before the students return.

It also retains all of the irrational and counterproductive provisions regarding teacher compensation and work schedules. It's amazing that a so-called labor agreement still gives no clue about how the city — i.e. management — might monitor employee productivity.

Under article six of the contract, titled “Hours,” there is the same identical clause specifying that “the school day for teachers . . . shall be six hours and 20 minutes,” including a mandatory lunch period. That's actually the length of the school day for children. Keeping the provision in the contract effectively means that teachers cannot be sanctioned for working the minimum number of hours per day over the course of a school year lasting but 180 days. That amounts to an official workload for teachers of about 1,100 hours per year — a nice arrangement if you can get it.

(Of course, most teachers do work very hard and way past the length of the school day for children, but the contract still makes it impossible to distinguish those who work the extra hours from those who punch the clock.)

The elaborate salary schedule for teachers remains arbitrary, fiscally wasteful and unrelated to the city's presumed goal of providing children with the most talented and knowledgeable classroom instructors. Teachers will continue to receive significant salary increases merely for accumulating an additional 30 credits of coursework beyond the Master's degree and regardless of whether the extra courses they choose to enroll in (some offered by the UFT at a profit) bear any connection to the subjects and grade levels they are assigned to teach.

Teachers will also continue to receive the same “step” or seniority salary increases every year for the first 8 years of longevity, then at 10 years, 13 years, 15 years, 18 years, 20 years and 22 years. There is no rhyme or reason to these particular pay schedules, which were essentially plucked out of a hat during one of the union's first labor negotiations more than 50 years ago.

The decision by the city and the union to continue the same pay scales without even considering more sensible alternatives was clearly a product of inertia. Needless to say, the pay differentials in the contract have nothing to do with any intelligible educational objective for the school system or for the students.

De Blasio and Mulgrew tried to put lipstick on this pig by trumpeting a few fancy sounding new initiatives, like the new Ambassador, Model and Master teacher roles — which mostly duplicate the existing role of lead teacher while giving it new titles that sound as if they came from a credit-card company's marketing wing.

The other caveat-studded “big” reform they trumpeted is allowing up to 200 schools (out of a total of 1,700) to operate free of some of the work rules if such a plan is approved by 65% of the school's teaching staff.

The absence in the contract of any substantive changes in how schools are managed hasn't received the public attention it deserves because critics have focused on the agreement's long-term budgetary and accounting implications. The de Blasio administration has been slammed by fiscal critics for granting teachers retroactive raises of 4% for each of the years 2009 to 2011 to match the raises received by almost all the other municipal unions — but then deferring the full payment of the teachers' back pay until the year 2020.

My own view is that politically motivated decisions made by the Bloomberg administration on employee compensation left de Blasio little choice in making some restoration for the teachers union, now an essential part of his own political constituency. Just six weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, with the city's economy at risk of collapse, Mayor Bloomberg nonetheless made the political decision to sign off on two consecutive 4% wage increases for DC 37, the city's largest labor union representing over 130,000 municipal workers. Teachers, though, received no such hike — and there was no question Bloomberg left that mess for the next mayor to inherit.

Indeed, when it comes to rewarding teachers and putting the city's financial condition at risk, de Blasio is a piker compared to his predecessor. In his first seven years in office, Bloomberg raised teacher salaries by 43%. The comparable figure for our current mayor (even after including the double 4% increases for the years 2009-2011 on de Blasio's ledger) is 18% over nine years.

The question that's yet to be explored is how much New York's children (particularly low-performing, disadvantaged children) will be getting in terms of improved classroom instruction in return for the city's willingness to settle the teachers' back-pay demands.

So far, it looks like not much at all.

The teachers — or, more precisely, the union leaders — now have a seat at the table at the Department of Education and at City Hall, something they haven't enjoyed since before the Giuliani administration. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if someone of the caliber of Al Shanker were still heading the union.

Shanker was an education intellectual who rejected progressive education fads. He supported high academic standards and a coherent, grade-by-grade, content-knowledge curriculum. UFT president Michael Mulgrew is an exshop teacher who has no discernable ideas about what teachers should actually be doing in the classroom.

With the labor contract out of the way, New Yorkers are now likely to be subjected to yet another long experiment in progressive education in their public schools.

In the early years of the Bloomberg administration there were plenty of fuzzy math programs and something called “balanced literacy” in early-grade reading and writing, developed by Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins. All that produced no academic gains.

Yet new Chancellor Carmen Fariña has already signaled that, despite the lack of evidence supporting their efficacy, the constructivist reading and writing programs her friend Calkins developed will soon be returning to the city's classrooms.

And the UFT under Mulgrew is not likely to care about what its members teach in the classrooms, as long as the distorted pay scales in the contract are honored.

The highest aspiration of Mayor de Blasio's political progressivism is to narrow the gaps between the city's rich and poor. The most salient fact of the educational progressivism favored by Fariña and Calkins is that it has never been able to narrow the academic achievement gaps between children from poor families and those from the middle class.

Someday this contradiction in progressivism will become self-evident. But by then lots more of the city's poor children will have been left behind.

Original Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/failing-learn-article-1.1811888

 

 
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