Millions of New Yorkers have seen the compelling TV commercial of a classroom full of angelic-looking children staring sadly at the empty teacher's desk at the front of the room.
The prime-time spot caps a $2 million United Federation of Teachers media campaign to convince New Yorkers that the city's best and brightest teachers are stampeding to the suburbs, where salaries are at least 25% higher. The union also blames low salaries for what it claims is the record number of 11,000 uncertified teachers currently in city classrooms.
The ads are intended to strengthen the union's hand in the upcoming labor negotiations (the current contract expires Dec. 15), but they also have a broader purpose. The "teacher shortage crisis" has become one of the education establishment's most plausible excuses for urban school failure, and it is lip-synched by virtually every Democratic politician, including, especially, Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But how much of the scare campaign is based on reality?
It's no news that the suburbs pay much higher salaries than the city. Median teacher pay in the city was $47,345 in 1997-98. While this figure was higher than teacher salaries in 44 of the other 57 counties in the state, it was dwarfed by Westchester County's $68,400 and Nassau's $66,262.
The gap with the wealthiest of the suburban districts is even higher. For example, the median teacher salary for Scarsdale was $81,410.
It's obvious, then, that the wealthy suburbs exert a powerful draw on trained New York teachers. But hoping for that job in Scarsdale or Great Neck is not the same as getting it. So when one of the UFT's print ads says, "many experienced teachers are being cherry-picked" by the suburbs, it's essential to know exactly how many is "many." Amazingly, the UFT claims not to know the answer.
Still, it's possible to make some reasonable estimates based on available state data. There are 23,000 teachers in Westchester and Nassau. Using a widely accepted teacher turnover rate of 10% for the suburbs, about 2,300 teacher vacancies occur each year in these two counties.
To see how many of these available jobs are filled by city teachers, I called five suburban districts with very high teacher pay scales and proximity to the cityRye, Mamaroneck, Scarsdale, Great Neck and Glen Cove. I asked officials in those districts what percentage of their yearly vacancies are filled with former New York City public school teachers. The average: about 17%.
I then called districts in the northern reaches of Westchester and the eastern end of Nassau and discovered that a much smaller percentage of their hires came from city public schools. I still assumed a 15% figure for the two counties, leading to a liberal estimate of 350 New York teachers hired each year by those counties' school districts.
No doubt some New York teachers take jobs in Suffolk and Putnam counties and in some nearby areas of New Jersey. Yet even if we doubled the total to 700, it would still mean that less than 1% of the city's teachers are leaving for the suburbs each year. That's a loss, of course, but it hardly constitutes what the UFT ads call a "civic crisis."
What about those supposedly awful 11,000 uncertified teachers the city is forced to endure, allegedly because of low salaries? To be sure, a minorityperhaps 3,000repeatedly have failed the state's subject matter testsand they should be fired. But even if none of them were replaced, there would still be 75,000 teachers for 1.1 million studentsa student/teacher ratio of 14.6 to 1, about the same as in the suburbs.
But the other 8,000 of those 11,000 teachers aren't uncertified because they've failed the tests. Rather, they're still working to complete the vast number of dubious requirements for permanent certification imposed by the Board of Regents.
Many of the requirements bear little or no relation to classroom performance. After studying a huge cohort of Texas schools, Rochester University economist Eric Hanushek reported finding "no evidence that having a master's degree improves teacher skills."
Those findings shouldn't surprise most parents with children in the public schools. They know that their children have had horrible teachers who were fully certified and excellent teachers who were not certified. Among the most sophisticated education consumers in New York City are the parents who send their children to the elite private schools that charge up to $20,000 in tuition. Though these schools have virtually no certified teachers, I have heard of no complaints from those parents that they are not getting their money's worth.
Public officials concerned with expanding the city's teacher candidate pool ought to be looking to New Jersey, which has one of the most successful alternate-route teacher certification programs in the country. New Jersey school districts are able to hire candidates with academic expertise and an interest in teaching, yet who are unwilling to invest the time and money it takes to get an education master's degree. Alternate-route teachers undergo classroom mentoring from a veteran teacher and take a condensed version of the traditional 36 credits of education courses.
In recent years, more than 20% of New Jersey's new teachers have come through the alternate certification route. How do they do? Very well. The alternate-route teachers have substantially higher scores on the state's subject matter tests and lower attrition rates than traditionally trained teachers.
New York's teacher shortage "crisis" would look far more manageable if the school system could expand the applicant pool by up to 3,000 teachers each year through alternative licensing. Yet even with a larger candidate pool, the city must create incentives for effective teaching in the classroomand the way to do that is by reinventing the teachers' contract.
The current contract is an inflexible, rules-driven document that perpetuates a culture of complacency in the schools. Teachers receive pay increases irrespective of how hard they work or how much their students learn.
Teachers also add to their salaries by accumulating more education school credits. Yet there isn't a shred of evidence that students benefit when their teachers take all those extra courses. A more constructive solution would be to eliminate the extra pay boondoggle for education credits past the master's degree. The money saved could then be used to reward teachers who have improved student performance.
Like managers in any other enterprise, New York City principals are now on renewable contracts. But if principals are to be evaluated on their performance, they, in turn, must have the authority to manage their own work force. That means being able to hire and fire teachers and to make school assignments on the basis of what's best for the children. The current contract denies that essential authority.
Mayor Giuliani and Interim Schools Chancellor Harold Levy should put aside their differences and press for a new teachers' contract that creates incentives for excellence and hard work. The kids in that TV commercial would then have a much better chance than they do now of actually seeing a hardworking and competent teacher at that desk.