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Manhattan Institute

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Give Teachers What They Merit


Give Teachers What They Merit

December 31, 2000
Public SectorOther
EducationPre K-12

When it comes to kids, time should equal money

Just before it opened contract negotiations with the city this year, the United Federation of Teachers distributed a "Teacher Workday Survey" to its 80,000 members through its biweekly newspaper.

Teachers were asked to indicate how many hours they "typically stay in school beyond the required 6 hrs. 20 min.," as well as how much time they put in at home grading papers or preparing lessons. The union said it needed this information to buttress its claim for a huge across-the-board wage increase, and because Mayor Giuliani had "criticized teachers’ so-called ‘short’ hours."

Unmentioned by the union, but equally pertinent, was that the mayor was pushing for a contractual provision linking teachers’ wage increases to performance and productivity. Sorry, UFT, but asking individual teachers how many hours they work is hardly the most accurate way to measure teacher productivity.

Somehow, I don’t think that my son’s social studies teacher last year at Robert Wagner Junior High School on Manhattan’s East Side is going to show up in the UFT survey.

As far as I could tell, this teacher (let’s call her Ms. M) worked exactly zero minutes beyond the official 6-hour-and-20 minute school day. (Of course, like all other junior high and high school teachers in this city’s public school system, Ms. M is required to teach only five 43-minute periods — a total of 3 hours and 35 minutes — during the official day and has to show up for only about 180 work days per year.)

As my son and several of his classmates reported, Ms. M would arrive each morning just as the kids entered the building. She would then be out the door just after the bell rang to end the school day. One day when my son got out on the street after dismissal, he realized he had left his coat in the classroom. He ran back up the stairs, only to discover that Ms. M (who was also his homeroom teacher) was gone and the door was locked.

In her social studies classroom, Ms. M relied almost exclusively on canned assignments used by the school’s social studies department for years. She almost never commented on the kids’ written work, and she often used students to grade her tests. I found this particularly ironic, since one of the lessons she pulled off the shelf was on the evils of child labor. In any event, with all the help she was getting in the classroom, she appeared to have very little need to work at home.

Toward the end of the school year, my wife and I realized that Ms. M hadn’t come close to covering the state-mandated American history curriculum for the eighth grade. Among the subjects she never got to were U.S. imperial expansion, World War I, the Great Depression, the origins of World War II, Communism and the Cold War.

We wrote a letter to Ms. M. protesting her inadequate performance and sent a copy to Wagner’s principal, Elizabeth McCollough. Some back-and-forth discussion followed about scheduling a conference to discuss our complaints.

Because my wife teaches in a public school on the upper West Side, we requested that the meeting with Ms. M take place after 3 p.m., allowing my wife enough time to get across town without missing any of her own classes. Impossible, school officials told us: Ms. M had announced that she wouldn’t stay in school for one minute after the official end of the school day.

When I asked Ms. McCullough whether she supported Ms. M’s behavior, she sighed. "There’s nothing I can do," she said. "It’s in the contract."

What’s most troubling about this incident isn’t what it reveals about the work habits of one teacher, as disturbing as they are, but rather that the principal was absolutely right: It is in the contract. Not only can’t schools require teachers to remain after school to meet with parents (except for two official parent-teacher conferences a year), but a principal’s evaluation of a teacher’s performance can’t take that teacher’s productivity into account. Ms. M. was a young teacher, but she already knew the name of the game: Whether she worked one minute or 100 minutes beyond the 6-hour-and-20-minute school day, she would qualify for a salary increase based solely on seniority.

This doesn’t mean that Ms. M is the norm. Thousands of heroic teachers in our schools disregard the contract, working long hours to give something extra to their students. And many principals refuse to just throw up their hands and blame the contract. They find ways — even if it means breaking rules — to cajole or inspire their teachers to make that extra effort.

But you can’t run a system of 1,100 schools based on exceptional individuals. In calling for teachers’ wages to be linked to performance and productivity, not seniority, Giuliani is doing nothing more radical than encouraging some positive behavior modification for the likes of Ms. M.

At a time when New Yorkers seem to be in agreement on the need to raise expectations for students, what’s wrong with raising expectations for teachers?