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In New York City Schools, the Dance of the Lemons Lives On

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In New York City Schools, the Dance of the Lemons Lives On

New York Daily News November 8, 2017
Urban PolicyEducationNYC
EducationPre K-12

It's almost impossible to truly fire incompetent teachers

Last week, Mayor de Blasio and Schools’ Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that all teachers and staff at two low-performing high schools — Flushing High School in Queens and Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx — would have to reapply for their jobs.

The aggressive move could be great news for these struggling schools. But if you thought it marks a turning point at which the city starts removing its least effective teachers, think again.

The administration is removing these teachers because as a group they are badly failing the kids in those schools. Some of the teachers might be okay or even good, and the administrators will try to hire them back.

It’s the classic dance of the lemons — where ineffective teachers that can’t be fired are passed from one district school to another, just at a faster tempo.

But the teachers who aren’t offered a chance to return, presumably because the administrators there don’t think that they are good enough to rehire, won’t be fired. That’s virtually impossible under the union contract.

Instead, next year the teachers will be assigned to teach in other New York City public schools. It’s the classic dance of the lemons — where ineffective teachers that can’t be fired are passed from one district school to another, just at a faster tempo.

This is one of many ways we fool ourselves about teacher quality in our public schools. According to the state, there is nothing to worry about because basically all of the city’s teachers are doing just fine. Ninety-seven percent of New York City teachers were rated Effective or Highly Effective last year.

A recent report by StudentsFirstNY points out that all or nearly all teachers receive such high ratings, even in very low-performing schools. According to their data, 87% and 80% of teachers in the schools forcing teachers to reapply for their positions received an effective rating last year; only 5% of teachers at Flushing and no teachers at Dewitt Clinton got an ineffective rating.

The city’s removing these teachers from the schools is just one more piece of evidence confirming how useless teacher evaluations — the performance assessment of the public school system’s most important asset — really are, even after years of attempts to improve their effectiveness.

But let’s think through what will happen in the system after the teachers at these two troubled schools get removed. Let’s say that the staff shake-up makes these schools better as intended. If the gains in these schools come at the expense of students in other city schools that were forced to take in the displaced teachers, then has anything meaningful really changed?

Indeed, in all likelihood many of these teachers will land in other low-performing schools serving a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students in the city.

Over the last several years, many teachers displaced by such moves would have ended up in the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR).

Under Mike Bloomberg, the city ended the practice of filling open teaching positions by seniority and gave principals the final say over who taught in their schools. The ATR was a sort of limbo where displaced teachers who couldn’t convince another principal to hire them were paid a full salary and benefits but didn’t have a permanent teaching position.

They would often fill in as (highly paid) substitutes. Paying teachers not to teach is expensive; the ATR cost the city about $150 million last year alone. But at least it took teachers that principals believed to be ineffective out of the classroom.

But last month, citing the program’s cost, the de Blasio administration changed that Bloomberg policy, and began placing teachers from the ATR into open teaching positions. The city expects to put about 400 teachers currently in the ATR — about a quarter of whom have been in the pool for five or more years — into city schools this year.

So let’s not lose track of the fundamental issue. The real problem isn’t that the de Blasio administration effectively ended the ATR but that the ATR was necessary at all. It was necessary because the rules governing public schools are designed to protect teachers, not students. That’s also why the administration will with one hand pull ineffective teachers out of a school just to place them, with another hand, into another school.

This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News

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Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Susan Watts / New York Daily News
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