Teaching Profession Opinion

Guest Blogger Tim Daly on The New Teacher Project’s Report

By Eduwonkette — May 05, 2008 11 min read
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Tim Daly is the President of The New Teacher Project and the lead author of “Mutual Benefits.”

Over the past several days, representatives of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and others have sought to challenge specific findings of “Mutual Benefits,” our recently released study on New York City’s school staffing policies. We appreciate the UFT’s engagement in this dialogue and welcome their participation.

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) researched and released “Mutual Benefits” with the goal of sparking a substantive, data-driven policy debate from which better policies would emerge. We are glad to see this debate taking shape and remain optimistic that it will lead to reforms that better serve New York City students.

As our paper indicates, the current policy on teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATRs) is flawed in four fundamental ways:

1. Teachers in the ATR have no incentive to search for positions aggressively and no requirement to apply for positions
2. Teachers have earned and will continue to earn tenure while serving in the ATR
3. There is no limit to the amount of time teachers may serve in the ATR, earning full salary and benefits regardless of their placement status
4. The ATR includes a higher concentration of teachers with documented performance problems than the overall teacher population, and that concentration is growing over time

It is important to note that our assessment of these flaws in the current policy has not, to our knowledge, been rebutted or addressed by any criticism of the paper to date. We stand by these findings and continue to believe that, if unaddressed, the stresses that these flaws put on the school system will inevitably undermine the fair, open and efficient staffing process now in place in New York City.

Though the arguments by the UFT and others against our findings and recommendations have not centered on these core issues to date, many of them mischaracterize our research and threaten to distract everyone involved from the real issues at hand. Below we respond to each of the primary arguments leveled against our report, as discussed primarily in posts on the UFT’s official blog, EdWize.org, and on Eduwonkette.com. We have asked both sites to post this response as part of the larger discussion.

One-third of ATRs are teaching “regular programs” on a full-time basis.

This assertion is inaccurate and misleading for several reasons, including:

1) It wrongly includes guidance counselors

The UFT estimates that 200 or more individuals in the ATR are, “teaching full programs, with regularly scheduled classes, just as they had done when they were regular assigned to schools.” However, the UFT includes not only teachers but also guidance counselors in this figure. Our report does not include data on guidance counselors or address their hiring patterns at any point. Guidance counselors should therefore be excluded from this calculation. Data from New York City’s payroll system appear to indicate that approximately 85 guidance counselors remained in excess as of April 2007.

2) It includes District 79 teachers, whose excessing and hiring processes were anomalous

In his posting on EdWize.org, Leo Casey of the UFT claims that 270 of the 665 teachers in the ATR are from District 79 alternative schools. Neither figure is correct. According to the NYCDOE’s payroll system, 123 teachers from District 79 schools were in the ATR as of December 2007. These teachers were not included in the 665 figure or our study in general because District 79 underwent a substantial and atypical restructuring in 2007 that led to many teachers changing schools. The rules governing the hiring process for these teachers differed from those for other excessed teachers.

For this reason, TNTP did not include 2007 excessed teachers from District 79 schools in its analysis; it would have been misleading to consider them along with other teachers whose excess process was quite different and far more typical of the city’s normal hiring process. If the UFT believes that the restructuring process for alternative schools should have happened differently, that is a worthy debate – but it is quite separate from this one.

Even so, District 79 teachers fared very well in obtaining new placements. Overall, only 24 percent of teachers excessed from District 79 in 2007 still had not found a new position by December—lower than the unselected rate for teachers who were not from District 79 schools.

3) It is based on an unreliable data source

Last, the UFT’s data is of questionable quality and requires more scrutiny and explanation. It is not enough to conclude that because a teacher reports working a full class schedule that the teacher is actually filling a full-time, permanent vacancy. Self-reported data is vulnerable to a host of inaccuracies. For example, the teacher could be substituting for a teacher who is on long-term leave but who will return again. Verification of the UFT’s claim would require communication with the building principal and an examination of the course allocation for each school. It would require knowing whether the only factor preventing principals from placing ATRs into permanent positions is the budget issue raised by the UFT, or whether they are assigning them to classes merely because they have been instructed to do this as the best way to accommodate ATRs who are housed in their buildings.

It is entirely possible that some teachers in the ATR are effectively teaching on a full-time basis. Indeed, as we have noted before, it is difficult to know exactly how principals are putting these teachers to use. In instances where a reserve pool teacher truly is filling a permanent position, we believe that teacher should be formally appointed to the position. That is a reasonable and fair outcome. Limiting the amount of time a teacher may serve in the reserve pool, as we recommend, may in fact provide an incentive for principals to appoint these teachers to positions formally (or risk losing them).

TNTP and DOE claim that excessed teachers are “incompetents that no one wants in their schools”

TNTP neither believes this to be true nor has made any such statement. While we have been straightforward in our discussion of the trends in the job-search and hiring patterns of excessed teachers in the ATR, our analysis of these trends is based exclusively on the data available to us. We cite the fact that ATRs who remain unselected for one year are about six times as likely to have a past U-rating as the typical DOE teacher. Nineteen percent of the ATRs excessed in 2006 who did not have a position by September 2007 had a U-rating. Those are facts, and they are meaningful facts in this discussion.

In light of these data, we have suggested that at least some teachers in the ATR may be unable or unwilling to find new positions. However, we have never claimed (in the report, in this statement, or elsewhere) that past performance problems are the only reason that teachers remain unselected. As the data show, some teachers did not access the primary job search avenues available to them: hiring fairs and filing online applications. The data show that teachers who found positions were far more likely to use these avenues. It is our belief that the vast majority of teachers in the ATR pool are competent and hirable, and if they engaged in a well-structured, aggressive job search, they would be hired.

“The DoE has done nothing to find permanent positions for excessed teachers… serving as ATRs”

As indicated in our paper, the NYCDOE offered extensive job-search support to excessed teachers through a newly created Internal Hiring Services Center (IHSC) that operated during the summer and fall of 2006 and 2007. The IHSC, which TNTP operated at its own expense in 2006 and with NYCDOE support in 2007, was created expressly to help excessed teachers find new jobs and it provided a broad range of staffing supports to ATRs. For example, in 2007, IHSC staff sent out 2,414 welcome letters and placement guides to excessed teachers; created and distributed a bi-weekly newsletter to 2,314 individuals via mail and email; developed a website specifically for excessed teachers, with job search tips and event listings; provided in-person support to 496 excessed teachers at seven NYCDOE job fairs; communicated individually with 823 excessed staff members; and offered 18 skill-building workshops, information sessions and “office hours” for excessed staff at locations across the city. This work is important and is consistent with TNTP’s longstanding commitment to matching teachers with schools where they can thrive.

What the NYCDOE has not done is slot teachers into open positions without the teacher or principal’s consent (an action that the UFT sometimes refers to as “placing”). As our previous research has demonstrated, slotting or force-placing teachers on schools is an extremely ineffective staffing method that damages schools and corrodes the staffing process by ignoring the will of teachers and principals. We continue to believe that a return to forced placement is the worst possible policy outcome for New York City in this debate over excessed teachers.

• “So long as the teachers and guidance counselors remain as ATRs, they remain on the central DoE payroll, and the school can have the benefits, but not the cost, of their services.”

This argument assumes that all ATRs are paid through central DOE resources. That is incorrect. Of the 235 teachers from 2006 who were still in excess in December 2007, the salaries of 81 (34 percent) were funded through local school budgets, not the central budget. In those cases, the principal is paying the teacher’s salary but has not made the decision to appoint that teacher to a permanent position. Likewise, nearly half (48 percent) of the teachers excessed in 2007 who were still unselected as of December 2007 were locally funded. It is possible that some principals with teachers who are centrally funded may have an incentive not to appoint them to full-time positions, but this does not sufficiently explain the situation of all ATRs by any means.

DOE wants to fire all ATR teachers immediately

This is flatly incorrect insofar as it relates to TNTP or its report. TNTP believes that the policy for excessed teachers is fundamentally flawed and must be changed, but we do not advocate for taking action against any ATR teachers immediately or for permanently dismissing them from the system. An effective excessing policy must offer a fair amount of time for teachers to seek consensual positions. Our recommendation is one full year for tenured teachers and three months for probationary teachers. Past data suggest that this is more than enough time for the overwhelming majority of excessed teachers to find placements.

In its Edwize posting today, the UFT profiles two 2007 excessed teachers who are in the reserve pool. Neither has been in the reserve pool for a full year yet. Under TNTP’s proposed policy, both would still be in the reserve pool at this point with the opportunity to continue looking for a position.

Furthermore, even if teachers exceed their time in the reserve pool, we recommend placing them on unpaid leave, not firing them. Such teachers would be welcomed back at their previous salary and seniority level if they are able to find a full-time, permanent job within a certain number of years (with the exact time period to be determined by the UFT and the NYCDOE). Virtually no other industry offers a policy this generous. To equate a policy of extended reserve pool time and unpaid leave with “firing” is misleading and unhelpful to this debate.

“The $81MM figure is manufactured”

Our report states that the cost of providing salary and benefits to teachers in the ATR as of June 2008 is projected to be $81 million. This is a fact, based on the seniority levels of the teachers in the ATR and New York City’s standard salary scale and benefits package. The UFT has suggested that some of the costs for ATR teachers are offset by savings elsewhere (for example, in reduced substitute costs), making this cost lower. We agree. But the UFT has not shared the methodology behind its calculations. We would be happy to review these calculations and discuss their implications.

At the end of the day, no one has argued yet that the policy of unlimited reserve pool time for all ATR teachers is not an exceedingly expensive one for the district, and no one has argued that the costs will not continue to grow unless the district ends its commitment to mutual consent and slots teachers into opening.

TNTP is trying to protect positions for its Teaching Fellows

We find this claim reprehensible and could not disagree more strongly. A non-profit organization, The New Teacher Project strives to improve teacher quality so that poor and minority students can get the education that our country has promised them. Accordingly, our programs respond and adapt to the needs of the local schools that they serve. We have never and will never advocate any policy position because it creates opportunities for our programs to hire more teachers. In fact, in keeping with our mission, we seek to increase the stability of school systems and increase average teacher retention so there is less hiring to do. We also focus on high-need subject areas such as math, science, and special education, and have voluntarily curtailed our programs in other subjects where the supply of teachers is greater.

We honor the service of all New York City teachers, including the more than 8,600 we have helped the city recruit, but our bottom line is maximizing the number of excellent teachers in classrooms, not seeking to ensure that they are recruited by our organization specifically. We look forward to the day when every child is taught by a high-quality teacher and cities like New York no longer need us to help meet their new teacher needs.

We welcome a debate over the data on these issues. We are confident that a close look at the facts will drive a consensus that the current policy is flawed and must be amended. Though we have disagreed with the UFT about our report, we believe that this debate will be productive and we believe that the UFT wants what is best for teachers and schools, just as we do.

The opinions expressed in eduwonkette are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.