Two weeks ago, a Washington DC educational policy think tank, the New Teacher Project, issued a report entitled Unintended Consequences to great fanfare. The report demonstrated that staffing rules in union contracts were “bad for kids,” Eduwonk proclaimed to the blogosphere. So we decided to take a careful look at the claims. And here’s what we found….
What is remarkable about Unintended Consequences is the extraordinary disconnect between the illness it is claiming to cure – the unmet need for quality teachers in urban schools, especially low-performing schools serving high poverty communities – and the medicine it is proposing we take
The report leaves no doubt that its target is “staffing rules in urban teacher union contracts.” The term ‘staffing rules’ suggests that the report is examining the entire range of ‘human personnel’ policies, from initial recruitment and hiring to placement and movement within the school district, from staff evaluation, especially the granting of tenure, to the retention of accomplished and experienced teachers. But it quickly becomes apparent that the report is concerned primarily with movement of teachers within the school district, in the form of “excessing” [district initiated movement, in the new placement of staff which are deemed “in excess” of the numbers needed in a particular school to which they were initially appointed] and “transfers” [staff initiated movement].
The complaints against the staffing rules for ‘excessing’ and ‘transfers’ are four: that urban schools “are forced to hire large number of teachers they do not want and who may not be a good fit for the job and for the school”; that “poor performers are passed around from school to school instead of being terminated”; that new teacher applicants, including the best, are lost to late hiring”; and that “novice teachers are treated as expendable regardless of their contributions to their school.” Taken together, the authors of Unintended Consequences assert, these four complaints “significantly impede the efforts of urban schools to staff their classrooms effectively and sustain meaningful schoolwide improvements.”
There are huge flaws in this diagnosis, of the sort that suggest it is based on selective readings of the available evidence. Some symptoms of illness in the patient are highlighted; others are passed over without comment. More importantly, the diagnosis remains fixed at the level of isolated symptoms, while studiously ignoring the underlying systemic diseases. Since one of the districts studied, the “eastern district,” is transparently New York City, we will focus on the study’s treatment of ‘staffing rules’ for ‘excessing’ and ‘transfers’ here.
EXCESSING IN THE REAL WORLD
The issue of ‘excessing’ is emblematic of Unintended Consequences approach, and consequently, of its flaws. The report focuses on ‘the symptoms,’ what takes place after staff have been declared “in excess” in a district like New York City, and never even examines ‘the disease,’ the reasons why so many teachers are regularly excessed. In New York City, the reasons for regular massive ‘excessing’ relate directly to longstanding policies of the Department of Education which give priority to narrowly conceived, ‘bottom line’ economic concerns at the expense of educational goals. These are policies which have been consistently criticized by the UFT, and which the state Department of Education has consistently pressured the city to change – to no avail.
New York City high schools, which experience the greatest excessing, are organized on a biennial basis, and budgeted on that basis. There is a fall term budget, based on October 31 student registers, and a spring term budget, based on March 30 student registers. For a high-performing school with fewer students living in poverty, such as Stuyvesant High School, the method of calculation is immaterial; the student registers are remarkably stable, and there is very little fall-off in the budget between the fall term and the spring term. With those minimal shortfalls easily absorbed by spring term sabbaticals, a school like Stuyvesant is rarely forced to excess staff.
Consider, by way of contrast, a low performing high school serving a large number of students living in poverty. First, it is significant that the budget is calculated on the basis of student registers two months into a five month term; if it were calculated on the basis of student registers at the start of the term, it would be significantly higher. The date of calculation is based on the unwritten understanding that there will be a significant drop-out rate in the first two months of the term. This is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: in schools that are already, as a rule, the most severely overcrowded, and where students are easily discouraged, the school and classes are started with many more students than it is anticipated they will have by October 31. As students drop out, in no small part in response to classes where they can not even find a desk, the school diminishes to its October 31 target. Student attrition continues throughout the fall term and the first two months of the spring term, and a number of students graduate at the end of January, off track [it took them longer than the standard four years to meet all of the graduation requirements], so the March 30 student register is significantly lower than the October 30 student register. Consequently, the spring budget is considerably smaller than the fall budget, the school is not able to hire the same number of staff, and a number of teachers are placed in excess – in the middle of the school year.
DOE’S POLICIES DENY SCHOOLS SERVING THE POOR STABLE STAFFS
It is no educational secret that the high rate of student transience which is associated with living in conditions of poverty is one of the more serious impediments in providing a consistent program of instruction to the students who need it the most. But the NYC Department of Education budgeting and organizational policies for high schools force staffing to mimic student transience, so that the schools with the greatest need for staffing stability receive the least stable staffs, and the schools where staffing stability is less important receive the most stable staffs. And when the DOE institutes budgetary cuts in hard times, this excessing increases and has a disproportionate effect on low performing, high poverty schools. This is Robin Hood in reverse.
The real problem, the real disease, is the extraordinary amount of excessing, especially disruptive mid-year excessing, in NYC schools – not the policies that determine how excessed teachers are placed once they are excessed. Given that we know that a high rate of staff turnover is one of the primary signs of a low performing school, and that this staff turnover creates a self-perpetuating cycle of failure as high turnover prevents a school from developing a solid corps of experienced and accomplished teachers which leads to more staff turnover, the NYC Department of Education’s budgeting and organizational policies must share a major burden of the responsibility for the state of those low-performing schools. It is significant that the state Department of Education has been pressuring the city to move to annual organization in its high schools for years, and that the city has continually resisted that pressure. A decision has been made that it is better to adhere to an economic ‘bottom line’ which allows the DOE to save operating funds from its low performing, high poverty high schools, than it is to follow the educational logic of providing them with a stable annual budget and staff.
So the major problem is that excessing takes place on the scale that it does, and that it is heavily concentrated in low performing, high poverty schools. Indeed, if excessing were a much rarer phenomenon, as it should be, the procedures for placing excessed teachers – good, bad or indifferent – would have little impact. And yet Unintended Consequences is completely silent on the subject of the causes of excessing – a rather telling silence in a report which claims to be concerned with the staffing of urban schools.
There is a calculated principle of selection at work here. The procedures for excessing are negotiated with teacher unions and enshrined in collective bargaining agreements, while the organizational and budgetary policies that give rise to excessing in the first place are the sole domain and province of the district. All fire from Unintended Consequences is trained on the procedures in which teachers have some voice, despite the fact that they are symptomatic by-products, and no fire is trained on the policies in which teachers have no voice, despite the fact that these policies are the crux of the problem.
‘ALL POWER TO THE PRINCIPAL’
This is a pattern which appears, again and again, in Unintended Consequences. Take the question of its primary remedy for the problems of ‘excessing’ and ‘transfer’ – that every ‘school’ has a veto over the placement of teachers in it. First, there is a little piece of intellectual ‘three card monte’ with the terminology. Although the report constantly refers to the ‘school’ as the actor, a close reading of its claims reveals that for it, the principal is ‘the school.’ Prior to the recent contract, NYC’s collective bargaining agreement had a school based transfer and staffing option, in which a school-based committee of teachers, administrators and parents was authorized to interview and make staffing decisions over all new hires and all transfers. Any school could opt in to this procedure, with the agreement of the staff and the principal, and by last year, nearly half of the schools had done so. Unintended Consequences refers to the schools using this option as “specially designated” [page 41], as if this were a favored status conferred upon a school and as if there was some sort of bureaucratic or contractual impediment to every school participating in it. It then misrepresents the scope of authority given to the school-based committees to suggest that it had to defer to seniority in selecting applicants.
But why would a committee of teachers, parents and supervisors go to the extraordinary effort of interviewing and deliberating on applicants, if they had to defer to seniority in any case? Why not simply remain with the default option, in which applicants would simply be placed on a seniority basis, and forego the school based committee altogether? The reality was that all that was required of the school committee was that it included seniority in their deliberations, giving preference to the senior qualified applicant – with the committee itself setting the qualifications. Such a requirement could hardly be an obstacle to staffing a school with quality teachers; to the contrary, it provided a practical check on inexperienced administrators who advocated that all of the school’s new hires should be novices whom they could “shape.” Nothing is more disastrous to a school, especially a new or struggling school, than the lack of a solid corps of experienced and accomplished teachers, than the absence of balance between the experienced and the novices.
Yet the authors of Unintended Consequences are so hell bent on condemning anything less than complete, unilateral control of all staffing by the principal as ‘an impediment to effective school staffing’ that they distort the school based staffing option beyond recognition. What becomes clear as one reads through Unintended Consequences is that there is an agenda – the expansion of the authority and power of management, and the diminution of teacher voice and input – which underlies all of its argument. It is not enough that there be a school based committee of teachers, parents and administrators with the authority to hire new staff; the authority must be given to the principal and the principal alone.
One does not have to think long or hard about this proposed “all power to the principal” remedy to realize that it will do nothing to staff low-performing, high poverty schools with accomplished and experienced teachers. Without professional and material incentives to take on this challenge, and without some reason to believe that systemic problems in the school will be addressed, accomplished and experienced teachers will not be transferring into such settings. The reality is that low performing, high poverty schools are not significant transferring or excessing ‘importers.’ However, the few accomplished and experienced teachers within such schools have every reason to transfer out of what are largely dysfunctional settings, and there is no reason why the principal of a receiving school would not take such a teacher. It is only the inexperienced, novice teacher and poor teacher who are effectively denied the ‘exit’ option, left behind in the low performing school.
But if the authors and endorsers of Unintended Consequences were to really take on the crucial question of how to staff low-performing, high poverty schools with accomplished and experienced teachers, they would have to address the policies established unilaterally by districts that perpetuate radical inequalities among their schools. And it would require an admission that progressive teacher unions are the leading advocates for the development of policies that would attract and retain quality teachers to low performing, high poverty schools. Such an admission runs directly counter to the agenda of expanding management authority, and limiting teacher voice and input.
THE POORLY PERFORMING TEACHER
Nowhere is the Unintended Consequences’ agenda of unfettered management power more transparent than in its treatment of the ‘poorly performing’ teacher. The report concludes that there is no “viable termination process” for teaching non-performance, because it is so time consuming to make a case where you have the burden of proof. Although the authors of the report contend that they conducted interviews with “human resources staff members, legal counsel, labor relations specialists, union representatives, school principals and teachers,” they did not interview even one union official from the UFT, the union in the largest school district in the US and one of the five districts they are “studying,” and they rely solely upon the commentary of school district personnel and principals, as well as district-supplied data, to reach and support this conclusion.
But we ought not make too much of this total bias in sources, as if more balance would have corrected the problematic conclusion. Would researchers without an agenda need a union official or a teacher to remind them that the supervisors making self-serving claims about how difficult it is to dismiss a tenured, poorly performing teacher are the very same individuals who declared that teacher satisfactory and competent, granting him tenure? Would researchers without an agenda need a union official or a teacher to remind them that in NYC this tenure decision is made after the teacher has taught for a minimum of three years, during which time her supervisors are specifically mandated by the DOE to observe her classroom performance for a full teaching period no less than eighteen times? Would researchers without an agenda need a union official or a teacher to remind them during those three years of probationary appointment, the burden of proof for the dismissal of a tenured teacher does not exist? The authors of Unintended Consequences cite only district officials and principals, and use only district supplied data, because they knew that this is where they would get the answers they were seeking.
Indeed, the New Teacher Project proudly boasts that its “clients” include a number of school districts – Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami-Dade, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC being the most prominent. One of these paying clients – the NYC DOE – is one of the very same school districts supposedly being subjected to disinterested, objective study in this very report. As a matter of fact, New Teacher Project CEO and President, Michelle Rhee, appeared as a paid witness for the NYC DOE in the fact-finding process earlier this year. This is a longstanding relationship: the web page of the New Teacher Project claims a pre-eminent role in the creation of New York City’s Teaching Fellows program, and describes it in unqualified superlatives. One would search this presentation in vain for even a hint that the program costs NYC more than ten times as much as it spends on recruiting teachers through traditional routes, or that teaching fellows leave teaching in NYC public schools at a much higher and faster rate than teachers who come through traditional routes. And if that relationship between paid researchers and paying subjects was not incestuous enough, who appears as the main endorsers of Unintended Consequences? Those being “studied” – Joel Klein, Chancellor of the NYC DOE [“the eastern district”], and Alan Bersin, past Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District and new California Secretary of Education for Arnold Schwarzenegger [“the western district”].
When all is said and done, then, the story of Unintended Consequences is the story of an agenda – extending the authority of school district management at the expense of teacher voice and input – in search of a supporting argument. Those with a genuine concern in staffing low performing, high poverty schools with experienced and accomplished teachers will have to conclude that this agenda has precious little to do with that important goal.