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Staffing A High Needs, High Poverty Urban School

"Compare and Contrast": this is a term of art for many a Social Studies teacher, as it is a common device used to stimulate analytical thinking in students. In the spirit of inquiry and investigation, students are asked to identify the similarities and the differences, the continuities and the breaks, and the parallels and the incongruities in the events and phenomena they are studying. It is a practice that can be just as useful in the field of educational policy.

Take the issue of how to best staff low performing schools serving a large number of high academic needs students living in poverty. The educational literature tells us that one of the most significant features of low performing schools in such settings is an exceptionally high rate of teacher turnover. The faculties of such schools are disproportionately made up of novice, inexperienced teachers, often without the full certification and licensure other teachers possess and often teaching out of license they do have. Consequently, the school is never able to acquire a sufficient large corps of experienced, accomplished teachers to break out of a cycle of low performance and turnover, as the one feeds the other. For the full analysis, see here and here and here and here.

It is instructive to compare and contrast the approaches of Chancellor Klein and the DOE, on the one hand, and Randi Weingarten and the UFT, on the other hand, to this problem.

Klein has argued that the way to staff such schools is to end the seniority transfers that allow teachers to transfer from one school for another, and to give the DOE the unfettered authority of involuntary transfer to send teachers to schools without their consent. Klein’s solution does not even address the real problem. As Maisie pointed out here at Edwize, only 515 teachers — not even 1% of all the teachers in NYC public schools — took a seniority transfer last year. Even more significantly, only 47 teachers — a little more than .06% of the total — transferred from a low performing school to a high performing school.  By way of contrast, consider that the DOE loses 1 in every 4 new teachers by their second year, and that 1 in every 2 new teachers are gone by the end of their fifth year. Remarkably, the attrition rate is even higher in the DOE’s flagship Teaching Fellows program, despite a first year price tag of over $20,000 per fellow. The Education Committee of the NYC City Council estimated the financial cost of this turnover, in lost investment in human capital, at $187 million a year. No one has even attempted to calculate the educational cost to students, who are taught year after year by novice, inexperienced teachers. Yet since the turnover is not evenly spread throughout the public school system, but concentrated in the high academic needs, high poverty schools, it is the students in those schools which bear the brunt of this problem.

It is this massive hemorrhaging of new teachers, this perpetual turnover, and not the rather small numbers of transfers, that is the crux of the problem here. But when was the last time you heard Joel Klein talk about the retention crisis, for crisis it most certainly is, in NYC public schools? Perhaps the silence is so deafening at Tweed because of what the research tells us about the reasons for new teachers leaving the profession, nationally and in NYC. These teachers tell a story of being denied the most elementary forms of professional and material support from their school administrations and from the school district, of having their professional judgment and voice disregarded and ignored, and of struggling to work in chaotic, often violent school settings. And while they did not go into teaching to become teaching, they have found their meager salaries to bear little relationship to the immense difficulty of the job. [The DOE did its own research study on the retention crisis, Cohort 2001: A Study of the Comings and Goings of New Teachers in New York City Public Schools - February and July 2003, but you have almost certainly never heard of it, and you won't find it anywhere on the DOE's website; the conclusions did not fit Joel Klein's 'seniority transfers are the problem' spin on this question, and so it has been deep-sixed.] 

The other horn of the Joel Klein solution is to give the DOE authority of involuntary transfer to send any teacher to any school, especially those schools with autocratic principals that teachers want to leave. It is remarkable how advocates of an unfettered, laissez-faire market like Klein, who often waxes poetic about the virtues of competition and the vices of monopolies in other contexts, turn into little Commissars running the most top-down of command economies when it comes to the internal workings of public education. The problem that Klein has, however, is that the US is not generally a command economy, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution has outlawed involuntary servitude, so there is nothing that will keep teachers who are assigned to schools far from their home and run by autocratic principals, in which they do not want to teach, from retiring, from moving to another school district or from leaving teaching altogether. If Klein were successful in denying teachers in New York City public schools the ‘voice’ to have a say in where they work, and in the policies and practices of their school, they will exercise the ‘exit’ option in great numbers, and leave for employers which do provide such choices. The net result of such a command economy option would be to strip New York City of even more experienced teachers, as they flee to the suburbs, and to turn those who felt that they could not leave immediately into unhappy, dissatisfied teachers – hardly a formula for turning around a low-performing school.

It is instructive to compare Randi Weingarten’s approach, laid out in some detail a year and a half ago at the UFT Spring Conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, to the one advocated by Klein. In order to close the achievement gap, Randi argues, we must build schools with the capacity to educate our neediest students. Consequently, we need to make changes in the organization and culture of the school. Randi takes a look at the positive accomplishments of programs like the UFT’s 1960s More Effective Schools initiative and the Chancellor’s District, and develops a proposal that would include their strongest components. She recognizes the importance of changing school culture by promoting a stable, experienced and collaborative school leadership, and by following closely a clear code of behavior, so the school becomes a safe and orderly place.  Academically, she talks about the necessity of lowering class size, especially with at-risk students and especially in the early grades where the foundations are laid, and of providing proven curricula in the fundamental skills areas of English Language Arts and Mathematics. Randi discusses the need for meaningful, school based and classroom driven professional development for teachers. And she cites the need for a program of health, guidance and other social services to address the needs of students and their families, and for active parental involvement in the life of the school. These elements are essential to creating a school which teachers do not leave out of a sense of profound frustration and feelings of powerlessness. One of the reasons why the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit is so vital for the future of New York City public schools is that it would provide funds of the magnitude necessary to make these changes.

That having been done, a program of incentives need to be put into place to attract a solid corps of experienced, accomplished teachers to teach in low-performing, high academic needs schools. Incentives, both material and professional, and not commands, are what work in a market economy such as we have in the United States. Randi proposes that there be a specific salary differential for teachers who choose to teach in a low-performing, high needs schools, on top of a competitive across the board salary for all teachers, to be matched with the efforts to make the school into a professional workplace described above. One program which would be pivotal in turning around low-performing schools is the idea of a lead teacher long advocated by the UFT, a version of which is now being implemented on an experimental basis in the Bronx. Lead teachers are accomplished, experienced teachers, expert in pedagogy and trained in professional development, who agree to work in high needs schools, some of the time as a professional development staff person and some of the time in the classroom, where they can be observed by novice teachers; in return, they receive a salary differential on top of their base salary. The UFT supports the expansion of the Bronx pilot program across the city.

Last week, Congressman Charlie Rangel, a long standing Democrat from Harlem, and Teachers’ College President Arthur Levine issued a call for the DOE and the UFT to include salary differentials of up to $10,000 for work in low-performing schools. Since this has been a long-standing proposal of the UFT and Randi Weingarten, we welcomed the call. But those with some glaring edu-gaps in their knowledge about teacher unions seem to think that it is news that the UFT responded positively. So in the interests of learning and knowledge, we have performed this little exercise in “compare and contrast.”



  • 1 get_me_a_contract
    · Sep 14, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    My fiancee was a NYC teacher for one year. She taught at a dysfunctional junior high school in Jamaica, Queens. She was threatened by students, had her tires slashed, received no support whatsoever, was forced to teach science classes out of license (she was a social studies teacher), and was a victim of racial discrimination (she is white, her AP was African-American)…..this was about 8 years ago. She liked the students but the school was completely chaotic and she couldn’t stay in the environment.
    She works in private industry now…makes a great salary (much more than I make) and is happy in her job. She cannot believe the conditions I endure and is urging me to quit….

    I probably will after this year.

  • 2 realitybasededucator
    · Sep 14, 2005 at 6:11 pm

    Will Edwize be addressing the scuttlebutt on the PERB recommendations?

    I noticed that ICEUFTBlog has listed what it calls the “lowlights” of the fact-finding report, including:

    1. Ten extra minutes a day
    2. Two less days of summer vacation
    3. One less holiday
    4. Ten more “free” coverages a year
    5. No more seniority transfers
    6. The return of lunchroom, hallway, and pottyroom duty
    7. No Right To Grieve Letters To The File
    8. 11% Raise – 0% the first year; 2% the second year; 3.5% for the first six months of the third year; 5.5% for the last six months of the third year

    These details from the ICEUFT Blog were not included in the NY Times story this morning nor NY 1′s reporting of the Times story. I have not seen these details from the PERB fact-finding report anywhere else either. I do not know if they are accurate or simply rumor, but I sure would like to know.

    We discussed the ICEUFT Blog post at my school today and the overwhelming opinion of my colleagues toward the alleged PERB
    “lowlights” was negative. I was heartened to hear that. Nonetheless, I am anxious to know what the UFT chieftains know and what the bloggers at Edwize know about the PERB recommendations. Can you please post an update soon?

  • 3 NaniRolls
    · Sep 14, 2005 at 6:55 pm

    The population of my school has ballooned to nearly 1700 students between June and now, in a building that can barely hold 1200. At the same time, we lost a ton of teachers to other pursuits/other schools, and we lost three guidance counselors (we only had 5 to begin with). In addition, because the school has grown so rapidly, the science department has several vacancies, with classes being covered by other teachers or not at all, in the case of 10th period classes. We blame the school size on the small schools movement, and more specifically on administrators who are not congnizant of the fact that we are a technology high school, and not a neighborhood high school. As a result, we are getting lots of kids that have no interest in a vocational education. Hell hath no fury like a kid who is indifferent to his coursework. Things are under control for now it seems but we’ll see how long it lasts!

  • 4 JennyD
    · Sep 15, 2005 at 3:33 pm

    I teach soon-to-be teachers. None of them assume they will get rich doing this job. But all of them want to be successful at it.

    My biggest worry is that teachers leave because they cannot be successful at their jobs. There are lots of reasons why. One is that we at Ed Schools may not be teaching them what they need to know to hold their own on Day One. I worry about that and am thinking hard about what to do.

    Another problem is finding good mentor teachers for our preservice student teachers. It’s tough to find people willing to devote the effort to training new teachers. What if the professional teaching organizations, like unions, helped design ways to compensate designated teacher mentors for their extra work? Maybe some schools could be “teaching schools” in the way that some hospitals are “teaching hospitals?”

    What do you think?

    Finally, Leo. Did you get my note?

  • 5 Leo Casey
    · Sep 16, 2005 at 5:42 pm


    The idea of a teaching school, akin to a teaching hospital, is an excellent one. If you look back in some of the educational literature, especially by Linda Darling-Hammong, you will find descriptions of a professional development school which is very close in conception to this idea. For a number of years, we ran an experimental school-based teacher education program through three Coalition for Essential Schools in NYC — Urban Academy, International HS and Central Park East — but we could never find a way to support it [and the students in it] financially, and so it withered away. Every once in a while, we have tried to find some way to start it anew, but without success to date.

    I did not get your message. You can e-mail me at LCasey@UFT.ORG.


  • 6 Edwize » EDUWONK: “Don’t Mess With My Mythsâ€?
    · Sep 16, 2005 at 6:19 pm

    [...] Or take what is Eduwonk’s favorite Moskowitz soundbite – the claim that it is the ‘seniority transfer’ clause in the UFT contract which lies behind the shortage of experienced, properly licensed teachers in low-performing, high poverty schools. Eduwonk repeats it at regular intervals without the slightest elaboration or the most minimal attempt to engage the evidence on the subject, until the reader begins to feel like he is watching Allen Ginsburg chant ‘ohm, ohm, ohm…’ at a 1960s’ love-in. No matter that half of the schools in New York City are not even participants in the ‘seniority transfer’ plan, but use a different school-based system; no matter that a grand total of 47 teachers in a system with over 70,000 [approximately .06% of the total teaching force] went from a low-performing to a high-performing school last year; no matter that the critical situation in the low-performing schools and in New York City involves the turnover of new teachers [with 1 in every 2 leaving the DOE by the fifth year, and much higher numbers in low-performing schools], and not transfers: the problem is ‘seniority.’ Nor does it apparently mean anything that the UFT has been attempting to engage the DOE in meaningful negotiations on how to create a system of incentives which would attract significant numbers of experienced and accomplished teachers to low-performing schools, without the slightest response. Don’t look for Eduwonk to engage this analysis; that might disrupt the soundbite. It is must be the UFT contract that is to blame. [...]

    · Nov 30, 2005 at 11:45 am

    [...] 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. [...]

    · Dec 16, 2005 at 10:07 am

    [...] If the reader suspects that we are demonstrating a weakness for hyperbole here, consider the responses to the publication earlier this year of a study evaluating the academic performance of charter schools and the controversy surrounding the AFT’s release of NAEP data on that subject, The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement. Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham dedicated several column inches to a “review” of the report. He began by pointing out the union connections of the Economic Policy Institute, the progressive Washington DC think tank which co-published the text with Teachers’ College Press and to which a number of the authors were affiliated. He then headed off on a tangent concerning NCLB accountability measures, turned to a defense of his prior characterization of the AFT’s release of the NAEP data as a “hatchet job,” and went on to criticize the method of publication and dissemination of the report. Finally, after eight lengthy paragraphs on such ancillary matters, Rotherham managed to find one facet of the report worthy of a brief discussion, its treatment of charter school demographics. Nowhere did he address the actual question at the core of The Charter School Dust-Up – the academic performance of charter schools. Not to be outdone, Checker Finn produced a “review” dripping with disdain at Gadfly, managing to avoid even a single reference to an actual argument from the text. Every word of Finn’s commentary was dedicated to the propositions that the authors were critics of charter schools, and that EPI had received financial support from teacher unions. That’s all you need to know, in the logic of Finn’s presentation. Sadly, this pattern of intellectual non-engagement and avoidance, this ‘don’t confuse me with any actual arguments’ approach to ideas and policies, is what passes for educational debate in some circles these days. We say sadly, because it is hard to see how educational policy moves forward under the tutelage of pseudo-debates, or how educational ideas are strengthened and improved when they are never intellectually engaged, but simply dismissed as the work of the enemy. What reigns is the most vulgar form of politicization, in which the measure of the value of an educational policy is reduced to its efficacy as a weapon in the great education wars – which, for all too many practitioners of this strategy, is simply a euphemism for the great culture wars. As a consequence, today much of American education is far removed from the republican ideal of a public square, in which ideas and policy proposals are vigorously debated and refined; instead, we have a public discourse that, in all too many quarters, rarely rises even to the level of ‘spin.’ Take the question of the recent report of the New Teacher Project, Unintended Consequences, which targeted school staffing clauses in urban teacher contracts. Here at Edwize we took the time to read the report carefully, and to offer some considered comments and criticisms. We found that its arguments were lacking and that its research methods fell far short of scholarly rigor, and we disagreed strongly with the report’s conclusions. But we thought it important to lay out a serious critique of the actual arguments of Unintended Consequences, to show where they were wrong and where they ignored inconvenient realities, rather than simply dismiss the report because the New Teacher Project has as its paying “clients” the very school districts it was “studying” in this report, and because the main “endorsers” of the report were the leaders of those same school districts. Our readers are certainly entitled to be informed of the connection between the researcher and the researched/endorser, but a due respect for what educational policy debates should be and for the intelligence of those readers required that we address the report’s actual arguments. Unfortunately, the response to that critique of Unintended Consequences from Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham fits the pattern of “intellectual non-engagement and avoidance.” We read Rotherham’s comments several times, looking for even a hint of substantive grappling with the points we made. But the conclusion we were forced to draw is best captured by the words Gertrude Stein reportedly used to describe Oakland, “there is no there, there.” The issue that the Unintended Consequences and Rotherham claim to address – what must be done to staff low performing schools serving high poverty communities with accomplished teachers – is, without question, an important issue. It is at the very center of efforts to bring a measure of equity and justice to urban schools which are caught in an educational system which is still all too separate and all too unequal. The UFT takes this issue seriously, and we are committed to doing what needs to be done to bring quality teaching to these schools and to the young people they serve. A year and a half ago, Randi Weingarten laid out a comprehensive strategy for an ‘educational enterprise zone’ for low performing, high poverty schools. Among the specific measures in that strategy were unprecedented proposals for changes in our contract, such as a salary differential for teachers serving in these schools as an incentive to attract experienced teachers, and the establishment of a lead teacher position to provide instructional leadership, professional development and mentoring in these schools. Moreover, our school based staffing plan – which was added to the contract at the initiative of the UFT, and which Unintended Consequences had to misrepresent to make its case – meant that any school in this zone that wanted control over the hiring of their staff could have it. And we have discussed the question of how to staff low performing, high poverty schools at some length here at Edwize, well before the publication of Unintended Consequences. What was so striking about Unintended Consequences was the extraordinary disconnect between the goal it purportedly espoused of staffing low performing, high poverty schools, a goal which we have long supported, and the various proposals for the expansion of management authority and power it proposed. It was remarkable, for example, that the report which was so lavish in the space it dedicated to the symptom – how teachers in urban districts like New York City are placed in a new school, once they are excessed – had not a penny’s worth of a line to give to the underlying disease – why there is so much excessing, especially mid-year excessing, and why that excessing is so heavily concentrated in low performing, high poverty schools. This contrast can only be explicable in the context of the ideology of ‘triumphant managerialism’ that runs like a bright red thread through the report. The issue of placing excessed teachers is one in which teachers have some voice, through the collective bargaining agreement, while the issue of the extent of excessing and its concentration in low performing, high poverty schools is one solely under the discretion of the school district. So if your agenda is about expanding management authority and power, you go after the placement of excessed teachers, and ignore the problem of excessing and everything that gives rise to it. According to Eduwonk’s Rotherham, the wily teacher union advocates are engaged in a ‘misdirection’ ploy when we point to the Unintended Consequences’ studious avoidance of the underlying systemic problem of excessing. But we think our readers are intelligent enough to know the difference between spin and “keeping your eye on the prize,” and are able to recognize when we are doing the latter. If one really cares about the problem of staffing low performing schools serving high poverty communities with accomplished teachers, then one has to diagnose and treat the disease, and not just mask the symptoms. For our part, we are prepared to work with anyone serious about the real problem, and to modify collective bargaining agreements, when the changes address that real problem. Randi Weingarten’s comprehensive strategy for an “educational enterprise zone” demonstrates clearly and unambiguously that we are prepared to walk the walk on this issue. Our record on contractual changes such as school based staffing shows that we follow through on these commitments. Unfortunately, a year and a half after that proposal was made, the NYC Department of Education has yet to even ‘talk the talk.’ On more mundane matters, Eduwonk’s posts on the subject of Unintended Consequences are interesting as a specimen of the strategy of “intellectual non-engagement and avoidance” in action. The writing is rich in techniques, but we will limit ourselves to a few illustrations. The case made for the report includes the fact that the lead author is a “Clinton [administration] alum,” a line that regular Eduwonk readers will recognize as a common refrain from that blog. We would refer Rotherham to Thomas Aquinas, who famously noted that “the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments.” And being a Clinton appointee does not exactly make you the strongest of authorities to begin with. Or perhaps we should now all turn to the writings of a better known Clinton administration alum, Dick Morris, for our moral philosophy. However, we did detect a fine piece of Clintonian linguistic parsing in Rotherham’s announcement that New Teacher Project CEO and President Michelle Rhee was not a “paid witness” for the NYC Department of Education and against the UFT in the fact-finding process.  Given that the New Teacher Project and Rhee publicly boast that the NYC Department of Education is one of their “clients,” are we to believe that this pecuniary relationship is somehow mystically dissolved for the one day she appears as its witness? It must all depend on the meaning of ‘was’ in ‘was a paid witness.’ But we save the best for last. Here is Eduwonk on the method used to publish and disseminate The Charter School Dust Up: Finally, worth noting that the way the book was released was the policy equivalent of a drive-by. A private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the book. That’s no way to business and essentially no different than President Bush’s fraudulent “town meetings” on Social Security which have understandably enraged the Left and one can only assume EPI doesn’t support. Guess how Unintended Consequences was published and disseminated? Yes, a private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the report. And that is only the beginning. This was a report that ‘analyzed’ the New York City collective bargaining agreement as one of its five case studies, and its authors managed to interview numerous DOE officials, labor relations staff, personnel staff, superintendents and principals – and not a single person from the UFT or the AFT. Better yet, they managed to avoid even quoting the language of the contract they were discussing, a remarkable measure which they defend as necessary to protect the school district’s anonymity. Note that the “anonymity” did not survive even the publication of the report, when Joel Klein and Alan Bersin appeared as its main endorsers. And when asked for their interview methodology and questions, the New Teacher Project has not exactly been forthcoming. The interview questions could be shared, but the school districts have a “proprietary interest” in the data, the AFT was told. One wonders how the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who the New Teacher Project reports funded the ‘research’ for this report, feels about the NYC DOE having a “proprietary interest” in the data. Come to think about it, one wonders how they feels about the quality of the research in Unintended Consequences. Do you think Eduwonk might be able to mount some outrage over the ‘drive-by’ way Unintended Consequences was published and disseminated? Over research so shoddy that it can ‘study’ labor relations, and only interview the management side? Over the way in which The New Teacher Projects refuses to share the report’s data? Don’t count on it. The New Teacher Project is part of his army. [...]