"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.”