Monday, September 14, 2009

"Teachers, teachers everywhere, but not a one to teach." 

Or: Why it costs NYC $19,000 a year to teach a public school student, part 97.

As the second week of the school year starts, the New York City public school system still has 1,281 teaching vacancies open (as of last Friday). It also has more than 2,200 teachers drawing full salary and benefits who are not filling them. Why?

[] About 600 teachers sit during working hours in the system's "rubber rooms", doing literally nothing at all, except to await arbitration or court trial after being faced with charges ranging from sexually abusing students to gross incompetence. The process typically takes years. (But the teachers get summers off, along with all other benefits.)

[] Another 1,600 teachers sit around in various locations doing nothing as members of the "Absent Teacher Reserve". A bit of explanation about this...

One of the few important reforms that Mayor Bloomberg has been able to buy from the teachers' union (at the cost of a 43% pay hike for the union since 2002 -- senior teachers' salaries now exceed $100,000) is agreement to let school principals choose the teachers they hire to teach in their schools.

Now, this may sound more like "common sense" than a dearly purchased reform, but before then teachers could choose any job they wanted in the system, on the basis of seniority. If that meant a poor-quality senior teacher from the outside came in and bounced out a top-quality junior teacher that the principal, students and parents wanted to keep, then too bad, union rules.

This also systematically created serious inequities among schools serving different communities. Senior, highly-paid teachers of course flocked to the best schools in comfortable, well-off communities with the easiest students to teach. That left schools in poor neighborhoods with the most challenging students getting the most inexperienced, low-paid teachers ... but I digress.

The union's agreement ended that. Good. But now the teacher who loses his job because his old school closed or the classes he taught were ended has to convince a principal to hire him in a new job on the merits. The great majority succeed quickly, as competent teachers are in high demand in the system.

But if such a teacher can't get a job, the union contract does not let the school system dismiss him. He gets paid anyhow, as a member of the Reserve. And that means that a teacher who, say, doesn't really mind getting full pay and earning a pension for doing nothing, doesn't have to try overly hard to find a new job ...
(... almost half ... according to a study by the New Teacher Project, have refused even to apply for another position) or their records are so bad or they present themselves so badly that no other principal wants to hire them. The union contract requires that they get paid anyway ... [The New Yorker]
The cost of these >1,600 teachers in salaries and benefits is well over $150 million a year -- but until this year the school system "ate it" as the price of getting bad teachers out of the classrooms and new, better, younger ones in, to improve the system for the future.

But this year, with recession taking a toll on the school system's finances, new hiring has been frozen -- so teaching vacancies have opened up.

And with principals not wanting to fill those vacancies with teachers from the Reserve, and/or the teachers in the Reserve not wanting any job at all, the vacancies remain and the schools go under-staffed.

Thus, 2,200 teachers do nothing in the rubber rooms and in the Reserve while drawing full pay and benefits (including earning pensions) while the school system remains "short" about 1,200 teachers.

The cost of those 2,200 teachers: over $200 million -- a small but meaningful part of the $19,000 per student.

And there's a larger issue...

"If you just focus on the people in the Rubber Rooms, you miss the real point, which is that, by making it so hard to get even the obvious freaks and crazies that are there off the payroll, you insure that the teachers who are simply incompetent or mediocre are never incented to improve and are never removable," [principal] Anthony Lombardi says.

In a system with eighty-nine thousand teachers, the untouchable six hundred Rubber Roomers and ... teachers on the reserve list are only emblematic of the larger challenge of evaluating, retraining, and, if necessary, weeding out the poor performers among the other 87,300.

It's enough to get even to get progressives as far left as the Village Voice saying that is it time to "roll" the teachers' union.

More: Shut Up and Let the Lady Teach ... New York Post.