By guestblogger Matthew Schatz, an elementary special education teacher in New York City. He was also a member of the 2013 Educators 4 Excellence-NY Teacher Policy Team on Teacher Evaluation Implementation.
The New York Times published an important editorial earlier this month on the challenges facing the city’s next mayor and the need to stay the course on many important education reforms put in place over the past twelve years. The importance of staying the course goes beyond New York City as districts around the country have followed our lead. All eyes are on the race for the second Mayor to control the nation’s biggest school system, asking: will the Big Apple continue to lead the nation when it comes to improving our schools?
As the article points out, the mayor’s race to date has focused largely on what the Times calls “emotional flashpoints”—mayoral control, school closures and charter school co-location—without digging into the actual policies needed to improve teaching and learning for the city’s 1.1 million school kids.
Certainly the next mayor will want to put his or her own stamp on the city’s education landscape and reengage many stakeholders who feel they’ve been disenfranchised during Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms.
But there are many positive changes taking hold that haven’t necessarily grabbed headlines but that are making an enormous difference in helping principals and teachers build successful school communities. The now expired 2007 teachers contract, which the next mayor will renegotiate, was the starting point for many of these changes. He or she should seek to build on them to ensure schools are organized around the needs of children and elevating their achievement.
1) Ending of forced placement: In the past, the city used to force place tenured teachers who were not able to find positions, stifling principals who were trying to build school cultures around a specific vision and mission. Starting in 2007, the district and union agreed to end the practice and instead, began placing these teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool instead of forcing them on principals who did not want to hire them. While the effort has created an expensive pool of teachers who are collecting a paycheck but not working, providing principals the power to hire the right teachers has made a big difference for schools and for families. The policy has also blazed a path for many other districts around the country. A new mayor will need to negotiate with the UFT a comprehensive plan for the educators in the ATR.
2) Mutual consent hiring: Another major change in the 2007 contract was instituting what’s called “mutual consent hiring.” This allows principals to interview teacher candidates and for both the candidates and the principal to have to opt in to the hiring. In the past, principals had little control over whom they could hire and teachers had little say in where they taught. This was a major step forward in efforts to professionalize teaching and to attract and retain talent in New York City’s public schools.
3) Support networks: When the State Legislature handed the mayor control of the schools in 2002, the city reorganized the way it supports schools from a system that grouped them geographically by district to one that allows principals to join networks tailored to their individual needs. For example, a dual language immersion program can now group itself with other dual language immersion programs rather than with schools that have very different challenges. The networks have experienced some reorganizing over the years but the basic idea is strong. According to the most recent survey of principals, over 90% were satisfied with the support they receive from their network. This level of satisfaction has been consistent over the last few years.
4) Budgetary powers: Another really important change was giving principals more discretion over how they spend their funds. This change has allowed them to prioritize their schools’ needs, whether that means extra staff, new technologies, professional development or curriculum materials. The process has also provided teachers with opportunities to shape their schools by allowing them to be involved in the decision making process. In the old days, principals were given a set amount of funds in each category and they had to spend that money whether or not they were needed. In addition, having teacher salaries based in school budgets has created a more equitable distribution of dollars across all schools instead of the old system where schools in higher income neighborhoods had all veteran teachers and schools in more challenging neighborhoods had all novice teachers. The new mayor should continue to work to find ways to ensure teachers are equitably distributed across the district based on quality and tenure.
5) Teacher leadership opportunities: Over the past twelve years, the city has experimented with different teacher leader models that provide educators the opportunity to grow in their profession and younger teachers the chance to learn from their experienced peers. Whether they were called Master Teachers, Lead Teachers or Teacher Ambassadors, the approach proved popular and effective. Unfortunately, ill will between the administration and the union killed each effort prematurely. The next mayor should use his or her early political capital to push to re-create these roles and additional opportunities for effective teachers to expand their impact, as studies have shown that leadership opportunities contribute to recruiting and retaining great talent.
There are many challenges facing our public schools in the coming years, most notably implementation of a new teacher evaluation system and the more rigorous Common Core standards. The most effective implementation will happen at schools where principals and teachers work together well, trust each other, and focus on how to continually grow and improve. Promoting and building upon policies such as the ones outlined above, that create professional and respectful work environments, should be a top priority for any mayor hoping to get off on the right foot.