A Free Market for Teachers

A Free Market for Teachers

Danny Ghitis

Jane Steffen teaches at Fannie Lou Hamer Middle School in the Bronx, where the principal can now choose any teacher who applies. But getting applicants can still be tough.

Part three of a three-part series.

NEW YORK CITY | The old rap on New Dorp High was that if you could send your kids elsewhere, you should. Its scores were below average in its stretch of the city, the working class enclave of Staten Island.

Yet the austere brick building was a destination for veteran teachers from the island who were tired of trekking to work in Brooklyn. They regularly bumped young teachers out of their jobs. Principal Deidre DeAngelis called it “a grazing ground” for older teachers who only wanted to be there to shorten their commutes.

Such problems were endemic to New York City, which once forced schools to take teachers they didn’t choose. San Diego Unified still does it today.

Principals can be handed teachers they never even interview. Teachers can be sent to schools they didn’t pick. The system is driven by seniority and the need to find spots for teachers when schools shrink or close programs — factors that can have little to do with what each school needs.

New York faced similar problems. Then, four years ago, it overhauled its system completely.

It freed principals to hire whoever they wanted, allowing schools to ferret out the best teachers from across the city. New Dorp could also hang on to promising new teachers like Diana Composto, instead of seeing them shoved aside by others. Her glasses slide down her nose as she bounces around her classroom, encouraging students to imagine MySpace websites for the characters in a Steinbeck novel.

DeAngelis shows off each classroom with pride, from the freshmen analyzing evidence for evolution to the “virtual entrepreneurs” who snagged a national prize. Getting the freedom to hire its teachers isn’t the only reason New Dorp is shrugging off its glum reputation. But that was one less stumbling block in its way.

New York serves as both a test case and a cautionary tale for San Diego. In the Big Apple, principals were thrilled by their new freedom. Teachers could switch schools more freely.

But changing the system spawned a new and expensive problem. More than 1,000 teachers were left in the cold when nobody picked them, yet stayed on the payroll while new teachers were hired. It has cost the city more than $77 million annually and has ignited a bitter battle over whether to find them real jobs or get rid of them entirely.

For San Diegans, what happened in New York is a vivid reminder that if schools want to give principals more freedom to choose their teachers, they also must grapple with budget realities and teachers’ rights. And, no matter how much freedom schools have, they won’t to be able to attract the right teachers if people simply don’t want to be there.

A ‘Toxic’ System

Before the changes four years ago, veteran teachers in New York could actually grab jobs from new teachers, transferring into schools and booting them out.

Principals had no say. They complained that they couldn’t be blamed for lagging scores if they had no control over who taught in their classrooms. Just like in San Diego, many schools found the rules so frustrating that they created their own with the teachers union. Others gamed the system. DeAngelis admits that she once hid jobs so teachers couldn’t come in.

And just as in San Diego, principals sometimes prodded bad teachers to transfer instead of firing them. New York labor relations director David Brodsky called their old rules “toxic.”

Chancellor Joel Klein set out to fix that system, swayed by a report that laid out its pitfalls: Sixty-nine percent of schools had received at least one teacher they didn’t interview or select. Rookie teachers said they were more apt to quit when they didn’t pick their schools, according to the New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit focused on getting good teachers into hard-to-staff schools.

“Everyone knew that principals were unhappy,” said Dan Weisberg, a New Teacher Project leader who used to advise Klein on labor. “The ‘aha’ moment was that teachers weren’t pleased with it either.”

The new system they negotiated with teachers was called “the open market,” and it ensured that principals could choose their teachers. The union touted that it also allowed teachers more freedom to move. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who controls the schools, sweetened the deal with a raise.

The system also a downside: the demoralized pool of teachers displaced when schools closed or cut jobs.

One of them is Julie Woodward, who was left in limbo when her principal jettisoned a job at her school. As a tenured teacher, she had a right to a job somewhere in the city. New York once would have simply put her into a job at another school, much like San Diego does.

The teachers union argues that the city broke the rules, which say excess teachers will be placed in new jobs unless principals refuse them. Instead, the system left teachers to seek jobs on their own.

That hasn’t worked for everyone. Woodward, an outspoken music teacher with years in the school system, applied for nearly two dozen jobs and never got an interview.

Extra teachers who didn’t find new jobs were left on the payroll, but without real jobs. They were put to work as substitutes or assigned other odd jobs, even as the school system kept hiring new teachers from outside. This year New York estimates that its 1,200 excess teachers will cost $85 million out of its $22 billion budget.

“The game here is to make it seem like all the excess teachers are deadbeats and can’t get a job,” Woodward said. The problem is, “most principals will go for the cheaper teachers” who aren’t tenured.

What worries many teachers is that New York also changed the way that schools paid for teachers. It now charges them more for veterans than new ones, to prevent senior teachers from clustering in choice schools. The New Teacher Project found schools were only slightly less likely to hire senior teachers and the excess teachers who weren’t hired were more likely to have poor ratings.

Those findings have been bitterly criticized by some teachers who argue the group is conflicted because it has contracts with the city to recruit and train new teachers.

“They basically have destroyed the seniority system in New York City,” said Norm Scott, who founded a dissenting caucus in the teachers union. “It created teachers who feel under attack.”

To rein in costs, New York ultimately backtracked, telling principals to hire excess teachers for leftover jobs — or lose the money for those spots. Merely coaxing principals to hire them hadn’t worked. Now the union and city are battling over the idea of terminating teachers who fail to find jobs.

And while some schools thrived under the new system, others saw little change. New York hoped that changing the rules would push more candidates to schools like Fannie Lou Hamer Middle School. It hasn’t always done that. While other reforms have helped narrow that gap, the problem remains.

A Problem Deeper Than the Rules

On a drizzly Friday afternoon in the Bronx, a teacher confronted a boy about writing on a desk. He countered that a classmate — Calvin — did it too.

“Calvin carved his name into it,” the teacher replied. “And where is he now?”

“He’s in jail.”

“And you want to copy Calvin?” she asked.

Fannie Lou Hamer sits in a sea of drab Bronx flats and vacant lots, tucked into one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. Principal Lorraine Chanon was thrilled to pick all her teachers when the small school started up from scratch five years ago, seeking people with passion and energy.

But while Chanon may be free to hire anyone she wants, her freedom doesn’t matter if few teachers apply. Reforming the transfer system helped cut out the bureaucracy, but didn’t automatically level the playing field for schools angling for teachers. The simple truth is it’s tough to teach here. Sylvia Robb-Malone rattled off the challenges in her classes: kids in foster care, parents addicted to crack or in jail.

The biggest change under the open market system, Chanon said, is that her teachers are free to leave if it isn’t right for them. Turnover has been high there in the past and still remains a battle. The new rules haven’t dramatically affected them because few teachers tried to transfer there in the first place.

Chanon is trying to change that by making teachers part of school decisions, such as creating their own curriculum for children woefully behind grade level. Other schools show how it can be done.

Teachers rarely leave Urban Academy Laboratory High, an eclectic school on the Upper East Side where educators design classes from Cuban history to food chemistry. Instead of retiring to desks in their own rooms between classes, their desks are crowded into a single, hectic room so they can chat easily about why one teen seems unusually downcast or struggles in math.

“In most schools, teachers have their friendly, schmoozy relationships. But they go into their classroom and close the door,” said Rachel Wyatt, who teaches philosophy and constitutional law. “Whereas we have a lot of work we do together as a staff.”

That includes hiring. Long before the reforms, Urban Academy employees agreed to waive union rules and chose their new employees together. They had more freedom, but they also had something less tangible: A clear culture that lured the right people and turned others away. Others like Central Park East Secondary School did it too, using interviews to introduce their schools to teachers and swaying them to come or go.

“They said things like, ‘We meet for a week in the summer — someone who doesn’t go would feel out of place,’” said Deborah Meier, its founder.

Klein, the chancellor of New York City schools, has put the onus on principals to assemble teachers who best fit their schools. But as California also discovered, changing the rules only goes so far. The glaring problem that remains is how to draw more teachers to the neediest schools, which have larger, more complex problems. Loosening the rules was a first step for Fannie Lou Hamer.

But it was just a first step.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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2 comments
John de Beck
John de Beck subscriber

So an employment system that serves a client base like education needs to be child centered? What about fairness to those who chose to do the work? Leading by example makes sense to me. If kids don't try, what are the consequences? I called it failure when I was a teacher, and I didn't feel the failure was totally my fault, and gave all these kids multiple chances. Some did work things out. Others didn't. Why not provide the same opportunitiy for teachers? We call that due process.

deBeck
deBeck

So an employment system that serves a client base like education needs to be child centered? What about fairness to those who chose to do the work? Leading by example makes sense to me. If kids don't try, what are the consequences? I called it failure when I was a teacher, and I didn't feel the failure was totally my fault, and gave all these kids multiple chances. Some did work things out. Others didn't. Why not provide the same opportunitiy for teachers? We call that due process.