Wednesday, March 02, 2011

How Not to Rid New York City Schools of Bad Apples

For five years, the principal of P.S. 114 in Brooklyn ran the school into the ground. She blew out the budgets, eventually costing the school its guidance counselors, special reading and math projects, and gifted program.
Also, she forgot to schedule graduation one year.
She departed in April 2009. Over the next year, the school had two more principals. Test scores dropped through the basement. A few months ago, the Education Department announced its solution: close the school.
You can fall into a stupor listening to people argue about whether school test scores have really improved during the mayoralty of Michael R. Bloomberg, but one thing is certain: for many parents, the school system has become more remote, more obtuse, more bewildering than the reviled community boards that were shut down early in Mr. Bloomberg’s administration.
The case of P.S. 114 is as sharp an example as any. People in Canarsie who complained long and loud about the deterioration of the school were ignored, according to a report by the Office of the Public Advocate. The local superintendent in charge of the district — a person holding a potentially useful position that is required by state law but that in New York City has become as vestigial as a tailbone — had virtually no authority to control, supervise or remove the principal. The power to make changes rests with the Department of Education, and on Tuesday, no one would explain why it was not exercised sooner at this school.
After the department put P.S. 114 on the closing list late last year, the local politicians and community members were further roused. On Monday night, Schools Chancellor Cathleen P. Black announced that the school would remain open, and a plan for its revival drawn up.
“Someone scraped the wax out of their ears and listened,” said Lewis A. Fidler, a councilman for the area.
We are into the second decade of mayoral control of the public schools, and, it is safe to say, mistakes happen.
Over eight years, Mr. Bloomberg has said, he raised teacher salaries by 43 percent. Now he says it’s possible that he will have to cut more than 6,000 positions, and he does not want to do it on a basis of strict seniority, which the law requires — a critical statute that was not changed even when his administration was dishing out raises. (Mr. Bloomberg did win concessions to ease seniority requirements in assignments.)
Education officials spent Tuesday in Albany, arguing that the city should be allowed to lay off teachers using a rating system that currently relies heavily on the evaluation of principals. The prospect of having a principal like the one at P.S. 114 making such decisions does not make the heart leap with joy. Other principals, trying to stretch their budgets, might feel pressured to get rid of older, better-paid teachers.
ABOUT 2,000 teachers would probably leave through attrition; 4,000 others would go according to a peculiar seniority system that is based not exactly on how long individuals have been in the system but on the scarcity of their teaching licenses.
For instance, a reading specialist with nine years of experience might be laid off, while a science teacher with less than two years would probably escape, according to a list released by the city on Sunday. The city has to protect core courses required for high school graduation, said John White, a deputy chancellor. “You literally cannot lay off many of those teachers, or the children won’t have the courses necessary to graduate,” Mr. White said.
Under the current system, layoffs would have little to do with merit, at least as it is currently defined by the city and the union. Of the 4,000 teachers on the city’s list, 63 have unsatisfactory ratings, Mr. White said.
A bill passed in the State Senate on Tuesday would require the teachers’ union and the city to negotiate a new way of doing layoffs that takes into account some agreed-upon system of teacher evaluations.
Mr. White said the reforms the city wanted would increase the number of unsatisfactory teachers subject to layoff to about 2,000.
Ernest A. Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said that whatever the merits of the city’s position, it should have taken action on the issue long ago. Recalling Mr. Bloomberg’s boast that he had raised salaries by 43 percent, he asked: “What did your money get you? What it bought was political peace, during times when people had politics on their mind, whether it was re-elections or governance. It did not necessarily buy quality education.”

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