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UFT president says he’ll fight mayor’s new proposals

More than week after Mayor Bloomberg handed Chancellor Joel Klein a to-do list of items anathema to the teachers union, UFT president Michael Mulgrew is promising a fight.

In an email sent to United Federation of Teachers members this afternoon, Mulgrew said the mayor’s proposals will “damage the schools and the children of this city.” Though the subject matter is well-covered ground, the tone is angrier than usual and there’s a sense that the UFT has been badly burned.

Bloomberg’s announcement, which came mid-UFT contract negotiations, has “raised the temperature” of contract talks,” a source said.

Referring to Bloomberg’s directive to Klein to use test scores in teacher tenure decisions this year, Mulgrew writes that the UFT was already working with the city and the Gates Foundation on a teacher quality study.

“Chancellor Klein was supposed to be our partner in this potentially much more effective approach.”

In the letter, Mulgrew also blames the Department of Education for mismanaging the city’s rubber rooms and pool of excessed teachers, which the mayor has proposed to reduce through layoffs of teachers who’ve been in the pool for more than a year.

He calls Bloomberg’s proposals “simplistic” and “sheer fantasy.”

A response to the letter from DOE spokesman David Cantor follows Mulgrew’s letter.

Dear colleagues:

New York City’s students deserve a high quality education. What’s more, the students deserve and their parents expect that their mayor and their schools’ chancellor will use their power to enact real reforms and overcome obstacles to learning.

Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech in Washington, D.C. did nothing to help meet these goals.

As New York prepares to compete for federal “Race to the Top” incentive funds, all stakeholders in the public schools should be working together to best position us to win this precious new resource. But Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have chosen to focus on and promote fake reforms, simplistic “solutions” and sheer fantasy as the answer to our schools’ problems.

Let’s start with some of the issues you as educators know full well.

ATRs: Hundreds of our teachers are now working in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), a pool of educators whose schools or programs have been downsized or closed. There is no better example of the Department of Education’s mismanagement and failed leadership than this group of dedicated and experienced teachers.

When the ATR pool was created we warned the DOE that faulty implementation of the process would leave hundreds or even thousands of teachers without permanent assignments. Our warning went unheeded and our prediction has been proven correct. Recently we joined with the DOE to create a policy that in similar circumstances was remarkably successful – the assignment of teachers displaced by the reorganization of alternative high schools to a school with vacancies, subject to approval by both the teacher and the principal. The DOE has not only rejected our recommendation to expand this to all districts, it has not made substantial efforts to place ATRs; it has refused to schedule school interviews for them; it has also demonized them in the press, making it difficult for many to find permanent jobs. Meanwhile, the department’s continued hiring of new teachers, including paying bonuses to recruiters, has made a bad situation even worse.

Now, when the DOE’s own data has shown dramatic increases in class sizes, it is unconscionable that the system allows over 1,000 teachers now working as substitutes rather than to help bring class sizes down. This is an inexcusable waste of human capital and mismanagement of resources.

Rubber Rooms: If the DOE’s ATR policy is the leading example of management ineptitude, the so-called “rubber rooms” are a close second.

We work with children, and we agree that we must err on the side of caution to protect children. Accusations may lead to people being temporarily removed from their schools while the investigation takes place. But no reasonable observer could find any reason other than gross mismanagement for leaving teachers to sit in rubber rooms without charges for months, or even years at a time.

On average, teachers now wait in excess of 200 days while allegations undergo an initial investigation – all without any formal charges. There is no reason these investigations can’t be completed in 30 to 60 days, at the maximum.

The rubber room debacle has been wholly created under the stewardship of Chancellor Klein. Under prior Chancellors, educators who had been removed from classrooms worked in office or non-teaching positions where they could make some contribution to the system during investigations. That policy should be reinstated.

The rubber rooms do not work for the students or the teachers in NYC, and we have always stood ready to fix them. Contrary to the picture the Mayor and Chancellor have painted for tabloid editorial pages, the UFT has met with the DOE on numerous occasions to try to make the necessary changes and expedite this process. But the administration has preferred to grandstand on this issue rather than solve it.

Student test scores: The idea of using student scores as the principal means to evaluate teachers is a classic political crowd-pleasing stunt. Unfortunately, as anyone who really understands education knows, it’s a cheap shot.

Study after study has shown that tests cover too narrow a field, and there are too many variables in a child’s life, school and classroom, from poverty to health issues to class size, to use one year’s test scores as reliable indicator of student success, much less the success of their teachers.

The Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, and the New York State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, have both said that the current state tests are in effect a broken measurement tool. Preliminary results comparing the state math scores to the most reliable national test have raised grave questions about their reliability of the state tests, and our members know that the focus on these tests has led to a misguided “teach to the test” approach rather than system-wide academic improvement. In addition, the DOE’s school progress reports, based on the state tests, are highly flawed and questioned by everyone.

We have been working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a valid, credible and measurable process that would capture the complexities of classroom teaching. Chancellor Klein was supposed to be our partner in this potentially much more effective approach.

The real problems: At a time when the economy has decimated our city and state budgets, it was the UFT that sounded the alarm about schools being harmed by education budget cuts at the opening of the academic year. We were the ones who rallied parents, education advocates and community organizations in a successful effort that stopped midyear reductions that would have cut services that schools and children are already receiving this year.

The members of the United Federation of Teachers have always been willing to work constructively with anyone who seeks to improve our schools and help children learn. But we will fight — with all the resources at our command — anyone whose policies will damage the schools and the children of this city.

Sincerely,

Michael Mulgrew

President

From David Cantor:

“The mayor put forward bold proposals to help New York City win President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which will provide badly needed funds for our schools and students. While reforming some of these failed practices may make some of our partners uncomfortable, we need to do everything we can to draw down these dollars for the city’s school children.”

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