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“Merit”? My Experience With Arbitrary U Ratings

As Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Cathie Black are pushing to be able to lay off senior teachers on “merit” grounds, my experience at the Bronx High School of Science raises questions about how teachers’ ratings are handed out.

The national education debate has centered on how to increase “teacher quality.” New York City Chancellor Cathie Black, for example, has called for first laying off teachers who were given “unsatisfactory” (U) ratings (along with those in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool). But there are more than a few cases in New York City that make clear that U-ratings are not always an indication of teacher quality, but sometimes are a result of retaliation against whistle-blowers and union activists.

The recent disciplining of Fordham School of the Arts principal Iris Blige for ordering her assistant principals to U-rate teachers whom she had never seen teach reveals a few important things about the DOE’s process of determining merit. First, U ratings can be arbitrarily ordered by a principal. Second, the penalty from the DOE for doing so is a slap on the wrist — a $7,500 fine for Blige, the same amount charged to teachers who used sick days when they were actually on vacation.

I was unfortunate enough to have witnessed this process firsthand at the Bronx High School of Science. In the fall of 2007, the math department welcomed a new assistant principal, Rosemarie Jahoda. Soon, however, we found that the newer teachers in the department were being subjected to a level of scrutiny and paperwork that was excessive. As soon as I spoke up about the issue, which was my responsibility as a member of a UFT consultation committee that met with the principal, I immediately began receiving unjustified disciplinary letters. These were quickly followed by groundless unsatisfactory lesson observation reports. I had had a spotless teaching record for my entire previous career, including at Bronx Science.

I was not alone. My newer colleagues were warned against speaking to their more senior coworkers. They were reduced to tears in meetings with the AP, and yelled at in front of their students. One was fired; others soon left. Senior teachers were not spared the abuse — one was called “disgusting” by AP Jahoda after speaking up in a department meeting.

As a result, 20 of us (out of a department of 22) filed a harassment grievance in 2008 against our AP and Principal Valerie Reidy. After spending eight full hearing days over the span of one school year, a neutral fact-finder substantiated our complaints, concluding that the “the totality of Jahoda’s treatment of teachers … constitutes harassment.”

The DOE, however, completely dismissed her findings, and has substantiated my U-rating as well as those of some of my colleagues, in its rubber-stamp “appeals” process. As a result, I’ve been forced to turn to the courts for relief. Oral arguments in a lawsuit against the DOE were held this week.

The outpouring of support has been enormous. Many of my current and former Bronx Science colleagues, as well as other concerned teachers from around the city, joined me at a fundraiser for the lawsuit last Friday (and there is another in Brooklyn today). The issue of arbitrary U-ratings, based on personal animosity or retaliation, is one that resonates around the city.

Furthermore, the issue points to something ignored throughout the national debate about “teacher quality:” turnover. Teacher experience is one of the few measurable factors that is proven to positively affect student achievement. Our department at Bronx Science saw, in the space of nine months, five of our six untenured teachers leave, most transferring to other schools because of the environment. Many of the most senior members of the department retired sooner than they originally planned, and others (including myself) left for better situations. Turnover problems are reflected in the statistics around New York City, where almost half the teachers leave within six years.

These anecdotes, I would argue, suggest a different route to improving education. Rather than chop away at due process rights for teachers, we need more union rights, professional development, and mentoring to nurture newer teachers through the initial challenging years of teaching.

Nor is the solution (as some in the UFT are arguing), in a new “objective” evaluation system that will be based partially on questionable standardized test results and chain newer teachers to a test-prep regimen.

What Black and Bloomberg are trying to do will make our schools worse, not better. Their reforms run the risk of setting up a system where we will have inexperienced educators who are afraid to speak out and advocate for children and for fair working conditions, conditions that also benefit children.

While they claim to be worried that they will lose thousands of great new teachers to seniority layoffs, they should be far more concerned about the thousands that of great teachers our students have lost and will continue to lose to arbitrary treatment by out-of-control school administrators and their misguided “reforms.”

Peter Lamphere teaches mathematics in Queens. He has has been a teachers union delegate and chapter leader at the Bronx High School of Science, and he is an activist in the Grassroots Education Movement. His recent column, “Will NYC Teachers Fight?”, appeared at SocialistWorker.org.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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