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Comments of the week: A payroll exposé opens the floodgates

We’re always excited when our news stories prompt readers to share on-the-ground details about their schools. That’s what happened when we wrote about Fort Hamilton High School, where an investigation is underway into illicit payroll practices that seem to have allowed the principal to hire long-term substitutes instead of replacing teachers.

Some of the thoughtful and informed comments that our readers submitted in response to the article are our comments of the week.

Our readers said the payroll improprieties might have been egregious at Fort Hamilton, but they exist elsewhere. Rtzimm88 wrote that the scenario happened to him:

I think the DOE should look into more schools with high sub budgets. I thought my school was the only one who did this. I just completed my first year as a long term substitute, made 27,000 dollars, and completed a full time teaching position. I made a deal with the devil. I was able to teach, yet made half of what I should have been making (54,000).

“The grandmarist” wrote,

Ft. Hamilton wasn’t the only high school engaged in this kind of subterfuge. As any [member of the Absent Teacher Reserve] can tell you, there were numerous full-time positions being filled by substitutes who received no benefits throughout the city.

And a reader posting as “Former teacher” called the practice “the new normal”:

This is the newest game to save money. The administrators want new college graduates preferably from outside of New York City so they think this is normal. Actually, this has become the new normal. There are UFT Chapter Leaders supposedly in these buildings and they let this go on.

Another reader piped up to say that the allegation “Former teacher” made against union leaders isn’t always fair. “CourseBoss” wrote:

Some of us Chapter Leaders have blown the whistle, have made the reports, only to see nothing happen, except seeing the young individuals at times, unable to work, with nothing happening to those at the top for whom one might say they could have been found guilty of filing a false report (something the courts do frown upon if it ever gets there), except that the tacit approval of those at the top of DOE allows this method for reducing costs so schools can open.

The Department of Education’s accounting practices give principals a real incentive to get creative with their payroll, argued another commenter, Vincent Muccioli. He offered a solution:

The biggest issue with the DOE and the ATR’s is the way schools have to pay more for more experienced teachers. There are some teachers in the ATR that nobody wants in their school, but I bet more of them are just more expensive than a school wants to pay for. I know that principals wanted control over their budgets and hiring decisions, so what if the DOE paid for everything above a teacher’s base pay. Schools should have the choice to hire another teacher for $50,000 or use the money a different way. It should not be a choice of 1 teacher for $90,000 or 2 teachers for $45,000 each. That will easily relieve pressure on principals to hire new teachers instead of ATR’s. That way, we can get all of the decent but expensive teachers out of the ATR pool and be left with only those that are not wanted. Then we can decide what to do with only the unwanted teachers.

And speaking of teacher quality, the week kicked off with the release of a new report from TNTP, a nonprofit that urges changes to teacher hiring and firing practices. The report, called “The Irreplaceables,” argues that districts need to do more to retain high-quality teachers and urge low-quality teachers to leave.

Our article about the report kicked off a firestorm about hiring and firing rules in New York City, with many commenters arguing against changing the rules in order to make removing teachers easier. But one commenter, “anonymous,” said teachers do vary widely in quality, suggesting that some changes might be merited:

Please. I attended public schools in a middle-class suburban community. I was enrolled in all honors classes — most of which served between 15-18 students because they screened for achievement. My classmates and I were motivated and hard-working. This was back in the pre-helicopter parenting era and we were all strivers. I had some amazing teachers and some average teachers and some truly abysmal teachers. I could quote lessons from the best of them verbatim. And I still get angry about some of the really poor-performing teachers I had more than two decades after graduating high school. My kids currently attend NYC public schools. They likewise have some good teachers and some bad ones. My older child is in a selective high school and his classes are streamed so he takes all his classes with the same cohort of high-achieving students. The same thing was true in his non-selective middle school. Some of the teachers were good, some were mediocre, some were awful. Same kids, same parents, the only difference was the teacher. My younger daughter is in elementary school and her class gets pulled out for science with a teacher who shows videos about 75% of the time. What’s more, he shows the same videos to the same kids in successive years. The kids are bright, motivated, and well-behaved. Is he a good teacher? I can’t say with any certainty that the impact of these differences would be picked up on standardized tests. I can say that I see the impact on my children’s learning and they can themselves identify the difference between good, mediocre, and lousy teachers with complete clarity. I work in a public NYC high school with an extremely high-need population. Some kids behave marvelously in one class and are incorrigible in another. Some teachers have cut rates well outside the norm for other teachers in the building — and the students who cut their classes show up for everyone else. And student outcomes align pretty strongly with these patterns. Do you not think the teacher might be playing a role here? It’s one thing to be critical of this report or proposed reforms to teacher evaluation systems, but can we refrain from pretending that there aren’t meaningful differences among teachers’ when it comes to performance? And this is true even within the same building, working with the same exact kids. Anyone who has children, who works in a school, or whoever attended school knows that all teachers are not created equal. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous.