explainer

The real but misunderstood incentive to remove senior teachers

Do New York City principals have a financial incentive to get rid of veteran teachers?

That’s been a fiercely disputed accusation as the teachers union and city have traded shots over layoff threats in recent weeks. While the union embraces the claim as evidence that senior teachers need to be protected from layoffs, Chancellor Cathie Black denies that senior teachers are penalized at all.

Black recently told the Staten Island Advance that if a highly paid teacher is let go, a principal can go out and hire another veteran teacher without any repercussions. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s a more senior teacher making more money, or a younger teacher,” she told the newspaper. “It doesn’t change the equation. I think the UFT has really distorted that.”

The dispute is even more confusing because different Bloomberg administration officials appear to take different positions on the matter. According to a report in the New York Post, one of Black’s deputies has described the incentive structure as a problem and floated a plan to eliminate it, at least temporarily.

So again: Do New York City schools have a financial incentive to get rid of veteran teachers?

The truth is that the rules do favor less experienced and thereby cheaper teachers — but principals are so limited in firing decisions that it’s hard for them to maneuver more expensive, veteran teachers off of their budgets.

Currently, teachers are laid off citywide based on how many years they’ve been teaching and how desirable their license area is. Excessing — when principals have to cut teachers because they can’t afford them — works the same way except it happens by seniority within the school, not the entire city.

But a change introduced in 2007 to the way schools are funded inserted a new dynamic into the teacher job market.

Fair Student Funding

Since 2007, New York City has used “Fair Student Funding,” a formula that allocates money to schools based on how many students they have and what their students are like. Schools get different amounts of money if they have more special education students, how severe their students’ disabilities are, how many of them qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a host of other factors.

Though some teachers’ salaries are paid for centrally (such as speech teachers) and others are paid with Title I money, schools pay for most of their teachers with their Fair Student Funding dollars. Those funds are the least restrictive and the most abundant.

Before Fair Student Funding, schools paid for their teachers differently. Based on a teacher-to-student ratio, the city would centrally decide that a school needed to have X number of teachers. To fill those X number of positions, principals could hire low or high-salaried teachers — it didn’t matter which — because they were only charged for the citywide average salary.

If a school in Staten Island hired teachers in the $80,000 a year range and a school in the South Bronx hired beginner teachers making $40,000, both schools were charged the same amount of money per teacher — the average of $60,000. This system tended to hurt schools in poorer neighborhoods that couldn’t attract more experienced teachers. They had to share the costs of other schools’ experienced teachers, but they didn’t benefit from those teachers’ work.

When Fair Student Funding was put in place, city officials wanted to charge schools for the actual cost of their teachers, but they didn’t want to abruptly switch from one system to the next. Doing so would have the reverse effect of the formula at the time: it would hurt the schools where experienced teachers wanted to work by having teacher salaries swallow up their entire budgets. Instead, they moved to a “middle ground,” as a city document describes it.

That middle ground means that the city no longer gives schools money for teachers according to a formula. Fair Student Funding dollars form a pot of money for covering teacher salaries, and the effective price of each teacher is not the average salary of all teachers in the city — but the average salary of all teachers at the school.

Shifting the average from the city to the school changed some of the incentives working on principals. If before principals didn’t have to consider a teacher’s salary before hiring her, now they have reason to pay attention.

Today, School A and School B are no longer paying the same amount per teacher. Imagine they both have annual budgets of about $1 million and 10 teachers each. School A has more senior teachers, bumping its average teacher salary up to around $75,000. Meanwhile School B has newer teachers, keeping its average teacher salary down around $50,000. School A has to spend $750,000 a year on teacher salaries, whereas School B is spending $500,000, freeing up money for after-school programs and classroom supplies.

Consequences

The funding structure means that schools hit hardest by layoffs will also see their average teacher salaries jump the most — and their ability to hire new teachers from the pool of those available within the city will suffer.

If teacher ratings become a factor in layoffs, union leaders worry that principals might have a financial incentive to give veteran teachers low ratings, even if those teachers wouldn’t otherwise merit them. This would bring down the cost of all the teachers in their building for the following year, when budgets could become even tighter.

To some principals, the suggestion that their hiring is driven by dollars is an oversimplification.

“Your only consideration can’t just be money,” the principal of a new school told me.

“A good teacher, a teacher who has a history of experience and knowledge to share and can be a mentor — they’re worth every penny. The difference in salary is negligible when you’re looking at what they’re really bringing to the table,” she said.

But schools’ average teacher costs, and the incentive principals have to keep them low, are enough of an issue that some people in the Department of Education are trying to think of a solution. In a memo to Chancellor Black, Deputy Chancellor John White proposed freezing schools’ average teacher salaries for the next two years.

“That would mean schools that let go of highly paid staff would see no greater flexibility in spending than they see now,” he wrote.

Under White’s plan, the incentive to lay off expensive teachers would be put on hold for two years because during this time, regardless of who principals lay off, their average teacher salaries would remain the same. His plan is still under consideration, a city official said.

A Manhattan principal, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the problem with this idea is that few principals believe the DOE will maintain the same policy for two years. If principals lay off teachers with no eye to salary and then the city changes its mind, schools could find themselves with tighter budgets and high teacher costs. “There’s not much trust between us and the DOE,” she said.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”