Double-down

In lieu of new evaluations, city looks to options in union contract

Chancellor Dennis Walcott speaks to business leaders at the Association for a Better New York breakfast.

After years of trying to win new powers to fire under-performing teachers, the city is turning to rights it has had all along.

Speaking to a coalition representing the city’s business elite this morning, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that the city would move to fire any teacher who receives “unsatisfactory” ratings for two years in a row. He also announced that the city would ask the UFT to allow buyouts for teachers who have been without permanent positions for more than a year.

Both policies are already permitted under the law and the city’s contract with the teachers union — a fact that drew ridicule from UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

“It’s theater of the absurd. It’s getting old,” he said. “I think they believe that everyone’s a fool. They’ve made an announcement about something they already have the ability to do.”

Mulgrew noted that the union contract already allows Department of Education officials to do exactly what Walcott’s two plans announced today would do—incentivize teachers without permanent jobs to take buyouts, and require schools to remove teachers who receive consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. He also said the buyout plan was proposed by the union several times over the past three years, but the city rebuffed it.

“In their own minds they’ve convinced themselves they’re out there making news and being bold,” he said, adding that the city should already know the union is willing to negotiate a buyout program. “I don’t know how you can negotiate just by making a speech.”

Negotiations between the city and union over new teacher evaluations broke down in December. Those evaluations would have done away with the current teacher rating system and made it harder for teachers to earn top ratings and would have required the city to try to fire teachers with the lowest ratings.

Walcott said today that the city still wants to adopt new evaluations — and that the new policies would not go into effect if new evaluations are in place by next year — but the announcement shows that the city is seeking a plan B.

The question of how to rid the school system of weak teachers has perplexed the Bloomberg administration for years. The Department’s attempts to fire teachers in the ATR pool when Joel Klein was chancellor fell short, as did efforts to end the last-in-first-out policy that governs which teachers principals can ask to leave schools.

Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, also suggested that the city’s plans were un-novel solutions to a bigger problem: the lack of a teacher evaluation deal.

“These are band aid solutions,” the organization’s founders said in a statement. “The only way to ensure that students are in classrooms with effective teachers is for both sides to finally negotiate a meaningful multi-measure evaluation system that gives educators the support, feedback, and recognition they deserve and need.”

Walcott declined to take questions from reporters, an atypical choice for him, but department officials filled in some details this afternoon.

Of the 831 teachers now in the ATR pool, most would be eligible for the program if it begins this fall, officials said. The program will be open to any teachers who have spent one year or more in the ATR pool, and its start date will be determined during union-city negotiations, which are scheduled to begin next week.

City officials said the buyout offers will be more generous than a similar buyout program that has been used in other cities, including Dallas and D.C.. Depending on their number of years teaching, city teachers can expect to receive offers ranging from $1,000 (for one to five years of teaching) to $20,000 (for 20 years) or more.

According to statistics provided by the city, the average salary for members of the ATR pool is $82,420, plus an average of $30,000 in annual benefits. ATR teachers are expected to actively search for permanent jobs while they are fulfilling their week-to-week assignments. But officials said nearly half of the ATR teachers have not submitted a single city job application or attended a city recruitment event in the past year.

The total cost of the ATR pool has ranged over the years, and the exact figure has been a source of disagreement between city and union officials. But the city has never strayed from its position that the cost is too high.

Other figures the city provided portray the ATR pool in a somewhat bleak light: Nearly a third of its teachers were removed from their last permanent job assignment through some formal disciplinary action, nearly a quarter have been in the pool for two or more years, and nearly one fifth have received at least one U-rating. 

The ATR pool could grow this summer as the city moves to close more schools at once than ever before, and relocate many of their teachers. Department of Education spokesman Matt Mittenthal said the pool has been shrinking this year, perhaps thanks to a policy change that requires ATRs to act as substitute teachers, rotating through schools from week to week. That change has motivated some principals to offer permanent jobs to teachers they may otherwise have never met, but it has also encouraged some teachers to quit their jobs or retire.

But without this extra push from the city, Mittenthal said, “We don’t think the pool is going to get much smaller, given how it is now.”

The city’s second proposal of the morning, to prevent elementary school students from being taught by a U-rated teacher for two years in a row, would affect the student class assignments for 217 elementary school teachers who received U-ratings in 2011. The city is planning to issue some kind of policy guideline to principals that they may not assign the 4,000 students being taught by those teachers this year to another U-rated teacher in the fall.

The third prong of Walcott’s announcement calls for schools to formalize a practice already in use—the removal of classroom teachers who have received U-ratings in the past two years. 235 teachers fit that bill, and half of them are still teaching in permanent classroom jobs. The rest are either in the ATR pool or are awaiting dismissal decisions.

Many of those teachers have appealed their second U-ratings. If the U-rating decisions are upheld after the appeal process, the city will formally see their dismissal. Officials said the DOE currently relies on principals to file these charges against teachers, but principals often decide not to. In the future, the DOE will initiate the dismissal process from its central office.

chronically absent

Newark’s absenteeism problem persists as thousands of students miss several days this year, new data show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León addressed ninth-graders in September. That month, about 30 percent of those students were considered "chronically absent."

Thousands of Newark students have already missed multiple school days this year, newly released data show, even as the district’s new superintendent makes improving attendance a top priority.

About one in five students missed more than a week’s worth of class during the first three months of school, according to the district data. Those roughly 8,000 students are already considered “chronically absent.”

Newark has long grappled with exceptionally high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in an academic year for any reason. Students who miss that much school tend to have lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and greater odds of getting in trouble with the law.

The district’s new superintendent, Roger León, has promised to attack the issue — even going so far as to set a district goal of 100 percent attendance. But the new data, which León released this week, show how far the district has to go.

Nearly 9 percent of of the district’s 36,000 students have already missed the equivalent of more than two school weeks, according to the data. Those 3,200 or so students are labeled “severely chronically absent.”

Experts say that tracking and publicizing attendance data, as León has done, is the first step in combating absenteeism. Now, some district leaders are calling for the next phase of work to begin — analyzing why so many students are missing class and taking steps at the district and school level to help get them to school.

“It’s great that we have all this great data,” Newark Board of Education member Kim Gaddy said at a board meeting last month. “But if you have the data and you’re not using the data to change the situation, we won’t do any justice to our children in this district.”

Students who missed six or more school days from September through November qualify as chronically absent. If they continue at that pace, they are on track to miss the equivalent of a month or more of school by June. Students who missed 10.5 days or more during those three months count as severely chronically absent.

Attendance from Sept. to Nov. 2018. | Green = absent 0-2.5 days | Yellow = absent 3-5.5 days | Orange = absent 6-10 days | Red = absent 10.5 or more days. | Credit: Newark Public Schools

The early data show that Newark’s long-standing absenteeism patterns are continuing. The chronic absenteeism rates over the past three months were about the same as in 2016, according to the data.

The problem remains most acute among the district’s youngest and oldest students: 41 percent of pre-kindergarteners were chronically absent this November, as were 45 percent of 12th-graders. At least a third of students at five high schools — Barringer, Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, Weequahic, and West Side — were severely chronically absent last month.

While absenteeism rates varied among schools, they tended to be highest in the city’s impoverished South Ward.

“I’m concerned particularly about the South Ward,” Gaddy said at the Nov. 20 board meeting. “That’s where our children need the most assistance.”

León, a former principal who became schools chief on July 1, has already taken some early steps to improve attendance.

His most visible effort was a back-to-school campaign called “Give Me Five,” where he ordered every district employee to call five families before the first day of school. The campaign, for which León himself recorded robocalls to families, appears to have made a difference: 91 percent of students showed up the first day, the highest rate of the past four years, according to district data. (In 2013, when former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched her own attendance campaign, about 94 percent of students attended school the first day.)

The district also eliminated some early-dismissal days, which typically have low attendance. And students with mid-level test scores whom León has targeted for extra support have had better attendance this year than their peers, officials said.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = 0-0.5 days absent | Yellow = 1-1.5 days absent | Orange = 2-2.5 days absent | Red = 3 or more days absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

However, León hit a snag trying to enact the crux of his attendance plan — reinstating more than 40 attendance counselors whom Anderson laid off years ago to cut costs. The state’s civil service commission has said the district must offer the jobs to the laid-off counselors before hiring anyone new, León told the board — forcing the district to track down former employees who, in some cases, have moved to different states. Only eight counselors have been hired to date, but León said he hopes to fill the remaining positions next month.

Meanwhile, León is arguing that some of the responsibility for improving attendance falls on families. At November’s board meeting, he said some parents and guardians “believe that, in fact, they can keep their children home” from school. At a parent conference this month, he took that message directly to families.

“I don’t care if school ends at 10 and they’re only going to come for an hour, and half an hour is on a bus,” he told several hundred parents who showed up for the daylong summit. “When I tell you that your child is coming to school, it’s your job to make sure the child comes to school.”

Afterwards, several parents and school employees said they welcomed León’s tough talk on attendance.

“It was about parents ensuring kids are in school and they are doing good,” said Bilikis Oseni, who has a child in first grade at Camden Street School. “Attendance is very key.”

Still, Newark families face many obstacles in getting their children to school, according to a 2016 report on chronic absenteeism among young students. Parents cited a lack of school busing, asthma and other childhood health problems, and work schedules that make it hard to drop off their children in the morning. High school students listed uninspiring classes, mental-health challenges, and safety concerns when traveling to school as reasons why they don’t show up, according to a 2017 report.

At the November board meeting, several members asked León whether he planned to dig deeper into the causes of absenteeism.

“I was looking through all the statistics here in the packet,” said Andre Ferreira, the board’s student representative, who attends Science Park High School. “But there were none that looked towards having a survey of students themselves telling you why they aren’t coming to school.”

León noted that he held forums with high-school students in September where he stressed the importance of showing up. He also said he has a student-only email address that some students have used to explain why they miss school.

“So I’m gathering data that lets me know why a particular student in fact hasn’t been to school,” he said. “Ultimately, we would have to do that for every single student, in every classroom, in every grade, in every school. That’s really the work — and it’s hard to do.”

Peter Chen, who co-authored the two reports on chronic absenteeism in Newark, said the superintendent had taken a crucial first step by raising awareness about the city’s attendance challenges. The district also appears to be sharing attendance data more regularly with schools, he said.

The next step is for the district to help schools identify and assist students who are chronically absent. The central office can do that by sharing effective attendance strategies, training school workers on how to support students’ social and emotional well-being, and offering grants to fund schools’ own attendance campaigns, he added.

“This is something that requires tailored, school-level responses,” said Chen, who is a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “The district can help support some of that — but it’s not something that’s easy to impose from on high.”

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.