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Advice to the New Mayor: Ignore The New York Times

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This is probably my last Huffington Post before the new year. I want to wish a Happy New Year to incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and congratulate him on taking office - although I am not sure how happy he will be once he settles into the job.

In a recent editorial, The New York Times offered Bill de Blasio their advice on educational policy. My advice to the new mayor who takes office on January 1, 2014 and the new School Chancellor is to ignore The New York Times as much as possible.

New York City teachers have had a hostile relationship with outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has repeatedly blamed the teachers and their union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), for all the problems in New York City schools. New York City teachers have been working with an expired contract and without any wage adjustments since 2009. Bloomberg tried to get the UFT to accept a three-year wage freeze, which he essentially forced on them by refusing to negotiate. The Times seems intent on continuing the Bloomberg mis-education era.

To help Mayor de Blasio out, I am going to reply to the Times editorial point-by-point. In addition, as a retired New York City teacher and teacher educator, as well as a public school graduate, parent, and grandparent, and as a Brooklyn neighbor, I am available if the new mayor or members of his transition team would like to meet. My email, to set up an appointment, is catajs@hofstra.edu.

SENIORITY: The New York Times condemns the public school seniority system to the point of irrationality without any sense of why teachers and unions fought hard for seniority rights.

According to The New York Times:

"Seniority trumps everything and is treated as a proxy for excellence. Under current rules, a school that has an enrollment shortfall or budget problem and has to cut one of its five math teachers cuts the least senior teacher, period. In progressive systems like the one in Washington, D.C., which has made big gains on federal assessment tests, decisions about which teachers to cut are based on a combination of factors, including how they stack up on evaluations and whether they possess special skills. The goal is to keep the most talented teachers."

Alan's Advice to Mayor-elect de Blasio: Seniority rules are a necessary evil to prevent employer abuse. I have personally suffered from and benefited from the seniority system and on balance I have to support it. In 1975 I was one of 13,000 New York City teachers laid-off, and one of 5,000 not rehired, when the city went bankrupt. Lay-offs were done in order of seniority and I was at the bottom of the list. Even after I was finally reappointed in 1978, I was excessed every semester for five years and relocated twice, again because I was at the bottom of the seniority list. But I do not believe it would have been fairer to lay-off or excess the older more experienced teachers just to save my jobs.

Without seniority rules innovative teachers, I like to think I was one, could be displaced because supervisors found them threatening or just annoying. Without seniority protection, the push is to follow directives, not to challenge or question, and if necessary, to ignore the needs of students. Without seniority protection you get to keep the mediocre, not the best.

The New York Times has similar apoplexy about the current seniority-based pay scales and proposes a form of "merit" pay.

According to The New York Times: "[T]he salary schedule in New York is calculated to reward longevity, requiring 22 years to get to the top level. Teachers are also rewarded for work toward advanced degrees, but this coursework does not necessarily have any bearing on how poorly or well they teach. Meanwhile, younger teachers start out with relatively low salaries and are at risk of leaving the system for higher pay elsewhere. The scales should be rebalanced so that teachers who are judged highly effective under the new evaluation system can move up quickly in the pay scale. Highly effective teachers should be paid more for teaching in areas with shortages or in high-need schools that have difficulty attracting qualified staff.

Alan's Advice to Mayor-elect de Blasio: I do not like the pay scale, but the fault is the city's, not the teachers or the teachers' union. When I began teaching in 1971 a new teacher reached maximum salary after eight years, not twenty-two. I actually took a pay cut when I left the Transit Authority where I was a bus driver to return to teaching in 1978. That was because to save money in the late 1970s and the 1980s, the city gave teachers longevity increases rather than increase wages. This was a period of double-digit inflation and declining real income. Essentially the longevity increases were a promise to pay you later for your work at the time.

My proposal is to raise starting salaries for starting teachers who complete a registered teacher certification program but to give a bigger pay boost after three years as a teacher. Most of the Teach for America "teachers" and Bloomberg "Teaching Fellows" are transients who come without certification and leave within three years. Pay them fairly, but reward people who earn certification and then make a long-term career commitment.

INACTIVE TEACHERS: Once again The New York Times condemns teachers for something they did not do and have no control over. The surplus teacher pool is the result of Bloomberg closing schools and then charging individual school budgets for teacher salaries so new schools do not want to hire higher paid experienced teachers.

According to The New York Times: "

Six of 10 teachers who are told their position has been eliminated find jobs in other schools relatively quickly, according to the city, while an additional 10 percent simply leave the system. Teachers who do not find positions, however, are placed in a costly reserve pool. They work as substitutes and are paid full salaries at an annual cost, according to city data, of $144 million a year."

Alan's Advice to Mayor-elect de Blasio: If you charge teacher salaries to the overall Education Department budget, most of this problem would be eliminated. But in addition, why waste the talents of these teachers. To help improve student performance they could be permanently assigned to schools as tutors for students who are performing poorly or as co-teachers in classrooms with high-needs students. Mayor de Blasio needs to be creative rather than punitive.

TEACHER DISCIPLINE: The New York Times, of course, wants to punish teachers even when there is no evidence that a problem actually exists.

According to The New York Times:

"One particularly disturbing provision in the old contract is that it allows teachers to be absent without notice for 20 days before they are fired.: However, in the very next sentence The Times concedes "The provision is not often invoked." The Times wants "a clear list of offenses that, if substantiated, lead to termination. Under current rules, official investigations that uncover serious abuses like sexual misconduct are subject to review by arbitrators who can veto terminations in favor of lesser penalties."

Alan's Advice to Mayor-elect de Blasio: No one disagrees with a clear list of offensives that would lead to discipline and potential termination. I would like to see The Times suggested list. We would probably agree on almost everything. The real issue is due process, which The New York Times may not realize is a constitutional guarantee in the United States. Given that supervisors can be arbitrary and mayors authoritarian, teachers need clear due process provisions in their contract.

FLEXIBLE SCHEDULES: The Times seems to want to force teachers to work overtime without being paid, which I thought was a violation of labor relations law since the time of the sweat shops at the start of the 20th century.

According to The New York Times:

"The teachers' union has been particularly hostile to the city's thriving charter schools" that "can set many of their own rules, scheduling longer school days and making more time for parent-teacher conferences."

Alan's Advice to Mayor-elect de Blasio: What the charter's do, as documented in a New York Times article on August 27, 2013, is order teachers to work longer hours without pay, and since the charter school teachers lack union protection and due process rights, if they refuse to stay late they are dismissed. Rather than quality education, all this system ensures is high teacher turnover because of oppressive conditions.

Curiously, the Times editorial and subsequent advice to Mayor-elect de Blasio has ignored the influence of major for-profit corporations on education policy and curriculum in the city. The State Attorney General recently cited the supposedly not-for-profit Pearson Foundation for steering business to the Pearson for-profit company. I would like to see Mayor de Blasio suspend all Pearson contracts with the New York City Department of Education while he conducts an investigation into any improprieties. A search of the Department of Education website showed hundreds of links for Pearson products and services that are being sold to New York City schools. They include Pearson Envision, Pearson's Connected Math Program 3 for grades 6-8, Software programs and training for the iLearnNYC initiative, Pearson Success Maker, Waterford -- Individualized Solutions for Special Education and Waterford -- The Support Continues with Effective Professional Development, ExamView Test Generator, Virtual Science Lab by Pearson, and Pearson's ReadyGen reading and writing program for grades K-2. In addition, Pearson is the contractor for the Department of Education's Gifted and Talented (G&T) assessment programs. The Gifted and Talented tests are designed by Pearson and administered by teachers trained by Pearson.

The New York Times editorial concluded, "All in all, Mr. de Blasio has serious work ahead if the city's school are to improve." I agree, but other than that, I think his first step should be to ignore The Times. As a second step, he should send me an email at catajs@hofstra.edu and we can get together to talk.

Merry Christmas.