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Times Joins Bloomberg's Battle Against Teachers

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The "fair and balanced" New York Times ran a feature in the Metropolitan section this weekend on the impact of proposed teacher lay-offs and the "last in, first out" seniority system on a small high school for recent immigrants in the Bronx. Mayor Bloomberg is threatening to lay off over 4,6000 teachers because of state budget cuts and has launched a full-scale statewide campaign against the New York City teachers' union. Bloomberg and former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, now affiliated with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and something called Education Reform Now, blame the United Federation of Teachers and the seniority system for forcing the city to fire excellent new teachers and for most of the other problems plaguing New York City schools, schools that they were responsible for for over ten years.

One of the teachers featured in the article was my friend and former student Josue Barahona. Josue started teaching at the Academy for Language and Technology in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx last fall. According to the Times article, "the school stands to lose as many as nine of 29 teachers if the predictions of 4,675 layoffs before the next school year come true." The article goes on to explain that "many newer schools and those in poor neighborhoods, which tend to hire newer teachers, would lose a particularly large share of their staff members."

Let's start with a little truth in reporting instead of repeating the anti-union propaganda promoted by Bloomberg, the misnamed Education Reform Now, and the New York Times.

1. The fight should be against budget cuts, not against teachers and the UFT. In 1975, New York City laid off 5,000 teachers (including me), a move that plunged the school system into a decade long "dark age" of over-sized classes and poor student performance. Many argue the system has never recovered. Lay-offs will devastate the schools, no matter which teachers get let go. A mayor who cared about kids would fight lay-offs, not use the budget crunch as an excuse to weaken the teachers' union.

2. Minority schools will not be hurt worse by lay-offs. It is true that inner-city minority schools have a disproportionate number of low seniority new teachers who are threatened with being laid off under the current seniority system. But those schools and students will not be without teachers. The way the system works, more experienced teachers from other schools and districts will "bounce" low seniority teachers. Inner-city minority schools and students may actually benefit from an influx of more experienced teachers with a record of success in other schools.

3. The union does not prevent the city from firing bad teachers. The union contract, which it negotiated with the city, and which Mayor Bloomberg has approved more than once, establishes a procedure for removing poorly performing teachers from the classroom. If the procedure does not work effectively, it should be revised in the next round of contract negotiations. The national teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, has already proposed serious modifications. If anyone is to blame for the current system not working, it is the person who supervised the last two rounds of contractual negotiations for the city -- someone named Michael Bloomberg.

4. The teachers' union is not forcing the city to fire excellent teachers. The idea that there is a pool of excellent new teachers is largely a myth. It takes three to five years of hard work to become a good teacher, let alone an excellent one. Most of the Teach for America and Teaching Fellows alternative hires that Bloomberg is worried about protecting are long gone before they become competent, let alone good or excellent. Few make it two years. Bloomberg wants to keep these transient teachers because they are paid less and because he wants to weaken the union. His campaign has nothing to do with excellence.

5. Seniority protects good teachers and children. Without seniority protection, teaching becomes a job for transients rather than a profession committed to improving the lives of children. Who would commit their life to teaching knowing that at any moment they could be dismissed on the whim of an inexperienced or threatened supervisor? During Bloomberg's tenure there have been a number of scandals where supervisors pressured teachers to raise grades on standardized exams and pass students along so the supervisor could keep his or her job or earn a bonus. Seniority is needed to protect whistle-blowers and truly excellent teachers who do imaginative things that may be outside a principal's playbook.

Mayor Bloomberg may claim that his administration will assess teachers fairly, but that is certainly not true of his company Bloomberg LP. In 2007, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a class-action suit on behalf of more than 80 female employees, who argued Bloomberg L.P. engaged in a pattern of discrimination against female employees who took maternity leave. The women alleged that pregnant women and new mothers were excluded from management meetings, denied promotional opportunities, and subjected to stereotyping about their abilities to do their jobs because of preconceived family responsibilities.

6. The threatened lay-off of Josue Barahona is not because of the seniority system. Josue Bartahona is a very good beginning teacher, and he has the potential to be an excellent teacher as he gains experience. He is an immigrant from Honduras himself and identifies with the struggles confronting his students as they try to learn English, complete school, and help support their families. A major reason for Josue's initial success is that he is well prepared, a fact that was not mentioned in the New York Times article.

Josue is different from many of the new hires in the Bloomberg school system in a number of ways. First, Josue majored in college in the subject he is teaching, so he has a strong content background. Second, he worked as a substitute teacher for over a year before determining that he wanted a career as a teacher. Third, he completed a Master's degree in Secondary Education and teacher certification at Hofstra University where he observed in public schools for 100 hours and student taught for a semester under the guidance of two experienced cooperating teachers and a veteran teacher, me, who was his field supervisor. If there have to be lay-offs, which I do not think is really necessary, all the uncertified Teach for America and Teaching Fellows special hires should be let go first. Most of them are transients and they will be leaving soon any way.

I read the New York Times daily and recommend it to teachers and high school students. But we really could use a little "Fair and Balanced" in its reporting on Bloomberg, teachers, the teachers' union, and the budget crisis.