Those of us in the education arena argue all the time but here’s something we all agree with: the most important factor in raising student achievement is great teachers. The New York City Department of Education has chosen to ignore this factor by forcing principals from 39 schools to hire 41 teachers from what was dubbed the “rubber room,” via Steven Brill’s New Yorker essay, but is really called the Absent Teacher Reserve, or ATR.
In fact, the DOE is bribing — let’s call it “incentivizing” — principals to take teachers whom no one else wants.
And where are these teachers — some of whom have lingered in the ATR for half a decade — being placed? In classrooms with students who will suffer the most. According to an analysis from Education Trust-NY, these teachers will be placed in:
- schools that serve Black students (44% average enrollment in the 39 schools, compared to 26% enrollment city-wide)
- schools that serve low-income students (84% average enrollment in the 39 schools, compared to 75% enrollment city-wide)
- schools with significant academic needs: these schools have grades 3-8 average proficiency of 33% in English language arts (ELA) and 27% in math, and an average high school graduation rate of 69%.
While I’m sure there are effective teachers in the ATR, some there because of lay-offs or school closings, statistically the odds aren’t great. The Post reports that “about one-third of the pool is made up of teachers with legal or disciplinary issues” and Chalkbeat reports that “among 822 teachers in the reserve at the end of last school year, 12 percent had been rated “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” in 2015-16, compared to just 1 percent of teachers citywide.” The New York Times says, “teachers in the reserve are disproportionately low-performing compared to teachers in the system over all.” The Wall Street Journal interviewed some principals who “say they have hired good teachers from this pool [205 were hired on a provisional basis over the last year] but caution that many teachers who linger in it for years are poor performers or don’t even try to get jobs.”
The ATR begin as a reform by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein in an effort to bypass tenure laws that make it almost impossible to fire ineffective teachers. Better to pay ineffective teachers for doing nothing, they reasoned, then subject students to poor instruction. After all, research shows that “teacher quality has a lasting effect on student learning. Data from Dallas reveals that a student who has an outstanding teacher for just one year will remain ahead of her peers for at least the next few years. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well: if a student has an ineffective teacher, the negative effect on her achievement may not be fully remediated for up to three years.”
This is especially true in NYC. The 74 just reported that here the achievement gaps between poor students of color and non-poor White/Asian students widens significantly over time. Writes David Cantor, “gaps between white and Hispanic third-grade students of .62 in ELA and .50 in math grew to .69 and .73.” In other words, during the span of 4th to 8th grade poor Black and Hispanic students lose between 2 and 3 grade levels. How much of this is due to teacher quality? Impossible to say. But, clearly, “remediation,” or catching up with ones peers, is practically a pipedream in Gotham.
Over time the cost of the ATR increased. In October 2016 there were 1,304 teachers in the ATR pool, which cost NY taxpayers $151.6 million over the course of the year. According to the Independent Budget Office, “on average each ATR teacher received a total of $116,258 in salary and fringe benefits for the past school year. (By comparison, the base salary for a city teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000).”
In 2014 Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to not force principals to hire sub-par teachers from the pool. But this past October, in an effort to cut costs, they backed off on that promise, explaining that it wasn’t really forced placements because ATR teachers would only go to schools with open positions (would teachers ever go to schools with no open positions?) and that the ATR teachers couldn’t bump other teachers through seniority rules. And, as an extra inducement, some ATR teacher salaries wouldn’t come immediately from school budgets but be subsidized by the DOE, which would pay half of the salaries in the first year and 25 percent in the second year. Since the beginning of the school year 359 ATR teachers were hired with the understanding that, tenure or not, they’d lose their jobs if they didn’t receive good evaluations (and, presumably, go back the ATR); of those,113 were hired permanently, with their salaries subsidized by the DOE. And 41 were forcibly placed.
“Take a chance,” Chancellor Fariña urged principals in October. What’s the downside?
Some principals did, raising the odds that our most needy children will spend a minimum of a full school year with an ineffective teacher.
These placements “raise major equity concerns,” said Ian Rosenblum, Executive Director of The Education Trust–New York. “In addition, beyond this initial release of data, parents and the public still lack basic information about the teachers’ effectiveness, length of time in the ATR, and area of certification, as well as any information about the 205 ‘provisionally hired’ teachers. We renew our call for full and immediate transparency and for policies that ensure that historically under-served students have access to the strongest educators.”
“The Department of Education took a good first step towards ensuring that there is more transparency in the forced placement of teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool by releasing this information,” said Evan Stone, Co-CEO and Founder of Educators for Excellence. “The additional transparency highlights our concerns that teachers from the ATR pool are being disproportionately placed in high-need schools serving low-income and minority students. We think the Department has a responsibility to release information about the hiring process that provisionally hired teachers went through, where they have been hired, and the makeup of that group of teachers.”
“Parents don’t want them. Principals don’t want them,” said Jenny Sedlis, Executive Director of StudentsFirstNY. “Mayor Bill de Blasio needs to put the best teachers in the classroom, not the leftovers.”
Gambling with teacher quality — “taking a chance,” as Chancellor Farina put it — — seems like a poor strategy to me, especially when we’re risking years of student growth among our neediest students. At New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx, which took on at least one ATR teacher, 100 percent of students are economically-disadvantaged; 29 percent are Black, 67 percent are Hispanic, 0 percent are white; two percent tested proficient in English Language Arts and one percent tested proficient in math. At I.S. Meyer Levin in Brooklyn, 95 percent of students are Black, 81 percent are economically-disadvantaged, 29 percent were proficient in ELA and 14 percent were proficient in math.
These are the students whose academic growth is subject to a roll of the dice.
The ultimate fix for the ATR is tenure reform and principal autonomy. This would spare families the burden of ineffective teachers and forced placements, perks currently the provenance of NYC’s public charter schools, which are unshackled from tenure laws, free to make their own hiring, and spared the pressure to accept ATR teachers.
Below is the list of where ATR teachers were placed.
P.S./I.S. 217 ROOSEVELT ISLAND
BATTERY PARK CITY SCHOOL
BUSINESS OF SPORTS SCHOOL
THE HIGH SCHOOL FOR LANGUAGE AND DIPLOMACY
HIGH SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS AND FINANCE
INDEPENDENCE HIGH SCHOOL
COALITION SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
P.S. 092 MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE
P.S. 133 FRED R MOORE
P.S. 197 JOHN B. RUSSWURM
MOTT HALL HIGH SCHOOL
BRONX DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION ACADEMY
P.S. 011 HIGHBRIDGE
P.S. 199X – THE SHAKESPEARE SCHOOL
THE NEW AMERICAN ACADEMY AT ROBERTO CLEMENTE STATE
NEW DIRECTIONS SECONDARY SCHOOL
BEDFORD PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
P.S. 041 GUN HILL ROAD
P.S./M.S. 11X498 – VAN NEST ACADEMY
FREDERICK DOUGLASS ACADEMY V. MIDDLE SCHOOL
P.S. 003 THE BEDFORD VILLAGE
CITY POLYTECHNIC HIGH SCHOOL
PS 059 WILLIAM FLOYD
P.S. 147 ISAAC REMSEN
KHALIL GIBRAN INTERNATIONAL ACADEMY
P.S. 191 PAUL ROBESON
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND RESEARCH EARLY COLLEGE HS
P.S. 219 KENNEDY-KING
I.S. 285 MEYER LEVIN
FDNY – CAPTAIN VERNON A. RICHARDS HIGH SCHOOL
EAST NEW YORK MIDDLE SCHOOL OF EXCELLENCE
P.S. 164 CAESAR RODNEY
MOTT HALL BRIDGES ACADEMY
P.S./I.S. 087 MIDDLE VILLAGE
GOLDIE MAPLE ACADEMY
P.S. 015 JACKIE ROBINSON
P.S./M.S. 147 RONALD MCNAIR
P.S. 127 AEROSPACE SCIENCE MAGNET SCHOOL