From December, 2008 Labor Notes
Graduation rates were climbing to all-time highs in New York City’s alternative schools, where John Powers taught last year, before the Department of Education’s consultants arrived.
Citing under-performance, the city closed schools, and chopped some into smaller units, giving them new names. A new nameplate, however, forced the school’s teaching staff to reapply for their jobs.
“They only have to hire back into that building 50 percent of the people that worked there,” Powers said. “Simultaneously, principals are given their own budgets and it becomes a financial obligation to hire younger teachers—cheaper labor.”
The city found that pipeline of fresh-faced, inexpensive help in the New Teacher Project.
The program has chapters in several cities, placing college graduates (and others seeking a career change) in “high needs” schools after a six-week summer training. For two years, they receive funding for graduate study, take evening classes necessary for teaching certification, and teach.
Applicants for the NTP in New York have risen from 2,100 to 20,000 per year over the last seven years. This fall, 1,800 teachers entered classrooms through the program. A full 11 percent of all the city’s teachers come through the NTP.
Claiming that an investment in “human capital” will close the gap in test scores between white children and students of color, the city is shuttering or restructuring low-performing schools—and using the NTP to chip away at the stability of teaching jobs.
The 2005 contract signed by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the American Federation of Teachers local in New York, has added to the instability. The contract ended “bumping rights” for tenured teachers who lose jobs. Instead of automatic placement in a new job based on experience, teachers with more than three years in the classroom now enter an “Absent Teacher Reserve” with pay and benefits until they can find employment—contingent on a principal’s consent.
Rising numbers of non-tenured teachers, entering through the NTP’s teaching fellows (and a similar program, Teach for America), make it difficult for experienced, higher-paid instructors to find work.
NTP’s chairman now is pressing to fix a timetable after which reserve teachers should face termination, a demand echoed by schools chief Joel Klein. He wants to fire teachers after 18 months on the reserve rolls. For the moment, UFT’s no-layoff clause protects the 1,400 tenured teachers who are seeking their own classroom.
“We’re creating a situation where your most talented and experienced will be fired,” said Powers.
INSECURITY FOR ALL
The new labor flexibility in schools whipsaws younger workers against older ones—and produces a workforce beholden to principals.
Three months into the school year, Andy Mandel is still subbing at a Harlem junior high. He hasn’t found the full-time job he sought by joining the NTP’s teaching fellows this summer.
When applying, Mandel and others signed a form requiring them to find their own classroom by December or lose their fellowship, funding, provisional license and all. Mandel says the form violates the state’s protection of union rights and the contract’s ban on at-will firings.
But the union, he says, isn’t focused on the needs of young teachers. The Department of Education has fired teaching fellows under this agreement three years straight. “They didn’t notice until we brought it to their attention,” Mandel said.
In his first months, Mandel has taught every grade and every subject but gym. “One of the fellows is filling in for the dean. He’s been working the in-school suspension room,” he says. “Another fellow has administered eye exams, and we volunteer to move desks around and carry boxes of books. It works out well for our principal.”
Lacking sufficient training, overworked teachers flood in and out of the system, with little ability to organize and few job protections when they speak up. “You’re not going to stick your neck out as much in a situation where the principal can just send you packing,” said Dianne, a math teacher in Brooklyn and union delegate who is thinking of her own neck.
CHAOS IN THE CLASSROOM
An urban instructor’s career once stretched 20 years or more, said Bill Balderston, a teachers union board member in Oakland, where the New Teacher Project also places teachers. “Now it’s very rare to have people for more than three years,” he said.
Michael Mebane experiences that instability first-hand at his Brooklyn middle school. “I have been subbing four classes a day at a very difficult school,” he said, “and teaching one special-ed computer class, which I’m not certified to teach.”
Under pressure from teachers upset about the classroom chaos, the union filed a grievance on behalf of New York fellows who face early termination.
Their December deadline nearing, new teachers tried to expedite a lengthy grievance process by protesting at the Department of Education in early November. Klein’s office turned them away.
As Labor Notes went to press, the union reached a tentative agreement with the education department. The city maintains the principal’s consent rule, but gives subsidies to schools to hire reserve teachers full time, covering the pay difference between a reserve and a new teacher.
Still, schools will have the option to hire reserve teachers provisionally and return them to the pool of waiting teachers at year’s end.
Members of the Independent Community of Educators, a UFT reform grouping, won a resolution last month calling for a rally November 24. Despite the new agreement, the protest is on to demand a hiring freeze until reserve teachers and teaching fellows are placed in classrooms. And rumors continue to fly that the DOE will axe teachers young and old as the city scrambles to close a $4 billion deficit in the next 18 months.
“Our no-layoff clause can be rescinded only if the city declares a fiscal emergency,” Powers said.