End of reform in Gotham?

When negotiations over a new labor contract between New York City's public school system and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) got under way last year, Joel Klein went straight for the jugular. Schools chancellor Klein looked intent on slaying the dragon of obstructionist teacher unionism right in its birthplace. He proposed scrapping the existing 200-page contract, with all of its Byzantine and excellence-killing work rules; in its place, he put a streamlined, eight-page agreement on the table that would have given principals and administrators the power to assign experienced teachers to those schools and classrooms where they were most needed. He also campaigned to eliminate tenure and make it easier to fire incompetent teachers. A few weeks ago, Klein stirred an education reform conference in Washington, D.C., by vowing to make a merit pay system for teachers his signature initiative (see Gadfly commentary here).

But even as Klein was promising radical reforms in the contract, his boss had decided that enough was enough. There was an election to be won. The last thing Mayor Mike Bloomberg needed was 120,000 angry union members demonstrating in the streets and fouling up his campaign's depiction of New York as one big happy city. So last week, Klein bit his lip and affixed his signature to yet another 200-page teachers contract - one containing the same lock-step pay schedule, based on seniority and useless education credits, that he had earlier promised to end. Nor was that all he gave up. The new contract has no provisions for merit pay, and no differential pay for teachers in critical-needs areas or those working in hard-to-staff schools. Thus, the Ph.D. in mathematics who teaches college-level courses in high school is paid on the same salary line as the 7th grade gym teacher who spends most of the school day rolling basketballs out on the court.

It gets worse. The additional money slotted for the city's teachers is more regressive than in previous agreements. This contract grants a 15 percent, across-the-board pay raise, but the bulk of the new money (estimated to add $750 million to the city's education budget) will go to teachers nearing retirement. Teachers with 22 years or more in the system, those least likely to be lured to other districts, will receive a $12,000 raise, upping their maximum salary to $93,000. Teachers with five years in the system, those most likely to be lured to higher paying suburban districts, will receive only $7,000 more. First year teachers receive an 8 percent raise (an average of 2 percent per year) for a total of $3,000. Stiffing teachers who will not join the system for another year or two makes sense politically for the mayor and helps pay for the hefty raises going to senior teachers. But this makes it more difficult to recruit bright graduates from selective colleges to Gotham's classrooms.

Of course, the union had to make some concessions to achieve its monetary demands. Bloomberg and Klein are trumpeting as a major breakthrough the elimination of the contract's "seniority transfer" provisions. (This practice gives more-senior teachers first dibs when vacancies at other schools come open.) While a good thing for the system, it's hardly a breakthrough. The reality is that New York is late jumping on to this bandwagon. Boston's reform-minded superintendent, Thomas Payzant, accomplished this ten years ago. Since then, many other districts have followed suit. Indeed, as a result of contract changes accomplished by previous education administrations, more than half of New York's schools have already opted for an alternative hiring system, called School Based Options, that allows principals to get around the seniority rule. And while seniority transfer is finally out, seniority placement within schools still stands. Principals continue to be required to follow seniority rules when assigning teachers to class schedules and to various other in-school positions.

As for Klein's promise to make it easier for the system to get rid of incompetent teachers, he can claim one slight improvement. In the new contract, teachers charged with unsatisfactory classroom performance can no longer file a separate grievance over every negative letter entered into their file by a principal. However, Klein's big targets - the tenure system and a faulty and slow arbitration process after teachers are formally charged with incompetence - are still firmly in place. Thus it will continue to be very difficult, if not impossible, for the system to rid itself of truly incompetent teachers.

The "give backs" that Bloomberg and Klein are portraying as giant steps toward reform look, upon closer inspection, to be no more than baby steps - with the occasional setback. For every work rule eliminated from the old contract, there seems to be another one or two in its place. One of the most bizarre new rules, inserted into the contract at the insistence of the UFT, states: "The following issues shall not be the basis for discipline of pedagogues: a) the format of bulletin boards; b) the arrangement of classroom furniture; and c) the exact duration of lesson units." That new work rule is a direct slap at Klein and recognition of the legitimacy of the union's complaints about the chancellor's pedagogical tyranny.

But the most significant aspect of this new contract is that it probably marks the last opportunity for Bloomberg to reform the city's schools. That's because the mayor inexplicably agreed to a deal that doesn't expire until near the end of 2007. By that time, he will have just two years until the next municipal election. The term-limited Bloomberg and Klein (if he's still around) will be lame ducks, with no leverage to secure further concessions from the union.

Scholars and critics who have been singing the praises of Klein and Bloomberg as radical education reformers should read this new contract very carefully. Without a contract that provides incentives - financial and otherwise - for teacher excellence and productivity, what's left of the Bloomberg/Klein legacy of reform? As I have written elsewhere (Education Next, Fall 2005; Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, December 2004) all that remains is Klein's determination to enforce a constructivist pedagogy - "fuzzy" math and whole language reading instruction in almost every classroom and school in the city - that has been proven, time and time again, to be wrong for most children, and particularly for children from disadvantaged family backgrounds. (See also Louisa Cook Moats, "Whole Language Lives On.")

Not only has Klein missed the jugular, he's opened himself to attack. His supporters in the education reform community have not paid much attention to what's happening in New York City's classrooms. They felt they could be quiet about this because they believed Klein was reforming teachers' incentive structure. Get that right, they reasoned, and student academic improvement would follow, regardless of the instructional methods the chancellor was forcing on teachers. It seems like the right time for education reformers to reexamine that position.

Sol Stern is a contributing editor to
City Journal and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. He lives in Manhattan and writes frequently on issues of education reform.

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