Op-Eds

Firing teachers vs. fixing schools

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 21 edition of the Daily News.]

How’s this for good management? The boss of a struggling business — after nearly two-thirds of his staff have already walked out the door — responds by threatening to get rid of the remaining workers.

Yet this is the precise situation facing a group of struggling schools, thanks to a “reform” proposal now in state law that essentially blames teachers for the problems of eight New York City schools on the state’s must-improve list. The state mandates that these schools re-interview all existing staff — and systematically push out all employees found to be “unwilling or ineffective.”

This approach is beloved by school “reformers” who keep promoting the notion that that a permanent cabal of ineffective teachers keeps schools like these from succeeding for their students. In fact, the real problem is not teachers staying — it is teachers leaving, fleeing poor management and bad teaching conditions, and leaving chronic instability in their wake.

A UFT review of personnel records at these schools (the state’s technical term for the list they’re on is “out-of-time”) tells a radically different story from that being told by the “reformers” — a story of how hundreds of teachers despair of helping kids in poorly managed and under-resourced schools, and who ultimately, battered by the arduous process, choose to move on to other schools or other lives.

Our review shows that 64 percent — nearly two-thirds — of the 921 teachers on staff at these eight “out-of-time” schools in 2010 have already bailed out. Almost half of those who left — 45 percent — went to other schools in the system. About 23 percent retired. And 21 percent resigned, heading for different school systems or different careers entirely. Disability, death and other reasons accounted for the balance.

Some schools have had the door revolve even faster. Fordham Leadership has only nine of the 46 teachers who were there in 2010. Banana Kelly HS in the Bronx has only two of the nearly 40 teachers who were there in 2010. Excluding those two hardy veterans, the Banana Kelly staff has been wholly replaced not once, but twice, in the last five years — a turnover rate of nearly 200 percent.

Rather than scapegoat supposedly bad-apple teachers for these schools’ problems, here’s what needs to happen to institutions on the “out-of-time” list and others in similar circumstances:

Stabilize the situation in these schools. With stability and investment will come progress. Maybe not instant progress, but steady improvement. Only administrators with a track record of collaboration with their staffs and success with challenging kids should be considered for management jobs in these schools. While any teachers who want to leave must be able to do so, good leaders attract — and most importantly keep — good staff.

In addition, the system should limit the number of late-entry “over-the-counter” kids who come from other systems, other countries or correctional institutions. Those students need intensive services, and the “out-of-time” schools are already under tremendous stress.

Customize curriculum and instructional practice. Traditional teaching methods and approaches haven’t worked in these schools. The system has to abandon off-the-shelf curriculum, revamp the training that teachers get and focus on delivering lower class sizes, individualized instruction and curriculum that’s tailored to the students’ current knowledge and skills.

Don’t scrimp on outside services. As Mayor de Blasio’s Community Schools program understands, in-school mental and physical health services for students can help solve many learning problems. Literacy and job training can bring parents who may have had little experience with education to see the school as a center for their family’s life.

The problems of the city’s struggling schools can be solved by real strategies, but not by political sloganeering. “Get tough on teachers” may warm the hearts of “reformers,” but it is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

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