Speeches

UFT President Michael Mulgrew's speech at the Center for New York City Affairs

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this morning.

At the start of a new year and a new decade with a brand new chancellor in charge of our city’s schools, it is an appropriate time to take stock of where we are: Evaluate the performance of our school system; learn from our mistakes; build on what works; and fix what doesn’t. Making public education more effective is something we all want and we know that there is nothing more important for New York City's future than its schools, particularly at a time of economic hardship.

We have spent billions of dollars on our schools under mayoral control and the return on that investment has not been as great as it should have been. Far too much energy and time, and far too many resources, have been spent in recent years on misguided strategies and ancillary issues. Decisions were made for political or ideological reasons — or out of pure hubris — instead of what was right for children.

Now, as we continue to move through this economic crisis, it's time to focus on the fundamentals. That means paying closer attention to our schools showing signs of trouble, fixing problems before they get worse and paying attention to the needs of each school community. We cannot afford — financially or otherwise — to continue to give up on our schools at the first sign of trouble. That’s not what teachers do with their students. That’s not what families do with their children. And that is NOT what the Department of Education should continue to do with our schools.

Schools have already endured repeated rounds of budget cuts, cuts that have reduced or eliminated subjects, programs, afterschool help and many other services. Reduced school budgets have led to the attrition of over 4,300 teachers and 700 other educators in the last two years, and they have not been replaced. Class sizes are soaring throughout the system. The missing personnel represent nearly 6% of the teaching force.

I propose that the system start NOW to eliminate all non-essential contracts, such as the $5 million it spends on the New Teacher Project to recruit teachers even when there are no vacancies. It should then institute an immediate review of outside contracts like those that require us to spend $120 million every year on questionable IT consultants and equipment.

Even if such contracts are necessary, they should immediately be renegotiated; the goal should be an across-the-board reduction of at least 5% on all outside contracts and consultants.

Budgeting and school management are two areas where the DOE’s performance has been abysmal. The system has been roiled by constant change over the past eight years, but at the same time, management and oversight of that change has been subpar. Management is what the mayor says our new chancellor knows best. Well, as a teacher, what I know best are schools and classrooms — what they are about, and what they need. And I’m here to tell the new chancellor that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Right now, the DOE treats schools as islands, failing to both accurately measure and monitor progress. The word “accountability” is the favorite at Tweed — principal accountability, teacher accountability, but what about the DOE’s accountability to the schools and the public? The DOE’s job is to run the school system. Support the schools. Assess where the problems are. Provide the right supports. Instead, the DOE turned the schools over to individual principals and said, “you’re on your own.” That’s not management. That’s abdication.

At the same time, while they were washing their hands of the basic work of education, they decided to bet the farm on test scores. And that’s where the losses piled up. Former Chancellor Klein and the mayor repeatedly boasted about their “data driven” approach to measure how well students and teachers were doing.

Principals of elementary and middle schools, knowing their jobs were on the line, focused all their attention on test preparation in reading and math, to the detriment of basic subjects like history and science, not to mention art and music.

And at first, particularly on the state tests, the strategy seemed to be working. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein couldn't stop congratulating themselves. The mayor even went to Washington, D.C. to proclaim that the system was making strong progress in closing the racial achievement gap.

Too bad it all turned out not to be true.

There were warning signs. Even though the state test scores were skyrocketing, the scores that experts regard as the most reliable — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP — told a very different story.

According to NAEP, scores were rising much more slowly, if at all.

The day of reckoning came when the state contracted for an outside review of the tests, conducted by Harvard University expert Dr. Daniel Koretz. He found that the range of knowledge was so narrow and the questions so predictable that the results for students and schools across the state were virtually useless.

If outside experts could see this coming, why couldn’t the mayor and the chancellor?

Remember — those nearly useless test scores were used to make a number of high stakes decisions: Which students to promote; teacher bonuses; school progress report grades, the creation and retention of charter schools — the list goes on and on. You begin to see that when the underlying premise is so completely flawed, everything else is at risk. That’s where we are now.

So, how do we fix this? The test scores have been recalibrated. New York State has signed on to the Common Core State Standards, a set of shared high standards intended to prevent the kind of dumbing down we have seen across the country in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Assessments and curriculum to reflect the Common Core are currently being developed.

But here’s something we can do in New York City starting right now. It’s time to change the school progress reports. They must reflect the actual work that is going on in a school — much more than test scores — and they MUST BE ACCURATE. Just because data is being collected, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. A comprehensive, well-designed school progress report should provide a valid roadmap to success for each and every school.

But the school progress reports aren’t the only things that are broken. The benchmarks used by the Department of Education to close a school are arbitrarily enforced moving targets. There is no clear-cut reasoning behind closure decisions. We need clear, reasonable and consistent benchmarks, and interventions that take place when benchmarks are not reached.

That’s why I am proposing an “early warning system” to help alleviate this problem. We envision a set of triggers for schools that begin to show signs of weakness.

  • Trigger #1 is that a troubling number shows up in a data report, such as a rise in the dropout rate or a spike in chronic absenteeism. This phase would include the formation of an internal committee, under the direction of the principal, to focus on each troubling data point and develop a plan for improvement.
  • Trigger #2 happens if there has been no progress after a prescribed amount of time. During this phase, a team from DOE comes in to the school regularly to work with administrators and teachers to strengthen the interventions.
  • Trigger #3 occurs if the school continues to stagnate after two levels of intervention. At this stage, the school might be slated for closure, or if there are glimmers of progress, placed in a form of “receivership” where the school is under the direct control of the DOE.

An early warning system alone will not fix our struggling schools, but it can begin to help reorient the DOE toward doing the hard work of supporting schools rather than just branding them a failure and closing them. But at the same time, much of what goes wrong in a struggling school isn’t too hard to figure out. In the majority of these schools there are large numbers of high needs students and overly large class sizes.

Let’s discuss both of these issues and talk about how we can address the problems.

High needs students

The DOE’s admissions and enrollment policies have been the subject of much debate and criticism over the years. These policies have led to severely overcrowded schools with a significant lack of attention paid to the large population of students who enroll throughout the year from other schools and often from different countries. And that doesn’t even cover the significant population of students improperly promoted due to the continuing inflation of test scores. At the same time, students with special needs have struggled to get the services and therapies they require. Due to the rigid rules of Children First Networks, they are often placed in schools that cannot support them, but are prevented from getting those services at a school that might be right across the street or down the block. A couple of examples:

  • DeWitt Clinton, the last large high school on the west side of the Bronx, has been hit by a surge of high-need students. Between 2005 and 2010, the special education population has increased 37% and the homeless population has increased 350%. There are 700 English Language Learners and over 620 students in special education, over half of which are in intensive self-contained classrooms. I can assure you we will see this school on a school closure list in the very near future if the DOE does not step in and work with them on the challenges they face.
  • At PS 332 in Brooklyn, a school that has seen its fair share of challenges in recent years, the DOE placed dozens more homeless children, bypassing other nearby schools in the process. Predictably, the school's struggles worsened and the DOE is now trying to close it.

Both of these schools repeatedly asked for additional help from the Department of Education, and all of their requests fell on deaf ears.

Let’s try to get students in the right schools in the first place. How is it that even with a wide range of applicants with a wide range of abilities, some schools end up receiving a disproportionate number of the most challenging students? Without the proper transparency, we can't know the answers to these questions. Admissions and enrollment should be audited. That transparency and oversight would help improve the process and prevent more students from falling through the cracks.

At the same time, we must also create programs for improperly promoted students — a huge problem in the wake of the test score debacle. We need to get these students back on the right track, and we need to do this right away. We can begin by determining their specific needs and developing personalized programs that reengage them and keep them attending school regularly. The DOE recently recognized this problem and announced that 42,000 students that fall into this category would be helped. A good first step, but it leaves 48,000 students behind.

Overly large, disengaged classes

Class sizes at the majority of our struggling schools are disproportionately large. At the same time, class time for subjects other than English and math has been reduced, thus limiting the tools that teachers have to engage their students and provide them with a well-rounded education. Combine that with a spike in chronic absenteeism and the reduction of programs for special needs students and you have what is fast becoming an unmanageable situation.

Right now, we have a large pool of educators called the “absent teacher reserve” or “ATR.” These teachers are working in schools. What they don’t have, through no fault of their own, are permanent placements within particular schools. This highly qualified, hard working group of educators — that Tweed constantly rails against — is purely a creation of DOE’s own misguided policies and management failures. The ATR pool was a contract demand from the City in 2005, and they did not manage it correctly.

There are urgent needs we can address by redeploying these teachers. For example, we can place them in our most overcrowded schools. Doing so would make a dent in the rising class size numbers across all grades, a problem that the DOE has exacerbated by redirecting over $750 million dollars in state class size reduction funding to other projects in recent years.

We also have more than 150 guidance counselors, 56 social workers, 25 psychologists and five attendance teachers in the ATR pool. We need to band these much-needed professionals into SWAT teams to serve the schools most at risk, so they can use their skills to help children in schools that need them the most. Wouldn’t it be nice if places like PS 332 could get a few extra social workers to help with the children they serve who live in homeless shelters? Instead, the DOE and the City would rather rail against these educators and use them as political pawns.

Curriculum at the heart of it all

But at the heart of everything — each school, whether it’s struggling, thriving or muddling through — needs a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum that engages students and brings out the best in teachers. Yet in the last several years, the focus on testing in English and math, to the exclusion of so many other subjects and skills, has damaged the future of hundreds of thousands of students. As I mentioned earlier, new assessments and curriculum are under development for the Common Core Standards — but that is only for English and mathematics. Let’s do more. I challenge Chancellor Black to appoint a working group that includes practitioners and teachers, for the development of a well-rounded, high quality, rigorous curriculum and instructional practices in the arts, foreign languages, science, social studies and all other subjects for every grade level.

If she were to do that, it would be a gift to our children and a sign to our city’s educators that she takes them and what they do seriously. Because as anyone who has followed the school system closely over the past eight years knows, the strained relationship between the city’s educators and this administration is a shadow on our city’s future.

Turning the page

One of the most important steps Chancellor Black can take in her new position is to end the constant attacks on teachers started by her predecessor. Unfortunately, so far, the new chancellor appears to be singing from the same songbook.

We already know that nearly a third of teachers leave the system before the DOE even gets a chance to grant them tenure. Nearly 50% are gone within the first six years. And struggling, unstable schools are difficult to staff in the first place and tend to see a great deal more 'churn' among teachers. But when the chancellor and the mayor constantly take shots at veteran teachers — as if having many years of experience is a bad thing — it discourages educators from wanting to make teaching their life’s work. And the DOE exacerbates this situation with their Fair Student Funding formula that penalizes principals for hiring and retaining experienced teachers. This practice must stop because it hurts children.

The teaching profession is enhanced both by new teachers brimming with enthusiasm and veteran teachers whose wisdom and experience helps their newer colleagues.

If Chancellor Black wants to be successful, she has to take a very different path from Klein, and understand you cannot manage the largest, most complex school system in America with buzzwords and bromides. This union has been around for fifty years, always trying to do the important work of making the schools better, and we will still be here long after Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Black are footnotes to history. Attacks and lip service don’t move the system forward. It’s about what happens in the classroom day after day. Educating our children is hard and painstaking, but also deeply rewarding work that doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions. And it works the best when all the players on the team work together, listen to and respect one another.

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