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Roundtable: Teachers' Take on the City's Education Debate

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Teacher roundtable Teacher roundtable (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

WNYC recently hosted a roundtable of six teachers at our studio to talk about the last in, first out rule that requires principals to layoff new teachers first. The teachers who took part in our discussion have between two and 18 years experience and range in age from 25 to 43. They teach elementary, middle and high school levels in four of the city’s five boroughs.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to propose eliminating more than 6100 teaching positions in his preliminary budget Thursday, most of which would come through layoffs. He's also been pushing Albany to eliminate the last in, first out policy. He argues this will help principals keep their best teachers at a time of layoffs instead of simply letting go of their newest teachers.

"I support the current seniority system," said Safia Jama Cross, 33, who works at Townsend Harris High School at Queens College. "I really believe that teachers with a lot of experience have earned that privilege."

Cross, who has eight years experience, spent four years in public schools and has been called into meetings and told, "You may be laid off."

"It’s scary. It’s stressful. It makes it harder to do your job," Cross said. "So yeah, it is kind of strange that I’m taking a position that perhaps doesn’t benefit me in the short term but I think that it will benefit me in long term."

Margrit Pittman Polletta, a second-year teacher at PS 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, said most of her students are low-income and about half are still learning English. She said having experience is a valuable tool in the classroom. (PHOTO RIGHT)

"I think I'm a good teacher, but I'm a really inexperienced teacher and I feel it," Polletta said. "I think I’ve heard people say, 'You know, five years, eight years, 10 years in, you’ll really get it.' And I don’t think you ever stop learning as a teacher, and I think that is why it’s incredibly valuable for students to have access to really experienced teachers."

Teacher Dan Abramoski, who teaches government at Mott Haven Village Prep high school in the Bronx, has six years of experience. He said length of career does not always translate to quality.

"If we do see layoffs we need to put the needs of the kids first," Abramoski said. "I think what the kids need is the best possible teacher and I don’t think that just experience is how you measure teaching quality."

Cross, the teacher from Townsend Harris High School at Queens College with eight years experience, said Bloomberg is "muddying the waters" by conflating budget cuts and teacher quality.

"I think the issue of budget cuts and laying off teachers because there isn’t enough money to pay everyone is separate issue," she said.

New York City is among many districts using test scores in part to figure out which teachers are most effective, a practice that's drawn much criticism from teachers. 

Third-year elementary school teacher Juhyung Harold Lee, who now teaches in Manhattan, said he lost his position at a Queens school last year because his principal had to trim the budget. He was rated an above-average math teacher based on his students' test scores.

"Using standardized test scores as measure of good teaching, I think any sound teacher will tell you is absolutely wrong," Lee said. "There’s no really comprehensive system for accountability that has been proposed by either the union or the chancellor’s office to replace last in, first out. So if we were to just get rid of that measure it does open door for principals to used flawed methods of teacher accountability to push out certain teachers that they want to push out."

Abramoski, the six-year vet who teaches government in the Bronx, said example's like Lee's are why the system needs to change. Policies such as last in, first out, he said, aer "too blunt an instrument."

"It would be a shame for someone like you to lose your job if you’re a better teacher than someone who has two more years experience," he said.

Sean, who teaches high school in the Bronx, didn't want to give his full name. A teacher for 18 years, Sean said seniority protections exist for a reason.

"I think in a budget crunch the temptation is there to get rid of the expensive teacher," Sean said. "The mood of the country is moving that way, and Bloomberg with his business model, that’s what they want."

Abramoski disagreed: "I don’t think you should be guaranteed a job for life just because you made it into the pool and you stayed long enough for seniority."

"Seniority or tenure is not a job for life," Sean said. "It’s just due process. They can’t arbitrarily fire you."

In the debate over last in first out and teacher tenure, it’s easy to miss the little moments that add up to real learning.

Emma Groetzinger, a second-year special ed teacher at a Brooklyn middle school, said class size can make a world of difference.

"I pulled out a small group of students for extra help in math today," she said. "And afterwards the teacher came up to me and he said you know that student you pulled out today, she hasn’t done anything in class for two weeks. And she spent the second half of class working totally engaged. When students get the support and attention that they need they are, they’re different children."

Cross said she has about 170 students for five high school English classes. (Safia Jama Cross PHOTO LEFT)

"If I could have one wish it would be give me smaller classes," Cross said. "The power players in this whole debate about educational reform probably send their children to private schools, and their children are in small classes. And I know that in class of 34 the quiet girl sitting in the back row is not going to get the attention that she needs. I’m sorry, it’s just not possible no matter how great a teacher I am. And I think the class size is sort of an issue that’s being drowned out."

With the mayor planning to cut 6166 teaching positions, most of them through layoffs, teachers fear the mayor’s budget plan will lead to bigger classes – regardless of which teachers are the first to go.

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Comments [14]

Maria Rivera from NYC

I worked as a manager in banking, many years before I became a teacher 3 years ago through the TFA program. It is amazing to me to see leaders talking about their employees, the way the Mayor and the Chancellor have talked about the teachers who work for them. First, of all, if management had taken their responsibility seriously to children, there would be no conversation about incompetent teachers and instead of blaming tenure, principals who cared about the children in their school would have fought tooth and nail to remove subpar teachers and Tweed would have made sure that the performance evaluation system was more rigorous. (You should see the current evaluation form) I am sure if everyone believed that evaluations were rigorous and fair, no one would be talking about LIFO.That to me, is a management problem, not an employee problem. Secondly, research shows that it takes about five years to develop a competent teacher on an average. Statistics show that currently about 45-50% of all new teachers leave the DOE within five years. With that said, why is LIFO so extremely important??? I may be laid off but I am for seniority based layoffs because experience does matter and loyalty and dedication to the students matters. The energy that the Mayor is spending on this issue should be diverted to working to create a fair and rigorous evaluation system along with a fair and reasonable due process system. Bloomberg should be holding principals, network leaders and district superintendents accountable to manage this system in a world class way instead of using it as an opportunity to confront unions. There is plenty that these administrators can do to ensure quality in the workforce despite the constraints of the current system. This would serve the teaching profession and the students of this city and protect the quality of education in NYC. The Mayor should make himself and all persons in leadership positions accountable for this instead of trying to use this as an opportunity to weaken unions and create a permanent transient group of inexpensive teachers who wind up serving the poorest and neediest children in our schools. Bloomberg should be a manager, hold everyone accountable, administrators and teachers and ensure that going forward, every NYC teacher is a competent teacher whose job is critical to the quality of New York's future labor pool and citizens. Be clear, this is not about unions, seniority etc. It is about management expertise, accountability and responsibility.

Feb. 21 2011 09:22 AM
Jackie from New York

I'm not sure I agree with Cross. As a former independent school teacher, I think we all know that having more experienced (i.e. older) teachers does not translate to better teachers. Sometimes younger teachers can convey excitement and energy and relate better to the kids, thereby exciting them to want to learn. To simply lay off newer teachers is extremely short sighted for the city of New York. First, the less experienced teachers may get jaded and leave the teaching profession all together, thereby losing what would be some future talented teachers, which is especially important given future retirements. If public school administrators were better at evaluating all of their teachers, then they could be better empowered to make crucial decisions about talent and who should truly be laid off, rather than forcing schools into a blanket policy. Every other industry allows for these kinds of choices, and education should be no different. The school system is held captive by teachers unions. I agree that lay-offs should include some kind of due process, not have lay-offs based on some kind of destruction of younger teachers which hurts both morale and the long term success of a school. And having schools get rid of some older teachers who by tenure alone might be holding onto their jobs, even though they may be exhibiting the same tired lesson plans, may allow schools to actually spend more money ON THE KIDS, rather than on teacher pensions and health care.

Feb. 20 2011 09:23 AM
Jonathan from the Bronx

When teachers get together it is a very different conversation from what the Mayor and his appointees would like. Thank you for putting this together.

Cross nails it - the Mayor has been trying to muddy the waters by conflating budget cuts with teacher quality.

On your next roundtable, you might ask teachers to brainstorm some ways the DoE could save money without layoffs. Teachers see enormous amounts of wasted effort (and funds).

Feb. 18 2011 07:13 PM
Jonathan from the Bronx

When teachers get together it is a very different conversation from what the Mayor and his appointees would like. Thank you for putting this together.

Cross nails it - the Mayor has been trying to muddy the waters by conflating budget cuts with teacher quality.

On your next roundtable, you might ask teachers to brainstorm some ways the DoE could save money without layoffs. Teachers see enormous amounts of wasted effort (and funds).

Feb. 18 2011 07:13 PM
Jonathan from the Bronx

When teachers get together it is a very different conversation from what the Mayor and his appointees would like. Thank you for putting this together.

Cross nails it - the Mayor has been trying to muddy the waters by conflating budget cuts with teacher quality.

On your next roundtable, you might ask teachers to brainstorm some ways the DoE could save money without layoffs. Teachers see enormous amounts of wasted effort (and funds).

Feb. 18 2011 07:12 PM
nyc public school parent

This roundtable expresses my feelings and concerns as a public school parent. I applaud these brave teachers who understand that that any short term benefit to themselves would be no benefit long term.

Much of this sacrifice could be eliminated if the 1% of the city's wealthy were paying their fair share of taxes, including the financial industry who created this economic crisis in the first place.

Public schools are already overcrowded. What will happen when over 6,000 teachers and staff are cut?

Our elected representatives need to do what's right for the people of New York.

Thanks for airing this roundtable discussion and forum.

Feb. 18 2011 12:06 PM
Sam from NYC

Education is the heart of our democracy. Bloomberg and like-minded business-types who want to privatize education are simply misguided. America’s system of public education should have one goal – to produce good citizens. This is not easy or inexpensive, and anyone who thinks that reforming the system begins with the budget has only one objective in mind and it’s not providing the best possible education to our children.

I am not a teacher, but I am the product of a public school education and I had the pleasure and privilege to learn from dedicated teachers, some rookies and some vets, all of whom cared deeply about the lives of their students. I recently heard a comment that, “teachers should view their jobs as a calling, not just a paycheck.” As if teachers are somehow different than bankers, administrators, and garbage men who have bills to pay and families to support. Unless I am mistaken, there is no vow of poverty for teachers. In fact, teachers ARE different from bankers, etc. in that they are generally better educated. Teachers should be on par with doctors, lawyers, and other professionals whose livelihood depends upon their having an advanced degree. Oh, and there’s one other way teachers are different from bankers – they didn’t cause the economic meltdown! So, why are we trying to dig ourselves out of this hole we’re in by beating up on public employees?

The Mayor’s recent comment that public employees are entitled to a comfortable retirement, but not too comfortable, is reprehensible. Teachers, police, and fire fighters choose lower paying jobs because they offer job security unlike private sector jobs that pay more. They literally risk their lives every day, not for a paycheck, but because they believe in what they are doing. That doesn’t mean they do not deserve to be paid fairly for the service they provide. If we are going to withdraw that security they rely upon, then we need to pay them more equitably.

There are so many aspects to this complex issue; so much hypocrisy. Kudos to WNYC for shedding some light on it. Please, keep it up! Congratulations, also, to those brave people in Wisconsin who are standing up not just for their own rights, but for what IS right and good for society.

Thank you.

Feb. 18 2011 10:16 AM
Jonathan from the Bronx

When teachers get together it is a very different conversation from what the Mayor and his appointees would like. Thank you for putting this together.

Cross nails it - the Mayor has been trying to muddy the waters by conflating budget cuts with teacher quality.

On your next roundtable, you might ask teachers to brainstorm some ways the DoE could save money without layoffs. Teachers see enormous amounts of wasted effort (and funds).

Feb. 18 2011 07:31 AM
john Garvey

I am a army veteran. I have earned 30 months of seniority lay off credit.To me and my fellow vets who have earned this right .This talk of doing away with seniority is another example of the lack of respect the city has for vets.

Feb. 17 2011 09:29 PM
Nina the teacher from Queens teacher

Beth, the teachers you interviewed forgot to discuss the fact that test scores can be inaccurate, fudged, or watered down by the state. Why doesn't anyone do a story on the criteria by which students are assessed? I'm talking about Regents Exams. The new English Regents exams are a joke. Take a look at the rubric. PLEASE do a story on it.
Also, teachers shouldn't be rated on students' test scores alone. What about teachers who teach students with special needs, or remedial classes, or teachers who teach students who are chronically absent and yet still must take state exams? Are we to be penalized for their low scores?

Feb. 17 2011 07:46 PM
Leonie Haimson from NYC

really good article; thanks!

Feb. 17 2011 05:57 PM
Longtime Observer

Two points about the need for layoff by seniority: First, as indicated in your good discussion, principals are likely to want to fire higher-paid teachers in order to capture as much of their salaries as they can -- and that has nothing to do with quality. Second, not only here but in considering the quest by Wisconsin's governor to obliterate contract bargaining, it's important to remember why civil service protections were introduced in the 19th century -- to protect all public workers from at-will hiring and firing and from political pressure. Remove those protections and public employees will once again be pressured to follow the boss's whims and contribute to the boss's political party.

Layoff by any process is dreadful. NYC schools laid off at least 14,000 in the mid-1970s and it took the system a decade to recover -- much to the detriment of that generation of students. For the mayor and governor to allow this to happen again is to ignore the very clear lessons of history and to kiss off the current generation of students.

Feb. 17 2011 05:23 PM
tee gee from sunset park

i taught for 34 years. i worked alongside some awful teachers. i was laid off after 6 years during the nyc financial crisis of 1976. sadly, one of the awful teachers didn't lose a day of work - not because of seniority, but connections (even without a license, he ended up being "principal" of a program while i was unemployed for 6 months). the doe needs a serious overhaul in terms of supervision & oversight. at present i would still go for seniority over letting a principal decide who gets laid off. a bad teacher should not be permitted to stay in education beyond two years.

Feb. 17 2011 07:19 AM
DM from NYC

This sounds like an excellent discussion that had many perspectives and a wide range of teaching experience to back their arguments up. This type of nuanced discourse is virtually impossible at Tweed, the home to non-educators.

Feb. 17 2011 05:38 AM

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