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Mulgrew Says Mayor's Education Legacy Is 'in Shambles'

Monday, February 27, 2012 - 12:45 PM

5:13 p.m. | Updated After a weekend of outrage and anger among his members, the president of the teachers' union, Michael Mulgrew, greeted teachers returning to school in Brooklyn on Monday and sounded a note of defiance in the union's approach to the education policies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

At a news conference convened on the sidewalk outside Public School 321 William Penn in Park Slope, Mr. Mulgrew said he took calls all weekend from his members, who told him of their disgust with the Education Department and the mayor after the release on Friday of teacher ratings based on students' progress on standardized tests.

His members, he said, are fed up with the mayor and his policies.

"I’ve heard over and over again from so many of the teachers that he doesn’t want anyone thinking about what his education legacy is because it’s in shambles," Mr. Mulgrew said about the mayor. "And that’s how they feel. And I believe that they have a right to feel that way."

Mr. Mulgrew had signaled a combative stance with the city over the weekend in an interview for an article in The New York Times on Monday that looked at how the union fared after losing the battle to block the release of the ratings.

“What I’m going to do now,” Mr. Mulgrew had said, “is to stop the mayor from doing any further damage to the children of New York City.”

Early Monday, he repeated that message, keeping his aim squarely on Mr. Bloomberg.

"I think New York City has had enough with the teacher bashing, and we all know where that is coming from, and that's the mayor," he told reporters outside the school.

Mr. Mulgrew blamed the mayor for the release of the teacher rankings, which he described as "riddled with errors" and a product of "the mismanagement of the Department of Education."

The rankings were released after the courts sided with the city and news organizations to make them public.

“We have unreliable reports, we have bad data inside of them, we have absolutely discredited state tests, yet the mayor chose to say it’s O.K. to release these reports," he said.

"I want to be very clear on this point of the story: The mayor and the city chose to go to court and not to fight the FOIL," Mr. Mulgrew continued, referring to the Freedom of Information Law. "It was their responsibility to fight it and they said, ‘No, we would not do it.’ So they’ve done a great disservice to the school community, to the teachers, the parents, and everybody else.”

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott issued a statement in an e-mail message later in the day, saying: “Mr. Mulgrew is simply using this issue to distract from finalizing a teacher evaluation system with the City, which we are eager to sign. As he knows well, more than a dozen media outlets filed requests for this data, and the courts ruled we had to release it.”

The city and teachers' union have had a "toxic" relationship, in the words of an aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and the release of the reports seems to have galvanized teachers behind the union at a most inopportune time in city-union relations -- less than a year before it must submit an agreement on a more complex teacher evaluation system to the state.

Earlier this month, the teachers' unions and the state agreed on a framework for an evaluation system that will now be shaped by each district.

That framework calls for 20 percent of the evaluation to be based on the data released on Friday known as a value-added score -- the difference between the expectation for how students should perform on state exams and the actual average score for the class. Though it counts for only a fifth of the assessment, teachers who are ranked “ineffective” on that portion of their assessment must be rated “ineffective” over all, the agreement says.

Mr. Mulgrew had signed off on the deal, to the chagrin of some teachers. But on Monday, Mr. Mulgrew expressed a message of union solidarity.

"I will be here, the parents will be here, administrators and principals are standing by the teachers," he said. "They understand that they do a great job and that these reports do not reflect the work that they do."

P.S. 321 is a highly regarded school -- one that inspires parents to move into the neighborhood. The school had 10 teacher ratings that were above average, 13 that were average and 5 that were below.

Teachers on their way into school after the weeklong February break emphasized that the scores were just another indication of how far city officials are from understanding the complexity of educating children.

“They’re all irrelevant, it doesn’t matter if it is high or low,” said Ronda Matthews, who teaches fifth grade, about the scores. “I just feel like the city doesn’t understand what we’re doing.”

Elizabeth Phillips, principal of P.S. 321, also spoke briefly on the teacher data reports, noting that the data would surely have an impact on teacher morale.

“If you haven’t spent a lot of time in schools, some of it can sound like, 'Oh yeah, of course value-added, we want to have teachers have a positive impact on students, who doesn’t?'” she said. “But I think if you’re not there on a day-to-day basis, maybe you don’t really see that these scores don’t really reflect anything.”

Parents of P.S. 321 students were also upset with the methodology behind the Education Department data, and the news media's decision to publish the scores. Most said that they would not take the data into consideration when assessing their child’s teachers, or even bother to look at the scores at all.

“I wouldn’t even think of looking at them,” said Jennifer Henry, 44, of Park Slope, calling out to her two daughters, ”Be good to your teachers; tell them you love them and appreciate them!” as they bounded down the steps and off through the doors of P.S. 321.

“We’ve assessed the school using our own criteria, and I think it’s still an excellent school, and I wouldn’t want the teachers to feel that they’re being judged by a set of measures that are unfair,” Ms. Henry said.

Another parent, Liza Engelberg, 42, also of Park Slope, said she too would not heed the information published in reports, in part because of the high margin of error, but more importantly, she said, because of the unnecessary humiliation that it will cause.

“I feel like my teachers and my children are already subjected to such intense pressure about these test, and it’s upsetting to me,” she said. “I don’t understand the arrogance of pretending to understand teaching in that way."

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