Deputy Chancellor: Two-Thirds of City Teachers May Need Improvement

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What should be done about struggling teachers? The Obama administration wants cities and states to measure which teachers are most effective as a condition for federal aid. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports that goal. He's also pushing the United Federation of Teachers to scrap seniority protections -- known as "last hired, first fired" -- now that he's planning to lay off thousands of teachers because of budget cuts. The mayor says bad teachers should be the first to go. The union opposes such changes.

At a forum this week on ways of improving the profession, held by the non-profit Teachers Network, Deputy Schools Chancellor Eric Nadelstern, told the audience of educators that they might not want a third to two-thirds of the teachers teaching their own children. Nadelstern made the remark during a panel discussion that followed two presentations about teacher effectiveness. One referred to a survey finding effective teachers have extensive preparation relevant to their assignment, as well as opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues. Another had suggested that a very small percentage of U.S. teachers are incompetent but that many, many more need professional development or aren’t effective because they’re teaching out of their license area.

When the time came for audience questions, Ann Rosen, a representative for the United Federation of Teachers, took a microphone and said, “I’m wondering whether we heard the same research.” She told Nadelstern that she was surprised to hear such a high-level person at the city’s education department say such a thing about two thirds of the city’s teachers, adding, “that’s thousands of teachers!”

“What I said was that one third to two-thirds aren’t the people the folks in this room would send a child to,” Nadelstern responded. He then asked the audience of about 140 education experts, academics, and people from non-profits to raise a hand if they have children in the city’s public schools. A few hands shot up.

Then, noting that more than 90 percent of city teachers get satisfactory ratings, he told them “we should be able to randomly assign children by lottery” to public schools. When he asked how many audience members would go along with that, nobody raised a hand.

Rosen’s reply: “That’s your research?”

WNYC’s Beth Fertig interviewed Deputy Chancellor Nadelstern right afterward about his provocative remarks, and about ways of improving the city’s teaching force at a time of budget cuts. Here’s a complete transcript:

NADELSTERN: What I said was that the people in that room would not want a third to two thirds of the teachers teaching their own children. And of course the UFT representative took exception to that. But I think the evidence to me was none of those folks would allow their own children, as they indicated, to be randomly assigned in the New York public schools because they understand that who your kid's teacher is makes all the difference.

FERTIG: How does that square with research that was presented showing that maybe five or six percent of teachers are really, really bad and should be pushed out, but the vast majority are really mediocre and need help to improve?

NADELSTERN: I don't think there's a conflict. I mean essentially most of us don't want our kids taught by mediocre teachers. I'm not suggesting a third or two thirds of the teachers ought to be dismissed or can't get better. What I am saying is only about a third of the staff at the moment are people of such sufficiently high caliber that the folks at this conference at least indicated they would send their own children to. I would imagine the middle third are people who could easily become that with the right kinds of supports. And then we've got to take a really hard look at the bottom third and some of those people can make it in the profession and some of those people really ought to be doing something else.

FERTIG: How do you then go about reaching those who you think could be better and directing the right resources to them, especially at a time of budget cuts?

NADELSTERN: What we heard today, the entire purpose of the conference, was to suggest that teacher-to-teacher collaboration is one of the primary ways teachers can get better at their profession. We also heard things like peer review that the system needs to explore better. Most principals will tell you we've got to find time during the regular teacher's schedule, the regular school day, to find teachers to meet, and work together collaboratively. And I, in my comments, at the very least suggested some restructuring ideas so that schools can be built around teams of teachers who are responsible and accountable for manageable numbers of kids.

FERTIG: One thing that you suggested, though, was that the large high school is failing too many students and that it would be more manageable for principals to have a staff of 20 or so teachers the way it would be more manageable for a teacher to have a class of 20 or so students.

NADELSTERN: Yeah. Actually what I said was the number of teachers in a school is the principal's class and that we ought to be mindful of the number of teachers that a principal can work with effectively. Which is why I and the system has promoted small schools and we've created over 400. That's not to say that we don't have some outstanding large schools.

FERTIG: What do you see with having to layoff 6,500 teachers. How will that affect the quality of the teaching force?

NADELSTERN: It's going to be a devastating blow to the system. None of us has seen anything like this since the mid-1970s. It took years for some schools to recoup. What the chancellor's proposed, and what I wholeheartedly agree with, is firing people simply on the basis of how long they've worked in the system rather than how productive they are in moving student achievement is not a rational way of exacting these layoffs and we continue to be in talks with teachers' union to try to get to a point where the people laid off are in fact our weakest teachers and we have an opportunity to retain our best.

For more information about the study on teacher effectiveness referred to in this interview, visit this site.