Bloomberg Takes on the Teachers Union

Mayor Michael Bloomberg took on the teachers union today when he announced that principals will be directed to use student test scores this year when evaluating teachers who are up for tenure. WNYC's education reporter Beth Fertig has been following the story and answers some key questions.

1. The mayor and his schools chancellor have vocally complained in the past that a state law prevents student achievement data from being used to determine teacher tenure. How can they change rules like this?

Bloomberg says that law, which was supported by the union, only applies to teachers hired after July 1, 2008. That means teachers hired in 2007 who are now coming up for tenure can be evaluated with test scores. Tenure decisions are made by principals after three years. About 6,000 teachers are coming up for review this year. More than 90 percent historically get tenure and the mayor thinks that's too many. But Bloomberg says he also wants principals to visit classrooms as they evaluate their teachers.

"Now we all know that great teaching is reflected in more than just test scores," he says. "But we certainly should never dismiss quantitative data in favor of subjective opinions that fit a predetermined conclusion. That might make all of us feel good but it really doesn't help our children."

2. How is this going over with the union? Aren't the two sides already in tense contract negotiations?

Yes, this doesn't exactly calm the waters. The union hasn't said outright whether the mayor's interpretation of the law is wrong, but United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said he's prepared to go to court if necessary. And he reiterated his belief that test scores are not a fair measurement of which teachers are most effective. He notes that the state education department has already said it wants to change the tests next year, because they aren't considered very rigorous.

"The state education department commissioner has said the tests are broken and don't work. And the mayor has followed that up by saying I want to use the broken tests that aren't working to evaluate teachers," Mulgrew says.

3. The mayor made his announcement today in Washington. D.C. Was there any significance to that?

Yes. He spoke on a panel about education reform at the Center for American Progress, which considers itself a progressive think tank. Another person on that panel was U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan supports using data in part when evaluating teachers. In fact, he's made that a condition for states that want to apply for billions of dollars in school aid he calls Race to the Top. And there's been a lot of speculation that New York wouldn't qualify for this contest because of the law we referred to earlier. So Bloomberg clearly wanted it to look like he and the Obama administration are on the same side here. He also laid out a bunch of other things he thinks the state should do, like lifting the cap on charter schools, and making it easier to get rid of bad teachers. He said teachers who lose their positions and don't get permanent assignments in a year should be let go. There are now about 1,200 teachers getting paychecks, working as subs, because they lost their positions last year and nobody's hired them permanently. The city thinks too many of those teachers don't get hired because they aren't good so it wants to limit how long they can stay in the substitute pool.

4. How has the union responded to that?

They blame the city for poor management. This is something that is presumably part of the contract negotiations. Some of the other things Bloomberg proposed, like lifting the limit on charter schools, would need approval from Albany. Next year's an election year for the legislature, a lot of these lawmakers depend on the teachers union for support. We'll see if they take on the union in order to help the state get extra money from the Obama administration.