While Mayor Bloomberg is insisting that, despite last week’s progress on teacher evaluation negotiations, he will move ahead with plans to close 33 public schools in the city, including eight in Queens, and reopen them this summer with different names and about half the staff replaced, students, educators and legislators are fighting back and urging the city leader to think twice.
Last month, Bloomberg had said the lack of an agreement between the city and the teachers’ union on annual evaluations prompted his plan to implement what is known as the “turnaround” model, which amounts to replacing much of staff at schools that are in a federal improvement program due to low graduation rates and test scores. The move, Bloomberg said, was an attempt to salvage $60 million in education funding specifically meant for the 33 schools that the state had withheld because of the lack of a deal on teacher evaluations.
After Gov. Cuomo intervened, a major sticking point in the negotiations on the evaluations was resolved last week — that of the appeals process for teachers who receive low marks on the assessments — and the state education commissioner said during a phone call with reporters last Thursday that he expects the union and mayor to soon reach a full accord.
But Bloomberg said the agreement on the appeals process, which would allow for teacher evaluations to include an independent, third-party validation of teacher ratings, does not stop his plans for many, if not all, of the 33 schools, including John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Richmond Hill High School, Long Island City High School, Flushing High School, Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Newtown High School in Elmhurst, August Martin High School in Jamaica and Bryant High School in Long Island City.
“If they replaced the teachers, it would be very chaotic for Grover Cleveland,” said Diana Rodriguez, the student body president and a senior at the school. “The teachers who work at Grover Cleveland already understand the problems the high school faces, and, with our new principal and new academies, we already have a foundation to build upon.”
In an attempt to increase graduation rates and test scores, Grover Cleveland, which has been improving, launched small academies for freshman and sophomore students that allow the pupils to take extra classes in subjects that especially interest them, like computers or art.
“If the mayor removes 50 percent of the staff and brings in new teachers who are inexperienced, how will that benefit the students?” Rodriguez asked.
Bloomberg did concede that the progress on the teacher evaluations could mean that not all of the schools would sustain the teacher replacements and that the city may not implement the turnaround program in all of the schools, but he did not say that was definite.
“Nothing in the deal prevents us from moving forward with our plan to replace the lowest performing teachers in 33 of our most troubling schools,” Bloomberg said at a City Hall press conference last Thursday.
He said the teacher replacement would happen in “probably most of them, certainly most of them.”
Alongside students, educators are also slamming the mayor’s plan. Ernest Logan, the school principals’ union president, recently wrote a letter to Education Commissioner John King Jr. and said replacing half the staff would “cause a massive school-by-school destabilization throughout the system, with scant evidence of an ability to do more good than harm.”
City officials have said as many as 1,800 teachers could be replaced — but the mayor is not allowed to fire them and many of them would undoubtedly land in the reserve pool of teachers who do not have permanent assignments. According to Logan, that would cost the city about $180 million annually because the teachers would still have to be paid. So, while the cost of the new teachers would likely be covered in part by the federal funds, which are doled out by the state, that still leaves a serious gap between the $60 million in aid and the amount the city would pay for the teachers who are not permanently stationed at any school.
Legislators also slammed the mayor for not abandoning the turnaround model.
“The city must roll back its disruptive plan to overhaul public schools like Long Island City and William Cullen Bryant high schools,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria said). “Our children’s education should supersede political posturing that would interfere with students’ ability to learn.”
Each of the 33 schools are in a federal improvement program because of such issues as low graduation rates and test scores, which forced the city to implement one of four federally required programs at each institution.
Last spring, the city announced it would use models that would not close the schools or replace teachers, but instead bring in educational organizations that would work with the school communities to improve graduation rates, test scores and morale. Schools were told they would have three years to implement the changes before the city would once again consider closing them.
“I think the Department of Education is going to go ahead with their turnaround process, but I’m a firm believer that until schools are actually closed that there’s a time the DOE could consider otherwise,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), whose district includes John Adams, Richmond Hill and Grover Cleveland high schools.
The city’s announcement on the progress on evaluations came at the same time that Cuomo announced the state had reached an agreement with the state teachers’ union on teacher evaluations.
The state agreement on teachers, as well as principals, ends a nearly two-year stalemate on the issue of evaluations and allows school districts, such as the entire New York City system, to base up to 40 percent of the review on student performance and state standardized test scores. The current decades-old evaluation system relies more on principals’ classroom visits and input from colleagues.
Cuomo said the remaining 60 percent of the teachers’ ratings will be based on their performance, as determined by principals’ observations, peer reviews and student and parent feedback.
The “agreement puts in place a groundbreaking new statewide teacher evaluation system that will put students first and make New York a national leader in holding teachers accountable for student achievement,” Cuomo said at a press conference in Albany — from which Bloomberg was notably absent. “This agreement is exactly what is needed to transform our state’s public education system, and I am pleased that by working together and putting the needs of students ahead of politics we were able to reach this agreement.”
But Queens educators were less than pleased with Cuomo’s announcement.
Arthur Goldstein, an English as a second language teacher and the UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School in Flushing, said the focus on test scores seems especially unfair when it comes to students just learning English.
“Someone who moved here from Brazil two weeks ago is judged on the same standards as someone who spent their entire life in the U.S.,” Goldstein said.
“I love to teach what kids need to know, and I love to make kids love to learn English,” Goldstein continued. “This is a disaster and is a stupid idea, and I believe it’s motivated by this hatred for teachers.”