Saturday, July 12, 2008

Where Is Mr. Klein's Magic Parachute?

by special guest blogger Yo Miss! (formerly in Bushwick)

In an article published at, Ray Fisman says,

New York’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein, has gotten rid of some teachers through a program that effectively gives them a golden parachute out of teaching—they aren’t allowed into the classroom, though they stay on the payroll. But this is a very expensive Band-Aid.

Fisman’s article, on the whole, is asking a question that, no doubt, many of us have asked ourselves: How do poor teachers get into the school system in the first place? Let’s not pretend, Lake Wobegon-style, that every teacher is above-average. We’ve all seen, heard, and worked with teachers whose practice is not what it should be. Many of those individuals are well-meaning and could improve their teaching, but some should simply be in another line of work. We know this, as teachers. Administrators know it too. Yet the personal, professional, and academic traits that predict success as a teacher are notoriously difficult to identify and quantify—not to mention that not everyone agrees on what “success” as a teacher looks like.

Fisman’s question—“Why are public schools so bad at hiring good teachers?”—is a question worth asking. He brings up a few points that have personally engaged and perplexed me as a teacher and researcher, namely why standardized test scores, such as SAT scores, among teachers tend to be such a reliable predictor of student success. But, if self-reported data is reliable, most teachers who have been in the New York City system more than five years already possess most or all of the traits, attained before beginning their teaching careers, that research indicates improve student achievement. Most of these teachers continue their professional education after obtaining a master’s degree and are open to a wide variety of innovations in teaching practices.

So why is student achievement in New York City, then, still lagging behind? The achievement gap seems to be narrowing, yet city children still do not do as well as their suburban or upstate counterparts. Any number of theories have been proposed for why this is, but Fisman, and unfortunately too many people like him, have concluded that it is clearly the fault of the teachers. It has nothing to do with a constantly in-flux student population, nothing to do with poverty, nothing to do with a lack of value and focus on academics in families. None of those factors are mentioned in Fisman’s piece. No, it is clearly all the fault of poor teachers.

Now, here’s where Fisman’s analysis really goes off the tracks. Toward the end of his piece, Fisman makes the aforementioned comment about Joel Klein’s “golden parachute.” I’d be very interested to know what “program” this is. Is Klein finally admitting that there is an organized effort to remove veteran teachers from their posts—some of whom may be incompetent, some of whom may just be unpopular—via “rubber-rooming,” specious claims of unsatisfactory teaching or insubordination, and systematic demoralization? What is this “program” called? Who administers it? I’d certainly like to know.

For Fisman, naturally, the solution is union-busting. Particularly alarming for anyone considering a teaching career is Fisman’s suggestion that early-career teachers receive no union membership at all. Perhaps Mr. Fisman does not realize that in New York City, that means going without glasses, teeth cleanings, and prescription drugs for two to three years. That means no way to take advantage of PIP, no way to know what your rights are, no limit on what your supervisor can or can’t make you do. For young teachers already overwhelmed by the requirements of their new career, this is clearly a disturbing proposal.

So let’s review: According to Fisman, everything would be okay if we didn’t hire poor teachers in the first place. That’s not such a bad idea. An apprenticeship-like system for new teachers also has its merits—as has been mentioned in this blog and others, many private schools have very successful systems like that in place. But union-busting in the name of improving teacher quality isn’t going to magically solve anyone’s problems. And that’s not the biggest issue with Fisman’s piece. I’m still wondering what we call Mr. Klein’s Magic Parachute—and, if this is such a wonderful program, why we’re not all tripping over each other to get into it.

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