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A Fine Line on 'Forced Placement' of Teachers in New York City

CORRECTED

New York City schools that still have open teaching positions this fall will be assigned educators from the city's "absent teacher reserve" pool, the city's education department recently announced.

The school system expects to fill about 300 or 400 vacancies this way, and is calling it a "common-sense policy" for getting teachers back into schools. But critics say it's a form of forced hiring, which the schools chancellor had pledged to avoid.

Teachers in the absent teacher reserve, or ATR, have lost their full-time teaching positions, often because their school was closed or their position eliminated. Some teachers in the ATR have been disciplined for misconduct or incompetence, and are eligible to return to the classroom but have not yet been rehired. They continue to receive full salary and benefits, and are rotated from school to school on a monthly basis.

The teachers can be hired at any time, but also remain in the pool indefinitely. At the end of the 2016-17 school year, there were 822 teachers in the ATR, the department says—down from more than 1,100 in the pool three years ago. Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to continue to shrink the pool, which costs an estimated $100 million a year.

The Wall Street Journal's editorial board wrote a scathing indictment of the new policy, saying it could put "perverts, drunkards, and other classroom miscreants ... back in New York City schools."

Teachers in the ATR may be there because their schools closed, but they can apply for other positions in the district's 1,700 schools, the piece says. "If a teacher can't find another job in such a large system, there's probably a good reason principals don't want him."

Path to Permanent Hiring

Under the new policy, principals will have until October 15 to fill teaching positions in their schools. At that point, the education department will send someone from the ATR who has the proper licensing and credentials to fill the open role for the remainder of the school year.

At the end of the year, teachers who have received a rating of "effective" or "highly effective" on the observation portion of their evaluations will become permanent hires.

As I wrote recently, research has shown that principals almost never rate teachers as anything less than "effective" on those evaluations.

Last year, the New York city education department paid salaries for some ATR teachers who were hired as an incentive to get principals to pull from the pool. It also offered severance packages—either $50,000 or $35,000 and six months of health benefits—this summer for ATR teachers to resign or retire.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña, when asked about the ATR in 2014, said that there "would be no forced placement of staff," Chalkbeat reported at the time.

Daniel Weisberg, the CEO of TNTP, a teacher training and advocacy group, and former NYC education department official, recently wrote in Time magazine, "Breaking that promise now would have only one possible result: Schools across the city would face an influx of teachers with records of poor performance. Students in lower-income neighborhoods, where teaching positions have historically been most difficult to fill, would be hit hardest."

Department officials do not consider this new policy forced placement, Will Mantell, a deputy press secretary at the department said, because the teachers from the ATR are filling vacancies, not bumping other teachers out of positions.

'Their Work Should Be Respected'

The teachers' union is pleased with the new policy. "These changes reflect the UFT's conviction that members of the ATR pool provide needed services to schools and that their work should be respected," said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Principals, no doubt, are wary of the change. "Many education conditions are outside the principal's control. But most principals consider teacher quality as the most important condition they can control," Bob Farrace, the director of public affairs for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, wrote in an email. "Forcing students to endure a teacher who principals believe will be ineffective or—worse—toxic to the school community erodes a principal's authority, makes it pretty difficult to hold a principal accountable for the school's success, and most important, compromises student learning."

The New York City system received a rash of media attention starting in 2009 for its so-called "rubber rooms." Groups of teachers who were awaiting termination hearings essentially sat in these rooms during contract work hours and collected their paychecks. In 2010, the district announced it had shuttered the rooms and would instead "reassign" teachers to central offices to perform clerical duties. However, in the years after that, many said not a lot had changed.

New York City education department officials emphasize that there's a difference between the ATR teachers and those who have been "reassigned." The reassigned teachers (those formerly in the rubber rooms), have not yet been through a hearing, and will not be used to fill teaching vacancies under the new policy.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated how the teachers from the ATR who filled vacancies would be paid. The schools they work at will pay their full salaries. 


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