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Eye on the News

Marcus A. Winters
New York’s Public School Paradox
Support runs high for education reforms—but also for the teachers who block them.
22 May 2013

When he came into the mayor’s office in 2002, Michael Bloomberg made reforming New York City’s schools one of his principal goals. The new mayor gained control over school policymaking in his first year and, with the help of schools chancellor Joel Klein, helped make New York one of the nation’s education-reform leaders. The city adopted a variety of changes, including accountability measures, expansion of school choice, and several policies intended to improve teacher quality.

These reforms remain incomplete, however, and their track record has proved uneven, at least thus far. According to a Zogby poll commissioned by the Manhattan Institute earlier this year, most New Yorkers believe that the city’s schools remain below par but basically are on the right track. Only about 28 percent rate the city’s schools “excellent” or “good.” But one-quarter of respondents want the city’s next mayor to continue Bloomberg’s education policies wholesale, while another 44 percent want to preserve them with some modifications.

New Yorkers backed recent reforms in even higher proportions when the “Bloomberg” label was removed. For instance, 76 percent said that teachers should lose their jobs if they receive poor job-performance ratings several years in a row. Respondents also expressed strong support for evaluating teachers in part based on student test scores (58.1 percent), basing teacher compensation partly on classroom performance (72.8 percent), lengthening the school day and school year (62.7 percent), and providing parents with more options when choosing a school (86.5 percent).

At the same time, though, voters are weary of the combative education-policy debate. When asked to name two groups that should play the largest role in determining education policy, only 16 percent named the mayor’s office, while 28 percent said the schools chancellor. Nearly half (49.1 percent) named teachers. So while the public wants to continue the reform push of recent years, it would prefer that teachers lead it.

Unfortunately, that’s not feasible. If teachers were on board with education reform, many changes would have been adopted by now. The survey results make clear the challenge facing New York’s next mayor: teachers fight to protect their interests, regardless of whether those interests conflict with students’ welfare. But the general public sees teachers as putting students first—and on the surface, that’s a reasonable assumption. Most individual teachers are dedicated to their students. Parents who didn’t believe that would have a hard time sending their children to public schools.

When it comes to policies that affect teachers as a collective unit, though—and in the public schools, almost all policies do—teachers are focused on getting the best deal for themselves. Consider the role of seniority. In New York and in many other states, when schools must reduce staff for budgetary or other reasons, they have no meaningful discretion in choosing which teachers to let go. It’s unlawful for public schools to base teacher-retention decisions on any measure of teachers’ classroom performance. Instead, seniority determines who gets laid off and who stays, a policy commonly known as LIFO (last in, first out)—though exceptions are made to ensure that schools don’t go without teachers in particular subjects. Schools facing budget shortfalls can thus be forced to dismiss outstanding teachers and retain ineffective ones. Defenders of the policy argue that more experienced teachers are the most effective, though research provides no support for this assertion. The real reason that the teachers’ union in Albany and in other state capitals strongly favors LIFO is that the law protects the teaching workforce.

In the public mind, teachers and their unions tend to be separate things. More people think of teachers as individuals than as members of a powerful organization. But as political scientist Terry Moe points out in his book Special Interest, while some teachers oppose the broad stances taken by their unions at the national level, they’re fully on board at the local level. Only 6 percent of teachers surveyed by Harris Interactive in a poll conducted in the mid-2000s said that if given the choice, they wouldn’t join their local union. And teachers themselves elect their union leadership. If they were in favor of reforming the system, they would choose leaders who pursue a reform agenda. That has not happened.

Teachers oppose reform because the status quo works in their favor. Under the current system, teachers are rarely held accountable for their performance, are free from nearly any duties outside the classroom—for instance, overseeing students at lunchtime—and automatically receive pay increases based on seniority and earning easily obtained credentials. Because the number of teacher jobs depends on enrollment, teachers also benefit from a system in which students of limited means have few educational alternatives to traditional public schools.

If the public truly supports education reform, as the recent survey suggests it does, then increasing teacher influence is precisely the wrong move. Teachers and their union have fought vigorously against the accountability and choice reforms that most New Yorkers favor. Besides, teachers, through their unions, have already dominated education policymaking for decades. Benefiting from like-minded officials in the mayor’s office for much of that time, the unions have essentially sat at both sides of the bargaining table, which allows them to impose both restrictive collective-bargaining rules and state laws, like LIFO, that protect their interests. Increasing teacher power will only re-entrench the old system.

The future of New York’s public schools likely hinges on the next mayor. The new chief executive should heed the public preference for education reform but remember that true reform puts students first, not teachers.

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