By now, millions of New Yorkers have seen the compelling TV commercial of a classroom full of angelic-looking children, staring patiently and sadly at the empty teacher's desk at the front of the room. This prime-time spot caps a $2 million United Federation of Teachers media campaign to convince New Yorkers that their public schools are doomed unless all 78,000 teachers get a huge wage boost.
The ads aim to strengthen the union's hand for upcoming labor negotiations (the current contract expires on November 15)—but they have a broader purpose, too. They aim, as well, to stem growing local and national discontent with inner-city public schools. The "teacher shortage" is one of the education establishment's excuses for urban school failure. We don't need radical reforms such as vouchers or charter schools, the educrats contend, nor do we need to hold teachers accountable for their performance. Just give us enough money to compete for the most qualified teachers, and city schools will do as well as suburban schools.
"The law of supply and demand applies to teachers just as it does to any other profession," explains a recent UFT ad in the New York Times (the union's first-ever discovery of Adam Smith's invisible hand). "Newly certified teachers are heading for high-paying suburban schools. And many experienced teachers in New York City are being cherry-picked by the same schools. . . . The teacher shortage is a civic crisis New York City must face now, before it wreaks havoc on a school system already grappling with a severe shortage of certified teachers." The union blames low salaries—25 percent lower than in the suburbs—for the record number of 11,000 uncertified teachers in classrooms and for the more than 54,000 further defections from the system it expects over the next five years.
The UFT hopes to make the "civic crisis" theme resonate loudly during what is not only a contract year but also a key election year in New York. The union and its favorite candidate, Hillary Clinton, want the education conversation to be about the paucity of resources and low teacher salaries in city schools. Rudy Giuliani is sure to stress competition and accountability, attacking the public school monopoly for protecting the interests of school employees over the interests of the children. The union's ads are the opening shots in the education debate of this year's senatorial campaign.
How much of the UFT's scare campaign about the "teacher shortage crisis" is true? And, more important, how can New York, even within present budget constraints, improve the performance of its current classroom teachers and attract qualified new recruits?
First, it's true that the surrounding suburbs do pay their teachers a lot more money. That's not news. Many successful New York City residents choose to move out to these gilded suburbs largely so that they can lavish lots of their property tax money on their children's schools. Much of that money goes to teachers.
If anything, the UFT has understated the salary gap. According to the most recent State Education Department data, the median New York City teacher's salary was $47,345 in 1997–98. While this figure was higher than median teacher salaries in 44 of the 57 counties outside of the city, it looks puny beside Westchester County's $68,400 and Nassau County's $66,262. The teacher salary gap between the city and the closest suburban counties, in other words, was more than 40 percent.
Even that 40 percent figure doesn't reflect the real gap with the wealthiest neighboring suburban districts. For example, the median teacher salary for Scarsdale was $81,410, an astronomical 73 percent higher than the city's. Other close-in suburbs, such as Rye, Harrison, Bronxville, Chappaqua, and Great Neck, paid salaries almost as high as Scarsdale's. It is reasonable to assume that those wealthy suburbs exert a draw on trained New York City teachers. After all, a 30-year-old city teacher with five years of experience who manages to land a job in Scarsdale can expect to earn as much as an extra $1 million in salary and pension benefits over her career.
But hoping for that job in Scarsdale or Great Neck is not the same as getting it. So when the UFT says that "many experienced teachers are being cherry-picked" by the suburbs, it's essential to know exactly how many is "many." Amazingly, the UFT doesn't know or want to know the answer. A union spokesperson told me that the UFT had never actually tried to compile data on teacher transfers to the suburbs. Nor, as I recently discovered, does the New York City Board of Education or the State Education Department collect such information.
Nevertheless, we can make some reasonable estimates based on data that are available. With 23,000 teachers in Westchester and Nassau, and using a widely accepted teacher turnover rate of 10 percent for the suburbs, we can estimate some 2,300 teacher vacancies each year in these two counties together. To estimate how many of these available jobs might be filled by city teachers, I called five suburban districts with very high teacher pay scales and close proximity to the city—Rye, Mamaroneck, Scarsdale, Great Neck, and Glen Cove. I asked officials in those districts what percentage of their yearly vacancies they fill with former New York City public school teachers. The average: about 17 percent. I then called districts in the northern reaches of Westchester and the eastern end of Nassau and discovered that very few of their hires came from city public schools. Using the most liberal estimate, I assumed a 15 percent figure for all of Westchester and Nassau. Applying this to the 2,300 vacancies leads to an estimate of 350 New York City teachers hired each year by Westchester and Nassau school districts—less than 0.5 percent of the New York City teacher workforce. No doubt some New York City teachers are also taking jobs farther out in Suffolk and Putnam Counties and in some nearby areas of New Jersey. Yet even if we doubled the total to 700, it would still mean that less than 1 percent of the city's teachers are switching to the suburbs each year. This hardly makes for a "civic crisis."
The UFT ads are not only deceptive in depicting a nonexistent mass exodus to the suburbs, but they also create the false hope that salary increases would be the solution to the problem, if it did exist. The union knows that contract negotiations with the city do not occur in a vacuum. Raises for one municipal union create a benchmark for settlements with the other unions. Indeed, UFT president Randi Weingarten heads a coalition of municipal union leaders pledged to act in concert this year. Given that reality, no New York City mayor, even among the current crop of Democratic hopefuls, could conceivably agree to teacher-salary increases of more than 15 percent or 16 percent spread out over three years.
Nevertheless, let's assume that the figure turns out to be a historically unprecedented 25 percent, raising the city's median teacher salary to about $59,000. During those three years, though, districts such as Scarsdale and Rye would also be giving their teachers raises, albeit less dramatic ones, so there would still be a salary gap of at least $25,000 per year. Since teaching in the suburbs would still be more pleasant than teaching in the city, just as many New York teachers would covet those suburban jobs. Raising salaries may accomplish some worthwhile things—if, for example, raises were doled out as incentives for improving classroom performance—but preventing teachers from fleeing to the wealthiest suburbs is not one of them.
What about those 11,000 uncertified teachers the city is forced to put up with—because, claims the UFT, it is not willing to pay for certified ones? To the union, that number is a major scandal and partly explains poor student performance. UFT president Weingarten recently noted that the city school districts with the highest number of uncertified teachers also had the lowest test scores, suggesting a causal relationship.
This is a break with UFT orthodoxy. Normally the union takes the position that, except for a very rare lemon, all its members are hardworking, dedicated professionals. That's why we don't need merit-pay scales and other monetary incentives to distinguish between effective and noneffective teachers. Now, however, the union would have us believe that one entire class of teachers, the uncertified, is inferior to another class, the certified.
Not so. To be sure, a minority of these 11,000—perhaps 3,000 of them—have repeatedly failed the state's subject-matter tests. These teachers should be fired. Even if none of them was replaced, we would still have about 75,000 teachers for 1.1 million students—a student-to-teacher ratio of 14.6 to one, slightly higher than the student-to-teacher ratios of 14.3 for Nassau County and 14.1 for Westchester County but lower than the 15.1 ratio for Suffolk County. The Board of Education would also save a hefty $150 million, which it could use as financial incentives for greater teacher productivity.
But the other 8,000 or so of those 11,000 uncertified teachers aren't uncertified because they've failed the tests but because they are still working to complete the vast number of requirements (both academic and otherwise) for permanent certification that the Board of Regents has been piling on inexorably. One of these—a content test in the subject you are about to teach—is a reasonable requirement. Many of the others, from an education master's degree to courses in "human relations," bear little or no relation to classroom performance.
With the possible exception of the schools of education, no education group has lobbied more fervently for these stricter licensing requirements than the teacher unions. The reasons are clear: when government regulators pile on time-consuming and expensive requirements to obtain a license to work, the overall effect is to reduce the job-applicant pool. Unions make claims for higher salaries when the pool is smaller, even more so when they can claim a "teacher shortage crisis." Having supported policies that make teachers jump through more and more hoops to become certified, the union now says it is shocked—shocked!—to discover that so many New York City teachers are uncertified and that we may not have enough certified teachers in the future.
According to the UFT, passing a competency test, receiving a master's degree in education, and serving as a student teacher under the supervision of an education school are all necessary to make someone a good classroom teacher. Most of the empirical research on the issue shows otherwise. After studying a huge cohort of Texas schools, Rochester University economist Eric Hanushek reported finding "no evidence that having a master's degree improves teacher skills." Other education economists, such as Michael Podgursky and Dale Ballou, have found little correlation between completing traditional teacher-certification programs and classroom teaching skills.
The research findings shouldn't surprise most parents with children in the public schools. They can recall that their children have had horrible, incompetent teachers who were fully certified and excellent teachers who were not certified. The most extraordinary teacher my son ever had was Iftimie Simion, his math teacher at Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School. Before immigrating to the United States, Simion coached the Rumanian national math team. But that wasn't good enough for New York's Board of Ed. Since Simion hadn't yet obtained a permanent certificate, this beloved teacher was under constant threat of being replaced by a properly certified teacher with seniority. One proposed transfer teacher who almost got the job was nearly 70 years old and had never taught high school math. Only desperate lobbying by Stuyvesant's principal saved Simion's job.
Among the most sophisticated education consumers in New York City are the parents who send their children to the elite private schools that charge up to $20,000 in annual tuition. Though these schools have virtually no certified teachers, I have heard of no complaints from those parents that they are not getting their money's worth.
The new New York City interim schools chancellor, Harold Levy, happens to be one of those sophisticated education consumers. He sends his children to the Dalton School, where they are taught almost exclusively by teachers without state certification or ed-school training. Yet Levy was a member of the Board of Regents when that body tightened the certification requirements for public school teachers. Since bright young college graduates apparently do a good job for his children, why aren't they also good enough to replace some of the awful certified teachers public school kids endure?
When the UFT says that we need to raise salaries in order to guarantee a "well qualified" teacher in every classroom, one might assume it means someone who improves student outcomes. In fact, all the union really means by "well qualified" is a teacher who has the proper state credentials, something that bears no relation to student performance. As a result, the public is unaware of how salaries might actually be used to improve teacher performance. The UFT has also tried to steer the public debate away from tried-and-true non-salary-related measures that the city might use to broaden the pool of teacher applicants.
Instead of worrying about salaries in Westchester or Nassau, public officials concerned with solving the city's teacher-supply problems ought to be looking to New Jersey. For the past 15 years, that state has had one of the most successful "alternate route" teacher-certification programs in the country. School districts have expanded the teacher pool by bringing in candidates—mostly recent college grads—with academic expertise and an interest in teaching who are unwilling to invest the time and money it takes to graduate from an ed school. Hired without any credentials except their B.A., they then undergo classroom mentoring with a veteran teacher. They must also take a much condensed version of the traditional 36 credits' worth of education courses—usually amounting to the equivalent of 12 credits and taught by the district that hires the alternate licensed teacher rather than by a traditional ed school. Finally, the alternate teachers have to pass a state-administered subject-matter test. After completing these three steps, and after the principal certifies that they are able to perform in the classroom, these teachers receive a state credential.
Not unexpectedly, New Jersey's two teacher unions bitterly opposed the alternate-route program. The unions and the ed schools warned that "unprepared" alternate-route teachers would soon leave in horror when they discovered that they couldn't handle classroom problems. But state education authorities stuck to their guns, and in recent years more than 20 percent of New Jersey's new teachers have come through the alternate-certification route. According to state education department figures, the alternate-route teachers have substantially higher scores on the state's subject-matter tests and lower attrition rates than traditionally trained teachers. Moreover, a higher percentage of them are minorities. Perhaps the best gauge of the program's success is that since 1985 New Jersey has not had to issue a single emergency certificate.
Governor Pataki has now proposed a modified form of alternative certification in New York for older career changers. But New York, with shortages of math and science teachers, ought to be able to recruit not just oldsters but recent college graduates with degrees in those subjects as well. As in New Jersey, a New York school district could put such graduates into a classroom with a mentor and offer the radically compacted education curriculum in special district learning centers.
The "teacher shortage crisis" would look far more manageable if the school system could expand the applicant pool by, say, 2,000 teachers each year through alternative licensing. This small step would not cost the city a penny. Yet those eager teachers could bring the schools other tangible benefits. They would probably have a strong grounding in their academic specialties, and, not having attended education schools, they wouldn't bring damaging progressive-education doctrines into the classroom. Alternative licensing would also allow the city to compete for that stream of teachers that it has foolishly conceded to the private schools.
Would the alternative-route teachers be any better or any worse than traditionally licensed teachers? Classroom teaching is the key measure: education researchers and economists now believe that teacher effectiveness in the classroom trumps every other variable—including class size, per-pupil expenditure, and ed-school courses taken by the teacher—in accounting for student improvement. It is ten to 20 times as significant as any other variable, according to University of Tennessee statistician William Sanders, who officially monitors student and teacher performance for the state of Tennessee. Leo Klagholz, the former New Jersey State commissioner of education who developed the state's alternative-licensing program, observes in a recent publication of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation that "knowledge of subject matter, and personal traits like intelligence, human sensitivity and caring, communication ability, work ethic, self-discipline, [and] ability to relate to children" are more crucial to teacher effectiveness than an ed-school degree. "As a result," he warns, "when government uses teacher training as a formal job eligibility screen it produces the double error of failing to guarantee the competence of those who meet requirements while also eliminating many individuals who have significant capabilities."
New York City can ensure a supply of competent teachers through streamlined certification guidelines that would encourage well-educated persons to consider teaching as a career. But once the school system has a larger teacher-candidate pool, it still must answer this question: How can we encourage and reward effective classroom teaching? An important part of the answer lies in reinventing the teachers' contract. As presently written, it is an inflexible, rules-driven document that perpetuates a culture of complacency and mediocrity in the schools. The union argues that teachers, like all workers, need protection from abuse by their superiors. But this contract effectively shields teachers from all legitimate supervisory oversight. Here are the contract's three most destructive provisions and how we might fix them.
First, the Board of Education, belatedly, has been moving to end automatic social promotion for students. But the labor contract institutionalizes a destructive system of social promotion for teachers. Once they have a state license, teachers receive pay increases irrespective of how hard they work or how much their students learn. Teachers can also add to their salaries by accumulating more useless ed-school credits. Money is passed from the city treasury to the teachers and then circulated back to the ed schools and the union (which offers many of the courses) in the form of tuition payments. Yet there isn't a shred of evidence that students benefit when their teachers take all those extra ed courses. A more constructive solution: eliminate the extra-pay boondoggle for education credits past the master's degree. Take the money saved and sprinkle it among those teachers deemed actually to have improved student performance.
Second, the teachers' contract states that the school day is six hours and 20 minutes long and that the school year for teachers begins only one day before the students show up in September. The UFT assures one and all that teachers put in hundreds of extra hours in school and at home. No doubt many do. But one of the dirty little secrets of the system is that many New York City teachers actually do work to the six-hour-20-minute standard—which adds up to some 950 hours per year, or about half of what an average American wage earner works. It is time to remove the six-hour-20-minute standard from the contract and instead allow principals to make sure teachers spend however long it takes to correct homework, prepare lessons well, and deal with parents. Teachers should also have to report in at least a week before school opens in order to do some essential planning. The new contract should also mandate that the city comptroller's office regularly monitor teacher hours.
Third, New York City principals no longer enjoy tenure rights. They are now on renewable contracts, like middle managers in any other enterprise. But if this new system of accountability is to work, it has to spread down through the whole system. If district superintendents and the chancellor are to evaluate principals on their performance, the principals, in turn, must be given the authority to manage their own workforce. That means hiring and removing teachers on the basis of their performance and making classroom assignments on the basis of the needs of the children rather than the seniority rights of the teachers. It means giving higher pay for excellent performance, not for years of service. The current contract denies all of this essential authority to principals.
More than keeping teachers from leaving for the suburbs, our schools need a system of rational incentives for increasing the productivity and classroom effectiveness of the teachers who remain. Mayor Giuliani has already stated that superior classroom performance should be rewarded and poor work should be sanctioned. Interim chancellor Harold Levy confronted the slacker culture of the public schools on his very first day on the job at 110 Livingston Street when he walked into one of that building's notoriously filthy rest rooms. His reaction, commonplace enough for any chief executive in the business world from which he came, was unheard of in the world of public education. The brand-new chancellor prominently posted a memo in the building's lobby, warning the custodian either to clean up the pigsty or get another job.
Would that this chancellor and the mayor might team up to negotiate a new contract that begins to attack the slacker culture that prevails in the schools. Were they to succeed, the kids in that TV commercial would have a much better chance than they have now of actually seeing not just an adult, but a hardworking and competent adult, sitting at that teacher's desk.