New York City’s public school system has a hard time attracting well-qualified teachers. Nearly a third of new teachers in the city’s public schools lack state certification. Once in the classroom, new teachers rarely get any fresh training. So when a chance comes along to bring promising young talent into urban schools without a big financial outlay, local school officials might be expected to jump at it. In New York City, unfortunately, they jump on it with cleats.

That is what happened to an innovative program that city school officials recently drove out of the system—and into the more receptive arms of suburban and parochial schools. It all started in 1987 when the administrators of District Four, the maverick school district in East Harlem, joined with Fordham University on a collaborative project called the Fordham Fellows Internship Program. The idea was to give prospective teachers hands-on practical experience in the classroom alongside their academic courses in teacher training.

The program worked as follows: The East Harlem school district took the money it received from the central board to cover a classroom teacher’s salary ($25,000 on average) and used it to pay Fordham tuition ($13,000) for a graduate student working toward a masters’ degree in teaching. In exchange, the graduate students agreed to spend a year as classroom teachers in East Harlem schools; along with the free tuition, they received a modest stipend ($3,000) and health insurance. Fordham modified its usual program so as to allow the students to earn all the necessary credits in one academic year and two summers, and also arranged to have professors hold classes in the district to ease the graduate students’ schedules. Meanwhile, District Four used the remaining funds from its classroom allocation (roughly $8,000) to provide one senior teacher to supervise every five graduate students. Fordham appointed these mentors as adjunct professors.

Everyone seemed to win. Fordham got a program to attract eager students, often from outside the ranks of education majors, and give them a secure source of tuition. Aspiring educators got a way around two of the most discouraging features of teacher education—the high expense and the lack of hands-on classroom work. Senior teachers in District Four got the interesting challenge of training young colleagues, and the genuine prestige of the adjunct professor title. Best of all, East Harlem students got the benefit of fresh teaching talent that, in the view of district administrators, outperformed the warm bodies the Board of Ed too often sent over. Not a bad deal, right?

Enter the central Board of Education, acting, it would seem, as bargaining agent for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Six months into the program, the District Four administrators were called into the chambers and onto the carpet of the Chancellor’s office. They were met by a deputy chancellor; directors of budget, personnel, and labor relations; and a high-ranking UFT representative, and told flatly that the Fordham Fellows program violated the board’s UFT contract. The contract prohibited the city schools from employing a classroom teacher at less than the negotiated salary. Free tuition not only was not supposed to make up for the lack of a salary, it was not supposed to count at all. The district would have either to shut down the program entirely or, what amounted to the same thing, begin paying the graduate students a full salary in addition to covering their tuition.

The choice was no choice at all. The District Four administrators paid the graduate students full salary for the rest of the year, and then reluctantly withdrew from the program. By this time, the program’s designers had realized that the program would inevitably trigger union misgivings and had begun looking for ways to modify it. In the public schools of Mount Vernon and Mamaroneck, the districts managed to come up with the extra money to pay the graduate students a full salary. The parochial schools of the New York Roman Catholic archdiocese, which are also unionized, took a different route. The graduate students receive only the stipend, but Fordham sweetens the deal by using some of the tuition money to provide 30 credits of education course work free of charge to a veteran teacher or teachers at the schools.

It was not surprising that UFT officials would recoil from a program that in some ways threatened their contract rules. What is disturbing is how Board of Ed officials reacted to that first reflexive union opposition. They might have run interference for a promising new innovation of this sort, helping steer it over the shoals by adapting it to union worries, or—if union officials insisted on blocking it—threatening to go over the union’s head to the public for support. Instead, they zealously guarded the status quo.

Fordham now has a full complement of schools to work with and is not expanding the program further for the moment. But New York City, where the idea started, will not be getting any of the benefits. As many of the city’s schoolchildren face the school year with undertrained, ill-prepared teachers, their parents can at least reflect with satisfaction that all the rules were obeyed. —Raymond Domanico


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