Late in the game during its recent contract negotiations with New York City, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) realized that if it were going to press for a whopping wage increase it had better come up with some data showing that its members were putting in a full day's work. Early in October, the union distributed a "Teacher Workday Survey" to its 80,000 members. Teachers had to say how long they "typically stay in school beyond the required 6 hrs. 20 min.," as well as how much time they put in at home grading papers or preparing lessons. The union needed this information, it claimed, because "some officials [i.e., Mayor Giuliani] have criticized teachers' so-called ‘short’ hours."
Sorry, but asking teachers how many hours they work probably isn't the most accurate way to measure teacher productivity. Somehow, I don't think that my son's social studies teacher last year at Robert Wagner Junior High School on Manhattan's East Side is likely to show up in such a survey.
By the middle of the school year, as far as I could tell, this teacher (let's call her Ms. M.) had worked exactly zero minutes beyond the official 6-hour-and-20-minute school day. (Of course, like all other junior high and high school teachers in the system, Ms. M. actually has to teach only five 43-minute periods—3 hours and 35 minutes—during the official day, and only has 180 work days per year.) As my son and several classmates reported, Ms. M. would arrive every morning just as the kids entered the building. She'd then be out the door seconds after the bell rang to end the school day. Ms. M. almost never commented on the kids' written work, she often used students to grade tests, and she relied almost exclusively on canned classroom assignments. She thus seemed to have little need to work at home.
Toward the end of the school year, my wife and I realized that Ms. M. hadn't covered the state-mandated American history curriculum for the eighth grade. I wrote to Ms. M., protesting her poor performance, and sent a copy to Wagner principal Elizabeth McCullough. Some back and forth followed about scheduling a conference to discuss my complaints. Since my wife teaches at a public school, we requested that the meeting take place after 3 PM, so that she could get there without missing any school time. Impossible, school officials told us: Ms. M. wasn't required to remain in school for one minute after 3 PM and was unwilling to do so. When I asked McCullough if she supported this truculence, she sighed. "There's nothing I can do," she said. "It's in the contract."
What's most troubling about this incident isn't what it reveals about the work habits of this one teacher, as disturbing as they are, but rather that the principal was absolutely right: it is in the contract. Not only can't schools require teachers to meet with parents after school, but an administrator's professional evaluation of teacher performance can't take productivity into account. Ms. M. knew that whether she worked one minute or 100 minutes beyond the 6-hour-and-20-minute school day, she'd get a salary increase based solely on another year of seniority.
This doesn't mean that Ms. M. is the norm. Many teachers put in long hours. And many exceptional principals refuse just to throw up their hands at the contract. They find ways—even if it means breaking rules—to cajole or inspire their teachers to make that extra effort.
But you can't run 1,100 schools based on these kinds of extraordinary individuals. In calling for wages based on merit, not seniority, Mayor Giuliani is doing nothing more radical than encouraging time-serving teachers like Ms. M. to work harder. At a time when New Yorkers seem agreed on raising expectations for students, how about expectations for teachers?