Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A View from the Trenches of the War on Teachers in New York City Schools

----Or The Gotcha Culture at the NY City Department of Ed.

by Matt Frisch

July 5, 2010

Imagine for a minute that we live in a culture in which we are judged solely on the basis of our shortcomings- our strengths, talents, past experience and accomplishments all have no bearing on how we are judged by the world at large. One tiny slip, one miscue, one weakness and we are labeled a failure for all the world to see. Now, imagine that we are forced to submit to other people’s highly subjective criteria of what constitutes an error or a weakness and that the criteria are constantly in flux but the decisions of those sitting in judgment over us are nonetheless final and irreversible. This is not the stuff of science fiction or a nightmarish prediction of the future; this is now. This is the culture created by 8 years of mayoral control of the NY City school system.

The mayor and chancellor have spawned a generation of principals and assistant principals who are encouraged to consolidate their own power in their buildings by bringing in their own people and by pushing out independent-minded veteran teachers. The arsenal of weapons at the disposal of these aggressive administrators to use against non-conforming teachers is virtually limitless. Any infraction, no matter how insignificant, can serve as the pretext for disciplinary action. The stakes in this unfair fight are the teacher’s mental health and livelihood.

Allow me to describe how this blood sport is played in the elementary schools. A principal decides that he wants to get rid of a teacher. Perhaps the teacher has questioned the principal’s pet professional development program as irrelevant to the most pressing needs of the students. Perhaps the principal just needs to meet his quota of unsatisfactory ratings. In any case, the principal drops by the teacher’s room and notices that a student is sitting by himself rather than with the group. The principal asks the student why he is sitting by himself and the boy says, “The teacher says I talk too much.” The principal leaves without a word to the teacher. This “incident” leads to a disciplinary meeting and invariably to a letter in the teacher’s file saying that students must not be excluded from lessons and ending with the dread word- “unsatisfactory.” Or imagine that a teacher on the principal’s hit list has a sick parent or child at home, has to take a phone call and is seen by an administrator with a cell phone to his ear during class time- another negative letter to file. All principals need are two of these critical letters and it is well within their authority as supervisors under the NY City Department of Education to rate that teacher’s work, over the entire school year as unsatisfactory. There is nothing the teacher’s union can say that can change that decision, as long as the principal has adhered to the letter, if not the spirit, of the UFT contract.

These are just two examples of the awesome power principal’s hold over teachers. As I said earlier, the grounds for rating a teacher’s performance as unsatisfactory are only limited by the breadth of the administrator’s creativity. Today’s administrators are not held back by any quaint notions of collegiality with teachers or by an understanding of the realities of teaching that might be gained through experience. Graduates of the DOE’s Leadership Academy are for the most part young and inexperienced. Their primary motivations for becoming principals are the salary and the power, rather than any desire to make a difference in kids’ lives. They go about their work of consolidating their power and doing their higher ups’ bidding without ambivalence or scruple.

A year or a career’s hard work are trashed because of a cell phone conversation. The profound, perhaps life-changing influence a teacher has had on his students, the important lessons he has taught, the way he has shared aspects of his own personality and given his students a safe space to explore and express their own unique qualities- all of this is beneath the notice of these young, ruthless administrators. All that matters is that on March 15th, the teacher was seen drinking a hot beverage during class time or on April 6th, he took his class to the front of the building to see the daffodils during the “writer’s workshop” timeslot.

Principals are impervious to any excuse for an infraction, once they have you in their sights. And they are all powerful. Who can a teacher turn to when he is caught for example with his head on his desk during a preparation period and is accused of sleeping during the prep? Unless the principal’s accusations violate specific rights guaranteed in the teachers’ contract with the DOE, the UFT cannot come to the teacher’s rescue and he is at the mercy of the principal.

The new breed of principals is not weighed down by any ethical baggage. They don’t believe in anything other than consolidating their own power and protecting their own sorry skins. They do what they’re told by higher-ups; they aggrandize themselves and punish anyone who rocks the boat. Principals fear two things- low test scores and angry parents. Test scores are not a problem because the tests are so dumbed down and curved up that nearly every student is judged above average. Never mind that 4th graders don’t know their multiplication facts and can’t write a grammatical sentence- the Department of Education in conjunction with the test publishers can virtually guarantee that almost every student will pass.

The risk posed by angry parents is tougher to manage. The short term solution that most principals choose is to dispense with discipline in the school. Incidents short of violence causing serious injury or bringing weapons to school are swept under the rug. No consequences for the rule breaker; a few pat assurances to the parents of the injured party and on to the next incident. No one takes a stand and no one is the wiser. This approach allows the principal to steer clear of the shoals of angry parents for the short term but the atmosphere in the building gradually deteriorates, a little each day. Disrespect and roughness toward classmates and teachers alike become the norm and sooner or later something really bad will happen. But by then, no one will connect the dots between this one isolated incident and the overall lack of discipline or leadership in the building.

All the discipline that principals could implement, in a uniform and consistent manner, with students is inflicted, in a capricious, self-serving way, on teachers. Kids go to the principal’s office with a swagger because they know that nothing they do, short of really hurting someone or bringing a weapon to school, will get them into any real trouble. Teachers go to the principal’s office with their hearts in their hands because unsatisfactory ratings for two years in a row can get you terminated. Bloomberg/Klein’s new graduates of the Leadership Academy are the system’s hit men. The more veteran teachers they can bring down, the higher their star rises.
Principals can make limitless errors without any real consequences. Scheduling can be haphazard, communication with staff can be sporadic and their scores for trustworthiness on the school environment survey can be abysmal but none of this will pose an obstacle to the principal’s advancement. It almost seems the more dysfunctional a building, the more the DOE likes it.

Principals are given broad financial discretion. They can hire more assistant principals than the number of students can justify, they can sign up for intensive, costly professional development that no one wants, they can hire an endless procession of substitute teachers so that regular teachers can engage in endless reinvention of the wheel and there are no repercussions from above.

Students can’t write or do arithmetic? Again, no problem as long as they pass the dumbed-down tests. The more counter-intuitive and convoluted the professional development program, the more popular with principals. How better to keep teachers jumping through hoops with the wool pulled tight over their eyes than with an emperor’s new clothes circus of professional development swirling around them. When professional development is on hiatus, the “mushroom” theory of management- keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em sh*t- takes up the slack.

Without any real accountability for poor administration, what’s an ambitious young principal to do to keep his edge? Bullying veteran teachers makes a good substitute for real leadership. It allows principals to feel like tough administrators and win accolades from superintendents and network leaders without making any substantive changes to the corporate-friendly status quo. Do as you’re told; follow a few simple rules spelled out in the teachers’ contract; check your humanity, sense of fair play and sound educational principles at the door and you’re set for life. That’s all the Department of Education asks of its new principals. This is the Kafkaesque culture that we immerse our children in when they go off to elementary school each morning.

Matt Frisch


  1. Stop feeding the rumor that two U ratings in a row leads to termination. It's simply not true.

  2. Well, two U ratings in a row are sufficient to lead to termination proceedings such as 3020a which can result in a teacher's termination.

    The tactics employed by the DOE are taken from Nazi books, people are said to have the tendency to act like their enemies whom they most intensely studied.

  3. Very well said!!!

    Good Job Matt.

  4. Anon 10:14 PM, July 06, 2010, one U rating can lead to 3020A proceedings, as can 5 in a row.

    My point is that there's no formula and the author's comment,

    "Teachers go to the principal’s office with their hearts in their hands because unsatisfactory ratings for two years in a row can get you terminated."

    Fails to mention 3020A (state ed law proceedings) and feeds into the false and widely pervasive rumor that one is automatically terminated upon receiving the second U in a row.

    Heck, based upon what he wrote, I wouldn't be surprised if the author didn't believe the rumor and perhaps Norm's editing should have caught it too.

    My point is that knowledge is power. People should learn what their rights are.

  5. You have no rights. The UFT DoE racketeers give you the illusion of rights.

    Any tin pot administrator can initiate 3020a proceedings to destroy a teachers career.

    A 3020a procedure is termed a "trial of charges". This is a kangaroo court where triple level hearsay is entered into evidence.

    The arbitrator will grievously hurt a teacher in this position.

    An arbitrator will typically earn $1800 a day for five hours of "work".

    That's a nice gig in this lousy economy. In order to keep such a job the arbitrator will almost always find one of the charges to be "substantiated" and will after many months write a "decision" that will apportion some guilt to the teacher being railroaded.

    The result will be a fine or suspension or even courses that have to be paid for by the victim/teacher.

    No one is watching the administrator or the arbitrators.

    The UFT doesn't care about the teacher. They assign a lawyer who knows how corrupt the situation is, but the lawyer is part of the problem.

    To listen to a DoE prosecutor in a trial of charges, is comparable to listening to the Nazi prosecutor during the show trials put on during the Third Reich.

    The only thing to do is sue both parties.

    Angry Nog

  6. Anon 10:14

    When Matt says: "because unsatisfactory ratings for two years in a row can get you terminated" he uses the word "can" - meaning it is possible - not "will."

    Now we know that you can get a 3020a for anything you might do - my friend did no more than sit a child in a seat and accidentally her finger caught the shirt and a button came off - this after over 20 years of teaching.

    But two years in a row with a U can lead to 3020a for being an incompetent teacher. At least I was lead to believe that it is the minimum for a tenured teacher. But that could be only a street rumor. Nothing in code that I know of.

  7. Excellent post Matt. Until the UFT stands up to these tactics as they develop, nothing will change.

  8. Arbitration is designed as a forum of compromises for both parties with innocent teacher ended up being punished with fines and suspensions, while a lawsuit against DoE initiated by a teacher is difficult to prevail and sustain as the litigation is just too blunt and overreaching in most circumstances.
    DoE or the city for this matter can easily tie up a lawsuit for 3, 5 years or longer. It is just outside the reach of most individual teachers. There are exceptions such like David Pakter.

  9. The only answer is for the UFT to develop some balls. Every time a teacher is abused, the UFT should set up info-pickets outside that teacher's school and embarrass the principal. This is war and the UFT does not get it.

  10. Great post, Matt, it's something I want to circulate.

    The other half of our problem is the UFT.

    Apart from the givebacks in successive contracts and some very ambiguous wording in too many clauses, not to mention adopting a self-defeating collaborative strategy for a decade or more, the leadership has negotiated itself into a grievance structure that cannot accommodate the avalanche of violations.

    It's easier for the borough offices to delay, make excuses, shove our complaints under the rug, work deals out behind our backs, quash our cases in their Step II committee meetings, and pray we'll just go away. The hypocrisy is really too much: they'll tell you to grieve, grieve, grieve, but they rely on managed neglect to get through the day.

  11. PS:
    Anon. 10:10 was posting while I was writing. He's not letting the UFT off the hook either.

  12. I agree. The UFT is more than partially to blame. Matt has not exaggerated the danger. It is not about how many Unsatisfactory Ratings will get you terminated. It's about the process by which administrators build a case against you. This includes framing teachers for grave offenses that they have not committed. The UFT needs to make it harder for administrators to get away with destroying a teacher's career one file letter at a time.

  13. This article is about me and my school. Since the fall of 2008,when we got a new principal, who is a former guidance counselor, I was harassed and abused. it looks like Matt was in my school all this time. She is destroying my health and it is very, very hard for me to come to work. Thank you so much for speaking the truth.

  14. I know that principals are not original people. Whatever is happening in my school, is happening across the district and perhaps the city. The deck is stacked against us. I know that it is very frustrating for District Reps because very few battles end in victories for our side. It must be incredibly stressful for district reps as well to not be able to help members. I think we got here because we can no longer grieve letters to file, the corruption of administration as a profession along with the DOE's hidden agenda to make public school unmanageable and hand it over to outside contractors. I'm hoping that then new evaluation formula can inject some objectivity into the process. Test scores could be a blessing in disguise. Also, once test scores are a part of the evaluation, administration won't have the right to tell us how to teach- or how could they hold us responsible for the results. That's one component of the evaluation formula that the UFT has to insist on- teachers can no longer be restricted to one model. If we can achieve high test scores,administrators would have to let us do what works for us and our students.

  15. Hi, Matt.
    I don't think anyone should fall into the trap of thinking that if "we can achieve high test scores, administrators would have to let us do what works for us and our students."

    The EdDeformers are way past concern for student learning. If that had been their goal, they would have already cut class sizes by a third and made sure kids were getting the services they feel so comfortable (and justified !) taking away from them. The struggling learners don't get the help they need, and the talented learners are in rooms geared to the lowest possible denominator.

    These people want to bust union and reduce costs, nothing more or less. If it means making the profession unpalatable, great: they'll hire intern teachers from now til kingdom come and save lots of money on high salaries and big pensions. If they privatize more and more schools, better still.

    Whatever they design, advocate, reorganize, assess, or account for supports nothing more than a systematic and ideological restructuring of public education along corporate lines.


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