For Veteran Teachers Experience May Count for Nothing

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Jan 31, 2011  |  Updated 6:45 PM EDT
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For Veteran Teachers Experience May Count for Nothing

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Finally, the parents and children of New York City are learning the truth. The people at the head of the state educational system are admitting what we have long suspected: that previous numbers on math and reading tests were phony.

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If you’re an experienced teacher in the New York City school system, you have reason to worry.

Mayor Bloomberg on Sunday told an audience at a black church in Brooklyn that it was time to give him the power to fire teachers regardless of seniority.

The governor’s budget will mean major cuts in the money allotted to education. The mayor believes the jobs of 15,000 teachers hired in the last five years would be in jeopardy. And Bloomberg wants to change the state law that requires the most junior teachers to be fired first. He wants the power to fire teachers on the basis of competence, not seniority.

The question is: how do you decide competence? Clearly, in the Mayor’s view, that’s a decision that he and his deputies in the bureaucracy will have the power to make -- and that could cause great injustice to veteran teachers who have earned the respect of their colleagues and the devotion of the children they have taught.

The plan to take away the seniority rule is a transparent attempt to save money in the face of massive budget cuts from Albany. This kind of cost-cutting is not in the interest of children, teachers, or parents. It’s a transparent effort to hurt the teachers union and the parent leaders who are devoted to some of the most dedicated teachers in the system.

One parent leader, Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, told me there are only two “observable factors” in judging how well a child is being educated: the experience of a teacher and class size.

“I think the mayor is ridiculous in trying to save money by laying off experienced teachers. We should not be doing that.

Despite their insistence that nothing matters more than the quality of teaching, the oligarchy of corporate reformers and billionaires that is currently driving education policy in this country has launched a sharp attack on the whole concept of professionalism in the field of public education.”

Haimson attacks the notion that test scores are the main way to measure the progress of children. She says there are “incalculable attributes of teachers in …knowing how to comfort a child, manage a classroom, instill self-confidence and persistence, ignite curiosity or engage the imagination.” 

Clearly both the Mayor and the former schools chancellor, Joel Klein, have a different idea of what makes a good teacher. Over the weekend, Klein deplored that fact that it was easier to execute a killer than fire an incompetent teacher. “Five to 10 percent are not remotely capable,” Klein told the London Sunday Times. “It’s easier to prosecute a capital-punishment case in the U.S. than terminate an incompetent teacher.”

Nice metaphor.

When our educational standards are based on ideas like that, we are doing something wrong. But it’s not clear that the educational establishment is competent to handle it.

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