New York City: The time is right to improve our worst schools
We live in a time when people rightfully have become skeptical about the political process and the possibilities for moving beyond rhetoric to action. Yet, every now and then forces align themselves in ways that permit substantive change.
In New York City we have just such a moment before us - an opportunity to dramatically improve our public school system by addressing the issue that has limited the possibilities of vast numbers of low-income and disadvantaged children.
That issue is the dearth of highly skilled, experienced teachers where they are needed most: in the city's worst schools. Some 60 percent of our city's low-performing students are concentrated in just one-third of our schools, nearly all of them in high-poverty areas. The prospect of failure in these schools is so overwhelming that teacher turnover is constant.
In April, a special commission of the New York City Council outlined detailed recommendations for righting these wrongs. In addition to calling for systemwide reductions in class sizes, it recommended that all teachers be awarded salary incentives of 3 percent (to be added to any negotiated increases), with teachers in the most challenging schools receiving as much as an additional 23 percent if they teach in schools that adopt an extended-year calendar. Teachers whose skills qualify them for a newly instituted designation of "master teacher" would receive a further 10 percent increase. The reforms would be subject to ongoing review by an Independent Office for Research and Accountability.
At this particular moment we are blessed with a rare opportunity that combines a potential multi-billion-dollar windfall for the city's school system with contract renewal negotiations between the United Federation of Teachers and the city and a mayoral election.
Clearly the biggest barrier to school reform has been money. For decades, the city could not offer the kind of teacher salaries found in the suburbs and upstate because it has not received a proportionate share of funding.
More recently, under the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, city schools are required to meet clear and specific targets for student achievement while being denied the wherewithal to do so.
The courts recently declared that this violates our children's constitutional right to a sound, basic education. A panel of special judges has recommended that the state provide the city with an additional $14 billion in operating and facilities funds over the next five years.
That decision is being appealed by Gov. George Pataki, but many believe that money will actually change hands within the next year.
That's a huge step, yet plaintiffs have won similar lawsuits in other states, gotten their money and still were unable to enact meaningful reform. Usually this was because they failed to bring together all school stakeholders in a meaningful dialogue.
Here, the City Council commission began such a dialogue with the public hearings it held during the past school year. But obstacles remain.
One problem is the seniority system that allows the most experienced teachers to essentially choose their placements. Given the low pay and working conditions in struggling schools, most elect to work in schools where they can make a decent living and be effective. The union has fiercely defended this system.
Lately, both Randi Weingarten, the UFT president, and Joel Klein, the city schools chancellor, agreed that in principle the key to turning around struggling schools is with excellent, experienced teachers.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made education reform the centerpiece of his first term, is running for a re-election.
This is a moment when promises are being made, compromise is in the air and unprecedented new financial resources seem likely to come our way.
If we fail to deliver, history - and our children - will judge us harshly indeed.
This Op-Ed appeared in the 9/13/2005 issue of Newsday.
Published Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2005