The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was established in 1960 as the New York City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers’ union. Teachers in the fifties and early sixties were often overworked, underpaid and subject to what some teachers termed the tyrannical power of principals and other supervisory staff.
“We had absolutely no rights. We were afraid to speak up,” said former New York City teacher and one of the UFT’s founders, Abe Levine, in the “History of the UFT” section on the union’s Web site. According to a New York Times editorial published in January 1955, teachers in city public schools earned less in a week than a car washer.
By 1960 many teachers were fed up. In March of that year, Levine called for the creation of a New York teachers union to combat these and other issues. In December, 1961, the UFT was designated as the collective bargaining organization for all public school teachers in New York City.
According to the mission statement on the UFT Web site, the union “negotiates for fair and competitive salaries, enhanced professionalism and improved working conditions, not only to benefit its members but also to help recruit and retain the best educators for New York City schools.” The UFT also acts as an advocate for public schools, calling for greater funding for education from city, state, and federal governments and promoting reforms like smaller class sizes and improved academic standards.
For all its noble aspirations, the UFT has become a target of much criticism in recent years. Politicians and members of the Department of Education (DOE) criticize UFT policies that make it difficult to fire teachers, blaming these practices for contributing to a lack of accountability and a shortage of funds in the New York City school system.
The UFT’s contract with the city expired on Saturday, October 31, and negotiations for a new contract are already underway. Though the UFT declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations, two key issues—teacher tenure and merit pay—are almost certainly under debate.
One of the most contentious of the UFT’s policies is teacher tenure. This rule limits the DOE’s ability to fire tenured teachers and enforce stricter standards upon them. But at the same time, it serves to protect teachers from the mistreatment they dealt with prior to the 1960s.
Teacher tenure has come under more and more fire in recent years because it makes it more difficult to fire experienced teachers, even if they are incompetent. Every school system has a horror story: a Los Angeles teacher kept his job even after making fun of a student’s suicide attempt, a teacher from Florida threw books in the classroom but was able to hold on to her job for an entire year. New York City teachers are usually granted tenure after three years in the classroom. Before this they are considered “on probation” and can be fired at the discretion of the principal, but once tenure has been granted they are guaranteed due process of law.
This means that any attempt to fire a tenured teacher must involve a hearing before the justice department. However, less than .02 percent of New York City teachers were fired last year, in part because the process is so expensive—the city pays 250,000 dollars in lawyers’ fees and other costs simply to fire one teacher for incompetence. The process can often take many months, and until they have been officially fired, all teachers will receive their full salary plus benefits and vacation. Instead of working in the classroom, they report to a “rubber room” from 8:15 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., being paid to do essentially nothing.
“The UFT contract makes it excessively difficult to fire a teacher for incompetence. The burden of proof is on me, until then the teacher is considered innocent,” Teitel said.
Whereas in most industries employees can be fired if they are unneeded even if they have done nothing wrong, in the school system, excess teachers who are not hired by a school are placed in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool (ATR), to be called in as substitutes when needed. These teachers still receive full pay and benefits. As Schools Chancellor Joel Klein shuts down more and more large, failing schools, more and more tenured teachers are finding themselves without jobs. Principals are often reluctant to hire teachers who come from failed schools and older teachers who require higher salaries, so they enter the ATR and increase its ranks even further. Because it is so rare for principals to hire more experienced teachers who require a larger salary, teachers almost never leave the ATR pool.
According to a report published by the New Teacher Project, last year the city spent 74 million dollars paying teachers who weren’t working in a classroom. Klein and Teitel have cited the large number of teachers in the ATR as a major reason for possible upcoming budget cuts.
Though teacher tenure has become a popular punching bag for politicians proposing to reform the education system, there are many who believe that it is necessary to protect teachers. They argue that tenure does not equal lifetime job security and that the system protects teachers from being subject to the whims of principals. They point to the years before the UFT was established, when principals complete authority over the curriculum and teachers could be fired for political or religious beliefs.
According to a survey “Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today” conducted this spring by Public Agenda, 66 percent of teachers thought that eliminating tenure would not improve teacher effectiveness. Meanwhile, 58 percent of teachers felt that tenure protects teachers from district politics, favoritism, and the threat of losing their jobs to newcomers who could work for less.
“Tenure prevents abuses such as favoritism, vindictiveness, arbitrariness or political pressure and allows teachers to take the legitimate risks necessary to teach kids,” said retired teacher Anne Millman in an April 2008 article titled “Tenure process is kept fair” on the UFT Web site.
Additionally, the UFT argues that tenure doesn’t even guarantee a job for life.
“Tenure […] doesn’t “guarantee” anybody anything — except a fair hearing before they can be disciplined or fired,” former UFT president Randi Weingarten wrote in “Tenure: Mine, yours, and theirs,” on the UFT Web site. Weingarten also argues that many teachers leave the profession because their jobs don’t have enough benefits.
“Thousands of new teachers leave every year and never come up for tenure. They leave because they are disappointed with the lack of support and resources, with the quality of leadership, with the failure to enforce discipline and with the lack of professional respect they are accorded,” Weingarten said.
Another controversial component of the UFT contract is the section which stipulates that teachers are to be paid solely based on years in the school system and their level of education.
In an opinions piece published in the Daily News on Sunday, November 1 titled “It’s time to tear up the teachers’ contract that protects mediocre educators, dooms kids to failure,” social studies teacher Matthew Polazzo advocated providing incentives for teachers to work harder and be better teachers.
“I think that NYC teachers are amazing and some of my peers here are unbelievably incredible, but I think that those people who work really hard should be rewarded for it. We cannot depend on altruism because then we really have no solution when people choose not to be altruistic. Why should a teacher work hard when it means that there’s a greater risk of burnout?” Polazzo said. “I have all kinds of demands on my time. I need something that incentivizes me to really focus my energies on the students that I’m teaching. I think that the students of New York could really benefit from this and frankly so could the teachers. You know, many of us work beyond hours that we’re supposed to. Why not have a system that rewards us for that work?”
However, paying teachers based on merit can be extremely complicated. Though merit pay has many proponents, few have a definite idea of how merit might be determined. Giving principals the discretion to decide which teachers deserve bonuses leaves a great deal of room for favoritism and political patronage.
On the other hand, there are few objective measures which can be used to gauge teacher performance. Standardized test scores are unreliable and often inflated by schools and school systems, and hinging a teacher’s salary on students’ scores could encourage even more widespread cheating. Such a system would also favor higher performing schools, which tend to be in wealthier neighborhoods, thereby punishing teachers who choose to work with underprivileged students.
“A school with large numbers of low-income children, high residential mobility, great family stress, little literacy support at home, and serious health problems may be a better school even if its test scores are lower than another whose pupils do not have such challenges,” said Richard Rothstein, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute who conducted a study on teachers, performance pay, and accountability.
Merit pay systems can be difficult to implement as well.
Texas adopted merit pay in 2006, but the system had to be revamped two years later after the majority of schools participating in the program performed below standards. Of 1,000 schools in the program, 669 were forced to terminate bonus payments to teachers for failing to meet the standards of the program. Because schools’ performances vary from year to year, the effectiveness and consistency of such incentives is shaky at best.
“How effective can a merit pay system be when you have that much turnover from year to year, where teachers have to think what is here today could be gone tomorrow?” Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers’ Association said in a Dallas News Article, “Texas officials ready to revamp teachers’ merit pay,” published on October 7, 2008.
However, in some school districts the introduction of merit pay for teachers has led to noticeable improvements. In Louisiana 28 public schools have implemented a merit pay program. Teachers in these schools are evaluated four times a year rather than once every three years, and according to a March 14, 2009 article in the Times-Picayune titled “Merit pay for teachers garners praise from Obama and local schools,” the new system has been very successful. One participating school saw a 20 point increase in its school performance score—a function of graduation rates, standardized test scores, and attendance—since the program began in 2002. That’s a near 25 percent increase in spite of the fact that the school was heavily affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The idea of linking salaries to teachers’ performance has gained favor with the federal government as well. This July, President Barack Obama and United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled a new “Race to the Top” competition, which would provide more than $4 billion in grants to states whose school systems the rest of the country. However, only states that allow school systems to use test scores to evaluate teachers and principals—and use these evaluations to calculate pay—are eligible for a grant.
In spite of this federal support, few teachers think that merit pay would lead to improvements in the classroom. According to the same Public Agenda survey, 67 percent of teachers felt that tying teacher rewards to student performance would not improve teacher effectiveness.
A New Contract – a New Start?
The renewal of the UFT contract provides the city with an opportunity to address these issues. Whatever changes will be made, and what the final contract will look like, are still subject to debate.
“What I would ask is that the union really focus its efforts on increasing quality instruction and especially ensuring that young teachers get a lot of support,” Polazzo said. “At this point I would just advocate a union that fights more for those individuals who are more powerless.”
And although union members defend many aspects of the current contract, they too are open to reform.
“No entity, including the teachers’ union, is perfect,” former UFT president Randi Weingarten said in an advertisement placed in the New York Times. “But I would challenge anyone who thinks that teachers’ unions exist to block reform and defend the status quo to rethink that assumption.”
Stuyvesant’s UFT Chapter Chairperson Megan Breslin declined to comment for this article.