Wednesday, January 25, 2017

NYC Council hearings on teacher retention & a disappointing budget from the Mayor

 Yesterday afternoon the City Council Education Committee held hearings on teacher recruitment and retention at City Hall; at the same time Mayor de Blasio was presenting his budget proposal for Fiscal 2018.  Both held special relevance to the issues of class size and school overcrowding that are so critical to the quality of education in this city.

At the hearings, Amy Way of  DOE's Office of Teacher Recruitment and Quality and Anna Commitante, Senior Executive Director of the Office of Curriculum, faithfully repeated the Chancellor's mantra that the best strategy to support teachers and prevent them from quitting is to provide them with "80 minutes of rigorous weekly professional development" and "high-quality curricula".

Yet four different Council Members pressed them on the need for class size reduction to stem the tide of teachers leaving our schools, and asked them what if anything they were doing anything to lower c class size:  Education Committee Chair Danny Dromm, as well as Council Members Mark Treyger, Inez Barron and Margaret Chin.  Not coincidentally, Dromm and Treyger were teachers in NYC public schools before being elected to the Council, CM Barron was formerly a NYC teacher and a principal, and CM Chin is married to a public school teacher and once taught ESL classes herself.

CM Barron confronted them about the fact that most of the Renewal schools still have class sizes of 30 and that they should be addressing that condition if they want to give teachers a real chance to succeed and keep them from fleeing these schools.  All these other efforts will be useless until and unless they address this critical factor.   The DOE did not respond. 

Dromm pointed out that many NYC teachers leave to teach in the suburbs because class size is much lower there; he himself had had classes as large as 38 students in middle school.  Treyger said that it was very difficult to provide enough support to students, especially English Language Learners who have recently come to this country,  with class sizes this large as. Chin asked if the DOE had any class size goals they were aiming for; Commitante just repeated the average class sizes, and cited no intention of bringing them any lower.

CM Mark Levine questioned what strategies were being using to stem high rates of teacher attrition especially at struggling schools, where turnover rates are high, and DOE responded with the usual nostrum that they are building "professional learning communities" in these schools.  CM Treyger pointed out that the label of "Renewal" schools hardly helps attract teachers or students; who would go to a hospital called a Renewal hospital? he asked.

Dromm also criticized the Fair Student Funding system, which incentivizes principals not to hire experienced teachers or to try to offload them, as they cost as much as two new teachers.  He argued   that the DOE should cover the cost of staffing schools rather than make principals pay for teacher salaries out of the school's limited budget,  as happened in the pre-Bloomberg years.  He said that the Council was thinking of passing a resolution on this issue.  The DOE officials just shrugged their shoulders and said they didn't think this was a problem.  Several Council Members brought up the need to increase the diversity of the NYC teaching force, which the DOE claimed they were working hard to fix.

After a bit more of this, Karen Alford of the the UFT testified . She gave short shrift to class size and just mentioned in passing that it would be good if first or second year teachers had a chance to have smaller classes. Shael Suransky -- remember our former Deputy Chancellor? - now head of Bank St. College talked at length about the importance of teacher residency programs. This, he said, is especially important to train teachers of ELLs,  22% of whom are diagnosed with disabilities, showing something is very wrong in our schools.  A professor from Teachers College said that requiring applicants submit GRE scores to graduate-level teacher education programs as now mandated by the New York State Education Transformation Act of 2015 was pointless and exclusionary, and would further cut down on the diversity needed for the teaching force.

I testified as well.  My testimony, on the proven positive impact of small classes on teacher retention,  is here.

At the same time, I was eager to hear what the Mayor was announcing about next year's budget plan. The day before, NY1 had announced that he would propose nearly doubling the seats in the school capital plan:

"There is nothing more important to our families than their children and we have a lot of overcrowded schools," the mayor said Monday night on the Road to City Hall. "This is an area where we have to make an impact."

On Tuesday, the mayor will propose his new budget for the year ahead. In it, he will almost double the number of new school seats, meaning he will add about 38,000 seats.

This made me quite hopeful; perhaps De Blasio would finally do the right thing and fully fund at least the DOE's estimate for the need for new seats.  The 38,000 was not just a random figure -- but the unfunded seats in the current 2015-2019 five-year capital plan, which includes about 45,000-50,000 seats. (Our estimate of the actual need for seats is much higher.)

Yet it turned out that the Mayor was promising to fund these seats not now, not in the current plan, but in the 2020-2024 plan -- several years from now.   By that point, of course, our schools will likely be even more overcrowded given the current pace of residential development.

As is customary, one capital plan rolls into another, as few of the 45,000 or so in the current plan will  be built by the time the new plan is adopted.  In fact, only about one fifth of these seats have yet even been sited.

Late in the afternoon, I asked Ben Max of Gotham Gazette who was tweeting out highlights from the Mayor's announcement what the story was on the school capital plan:

Ben Max tweeted back a photo of the Mayor's announcement:

Then the DOE's press officer interjected:

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