New York's Reserve Army of Unemployed Teachers


Not New York but Mr. Hand is still the man. And Fast Times is still Sean Penn's best work.

Brian Doherty details below how hard it is to fire teachers in the generally awful Los Angeles Unified School District.

Over at The New Republic, Seyward Darby chronicles how hard it is to fire New York City teachers who don't have any sort of permanent posting. They are the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) and they don't need no stinkin' classrooms:

They end up there after being displaced by school closings, program cuts, or voluntary transfers. Technically, they work as classroom substitutes, but, when they don't have temporary assignments, they spend their days in school offices, cafeterias, and break rooms. And they are not required to seek full-time positions. "Teach one year, get [displaced], never apply for another job, but, as long as you work as a sub at full salary, you can get tenure at the end of that," says Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a New York-based education advocacy organization that monitors the reserve closely. And some ATR teachers, it seems, are content to stay right where they are. "I'm happy now," one such teacher told TNTP researchers. "I don't have to prep, I don't have to grade tests, I don't have my own class. I don't really have to do anything."

Over the last three years, the city has shelled out almost $200 million to compensate ATR teachers. This school year alone, in the midst of a recession, TNTP has projected the reserve will cost about $75 million. "I could use those [millions] to spend on early childhood education or to fund retention strategies to get our greatest teachers to stay," an official at the city's Department of Education (DOE) says.

The punchline? "The ATR is part of what was supposed to be an effort to free New York from the stranglehold its powerful teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers."

More here.

Read "How to Fire an Incompetent Teacher," Reason's 2006 "epic spelunk" through New York City's godawful employment bureaucracy by John Stossel and Terry Colon.

Hat tip: Alan Vanneman.

NEXT: Driver's Ed

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  1. I need to get in on this teaching racket. Why exactly do public primary teachers need tenure? My understanding is that tenure is used to stop the state or controlling body from influencing what is researched or taught(to some degree) and academic freedom. Why in the hell does some assclown teaching the ABCs need tenure to protect his/her academic freedom. I detest tenure itself and the intended and unintended consequences of such a stupid concept. Especially when applied to a publicly funded school. To think that some teacher wiping runny noses and teaching elementary math has a need for tenure is fucking absurd and highlights the unintended and detrimental consequences quite well.

  2. Tenure also protects teachers from being fired on the malicious whim of a parent with pull because her kid was “mistreated” in the classroom (ie, got a B- instead of an undeserved A, or was asked to leave class b/c said kid was being disruptive). Or from a board summarily dismissing a teacher without any reason, so they could use nepotism to bring in family members or other preferred connections as teachers.

    Tenure charges are difficult to file and even more difficult to uphold. Quantifying a teacher’s “performance” is highly subjective – what do you use? Student opinions seldom count. My student’s love me and thrive under me, but my job is being advertised and I’ve been told I will not be back next year. I took their writing from 1’s and 2’s on the HSPA to respectable 4’s and a few 5’s, but still my performance is not considered favorable.

    Ah, NYC recruits heavily. I hear their radio ads often (I live in NJ). They offer lots of perqs for becoming a NYC teacher, one of them being tenure after only a year, but don’t tell you that you will be teaching in the worst, most violent or dangerous schools. I guess this program is how they can give tenure after one year.

    I have a strong philosophy that undergirds my teaching and I feel that many of my colleagues (some union, some not) have a similar philosophy, which the union undermines…but I don’t understand how these ATR teachers can still call themselves “teachers” with an attitude like “basically I don’t have to do anything.” It sounds trite, but I became a teacher because I saw something wrong with education and I wanted to “do something” to fix it. These people are an enormous suck not only on the finances of NYC schools, but also on the morale of their colleagues and the students whom they purport to serve.

    1. New York State law stipulates that teachers receive tenure after 3 years. This offer of tenure after one year is impossible.

  3. Why have something designed to protect academic freedom serve as a stop gap for malicious actions of the employer at the will of the student’s parents. Teachers in a right to work state should be held to the same standard as anyone else. I can be dismissed at the whim of the board. While the potential loss of my job at the companies whim is not the impetus for me to work diligently it is a motivating factor when things get tight. What separates teachers from every other person in the work force? Is it because we have socially put them on a pedestal? The idea is absurd at the upper levels of education and even more absurd at the lower levels.

    Nepotism occurs all the time within schools with tenure and the union present. Both of my wife’s sisters were hired within the district her father worked in for 20+ years. The were accepted directly out of college ahead of others with more experience. Schools work exactly the same as the rest of the world with respect to obtaining positions. It’s as much who you know as what you know.

  4. Like Lonewacko is drawn to a Home Depot parking lot to spy on day laborers, I’m drawn to an education thread to share my retard wrangler stories.

    There was a special ed teacher in a certain high school in Philly who had lived a hard life before she had a “Road to Damascus” style conversion. We knew this, because she would often divulge episodes of her life pre-conversion.

    Such as, “Drugs are evil. I know because I turned tricks to get crack. I did everything for crack. But no more! Praise Jesus!”

    Her daily lesson planning, for developmentally delayed adolescents with IQ’s ranging from squash to chimpanzee, was to show R rated movies. She particularly liked horror movies. As you might imagine, scenes from Saw VII: Dismembering a Boy Scout Troop made the tards nervous. The retard wranglers in the room were divided between those who thought this was irresponsible and those who hadn’t seen Saw VII yet, and wanted to give it a chance.

    However, the teacher would justify her actions: “This is real life. These kids are going to have to learn how to deal with it. When I was tricking for crack, I knew a girl who got snatched up by [famous Philadelphia serial killer Gary] Heidnick. But I don’t do that no more! Praise Jesus!”

    Working in concert with some of the concerned parents, tard wranglers eventually documented enough pre-Jesus whore stories, inappropriate movies, and other abuses to get the principal to issue the teacher a Letter of Warning.

    And they say there are no successes in public education! Praise Jesus!

  5. I see your point, hmm. I’ve never looked into it, but in a RtW state like NJ, do the state and other government entities (school boards) have different obligations to employees? Does RtW apply only to private entities?

    When I think of someone using academic freedom as a reason to fire or to protect a job, I think that there are too many shades of gray to navigate, which makes the tenure issue sticky. A teacher can protect his job by saying “you can’t fire me: I have the academic freedom to teach Anthem and the Book of Job, even though the parents don’t like it” and a parent can say “my child deserves the academic freedom to refuse to read the Book of Job – we are not religious: fire that teacher” (nevermind that Job can be read in a strictly secular context the same way the Bhagavad Gita can).

    A teacher is not really free to teach what s/he wants, anyway. Local curricula are fairly well defined and strictly upheld, and any deviation from the norm tends to result in unfavorable reviews, no matter how interesting or profitable the deviant lessons were for the student.

  6. Standard robc comment on all education threads:

    Separate school and state and these issues become “not our problem”.

    The question of whether the state has a different obligation than a private entity goes right away.

    Once again, problem solved.

    99 and 44/100ths of all education problems immediately go away by separation of school and state. Paryer in school? Dress codes? Speech restrictions? Tenure? Zero-tolerence policies? Hey, if thats what the customer wants, thats what the customer gets. And vice-versa.

  7. My understanding of RtW is that it does not apply to civil service jobs (not all governments and localities use civil service protocol) and the military. Outside of that the collective bargaining contract between the union and the district would apply. Which is one of the problems. Unions have been granted so much power that it is unheard of and impossible to reach an arms length agreement between a union and an employer. I’m sure there are a million other considerations, but none of them including the ones listed justify tenure at the university level and especially at the primary level.

  8. You don’t need to tell me about union power. I am faced with having to leave my current school, which is non-union, and looking for work in another district which will most certainly have a union membership majority. While not strictly required, union membership is a sort of condition for employment, especially if you do not want your colleagues to blackball you from activities and being a more integral part of your students’ lives. I would love to advise the newspaper or help direct the school play and coach cross country, but if not a member of the NJEA, my colleagues will not take kindly to my presence and participation in extracurriculars that garner pay, since my presence would exclude one of their fellow unioneers from making extra cash…sorry for the digression.

    As I pointed out to Sugar Free one day, I detest the union but will be forced to join one anyway. Non-union teachers still have to pay dues to the union (about 85% of the standard dues) since non-union teachers benefit from the contract negotiations the union reps engage in on behalf of all teachers in the district.

    A friend of mine works in a district that is losing its Title I status because – get this – they actually attained the goal of remediating their schools. Now many Title I Aides are losing their jobs (not that they do anything anyway. As part of my graduate work I’ve spent lots of time observing the aides and teachers in this district and I can’t see anything stellar in their performance. But given their student body, any progress is major). Title I aides are being laid-off by seniority, and no other indicators are being considered. This is keeping some been-around-too-long aides and teachers in the classroom to perpetuate the cycle that caused them to become a Title I district in the first place…I really don’t get the logic that allows this cycle to repeat itself.

  9. Abdul,

    I’m horrified at your description! And yet . . . I want to hear more stories! You sir, have got a hell of a hook.

  10. “I took their writing from 1’s and 2’s on the HSPA to respectable 4’s and a few 5’s”

    And this is why you can’t work there anymore, you’re making the other teachers look bad.

  11. How much did this district request/receive in stimulus funding so that it could ‘avoid layoffs and painful cuts due to strained budgets’?

  12. Actually, meerdahl, my department was small. I was one of only 4 English teachers in the HS and I taught writing enrichment on Saturdays in prep for the exam. I liked all of my colleagues very much and we were on point with each other at all times to provide the best.

    I think it has more to do with my maternity leave cleaving the school year in two, parent dissatisfaction with that fact, and my uh-oh, no you didn’t moment of bringing up evolution in the classroom. It offended one girl whose father is a minister and the mother demanded a written apology. At least the school defended me, saying secular discussion of the topic on an intellectual level is permitted and even encouraged. The girl is not terribly bright or intellectual and so was not able to understand some of the finer points of debate we were having in the sphere of our literature classroom. Her mother unenrolled her from the school and tried to persuade several other parents (also members of her husband’s church) to do the same. I was the bugaboo, so I have to go. Losing students means the school loses money (its a public charter) to the tune of $11 K per. THAT is why I believe I was not asked to return next year.

    You never know, though. The board could change its mind. The decision is not official, but I am not sure I want to go back to that position after this rigamarole.

  13. Madbiker, I sympathize, but frankly, an employee who disrupts operations and pisses off customers is an employee who is likely to be shown the door in most businesses, especially if the business has weak management.

  14. Wow, it’s like the UAW “Jobs Bank” that helped kill Detroit!

    Ever notice how often it happens that the public suddenly discovers some expense, wasteful benefit that public employee unions have? And that we never hear about it at the time they get the benefit, but only years later? My favorite example was a few years ago when it was discovered that San Francisco MUNI drivers had a clause in their contract allowing 10 “miss-outs” every year. They didn’t even have to call in sick, they could just not show up. No wonder it was hard to get the busses to run on time. That provision was stripped from the next contract, but how did it get there in the first place without a public outcry?

  15. Teachers, auto workers, same thing.

  16. It sounds trite, but I became a teacher because I saw something wrong with education and I wanted to “do something” to fix it.

    It sounds trite because it is. What’s wrong with “education” is how unnecessary most of it is.

  17. Teacher tenure and their unions are not directly related, in that tenure is mostly a creature of state statute, not of collective bargaining with individual school districts. Not to say that the unions don’t lobby in favor of such measures.

    Teachers are essentially like any other bureaucrat–essentially impossible to fire. Look at all the police officers who get “letters of reprimand” after doing truly horrific things.

    Even if we can’t privatize the schools, all forms of public employment should be at will. If you don’t like it, get another job.

  18. “Tenure also protects teachers from being fired on the malicious whim of a parent with pull because her kid was “mistreated” in the classroom (ie, got a B- instead of an undeserved A, or was asked to leave class b/c said kid was being disruptive). Or from a board summarily dismissing a teacher without any reason, so they could use nepotism to bring in family members or other preferred connections as teachers.”

    While problematic, doesn’t every sort of employment have those problems? Usually the response is not to make employees well-nigh unaccountable to anyone but their peers. Any other business that tried this would be failing miserably (and get bailed out at taxpayer expense, I suppose, so the net result is probably the same).

    If all parents were required to submit reviews of a teacher, then hopefully those few with an axe to grind would be counteracted by positive reviews from other parents. If schools rely on a complaint-based system instead, then there is a selection bias toward the worst outliers.

    Ultimately, as guardians of their children, parents are the ‘customer’ of the educational establishment. Their children are the beneficiaries, of course, but the system cannot really be performing better than when most parents are pleased with the education that their children receive.

  19. “Even if we can’t privatize the schools, all forms of public employment should be at will. If you don’t like it, get another job.”

    While I generally support this statement, the law of unintended consequences suggests this could actually worsen things if leads to a resurgence of treating bureaucratic positions as spoils for victorious political parties to distribute to their supporters, regardless of merit.

    As incompetent as some public employees can be, it is the worst cases (and our difficulties in resolving them to the benefit of society) that draw our attention, but they aren’t necessary representative. If 90% of teachers are reasonably competent, the ability to ditch the other 10% isn’t worth letting each new school board fire most of them to replace with people whose primary qualification is political connections and a desire to feed at the public trough.

  20. the law of unintended consequences suggests this could actually worsen things if leads to a resurgence of treating bureaucratic positions as spoils for victorious political parties to distribute to their supporters, regardless of merit.

    I think that would make things better, not worse. If you want to keep your job, you had darn well better give the public good service, because if you don’t your bosses are going to get voted out and you’ll be sacked along with them. The permanent civil service is the cause of problems, not the solution.

  21. In general, RC, I agree with your sentiments. Hey, I am not catering to a minority of parents whose children attend my school. If I cause parents to withdraw children (only 2 withdrew despite the mother’s lobby) then I should perhaps be fired. But I wonder what this girl really learned from the situation. Keep in mind: though I work(ed come June) at a charter school, my school was still “public” although alternative in its existence. We are not a private entity and are subject to state review and intervention if we do not show sufficient progress, etc., and there is no stated religious aim in our curriculum. The mother specifically requested that we place her daughter in a class that was studying material [admittedly] above her daughter’s level of comprehension; she thought (probably rightly or at least motivated by good intentions) that being in a classroom with more advanced and intellectual students would stimulate her own daughters intellect. Whenever the material ventured beyond 1) her daughters comprehension or 2) the child’s ability to venture beyond her moral grounds and absorb, agree with or refute arguments, I had problems with the student. She was not capable of functioning within this group despite attempts at facilitating debate, improving comprehension, giving opportunity for supplemental information, and involving the parents in the material being taught. I have a folder almost 2″ thick after just one school year, of things we’ve done to help her reading, writing, and comprehension. I’ve logged parent communication, meetings, interventions in concert with her other teachers…I could go on but it bores the general audience.

    I bring all of this up because I feel the need to defend my position in this situation. Did the discussion of evolution ever venture into religion? Yes and no; religion as a concept and a function of human cultures around the world, and as one which complicates the question of evolution versus creation: YES. Did I advocate one position over another, tell someone s/he was “wrong” because they believed a certain thing over another? Never. Not once. 22 other students in the class can back this up. The student in question was not able, at this time, to process and analyze the information she was receiving from the debate, and turned to her parents to resolve a situation too complicated for her to comprehend. Fair enough; except, has this girl now learned that whenever she is faced with something beyond her intellect, should she now beg favor from a more powerful force to shut down that source of information, rather than confront the information?

    In my mind, the point of education: public, private, secular, religious, classical or progressive, is to train a mind to take in information and then use that information to question anything new that is being presented. Rather than question and debate what was being presented by our in-class debate, this student could only shut down and turn to her parents to defend her closely-held beliefs. I do not want to undermine her faith or her family bonds, but at some point she has to learn to stand on her own. I don’t know if she drew any strength or any knowledge from the experience. She only knows, now, that if any teacher (or person in general) rubs her the wrong way, she has power to shut down that person’s speech, because it troubles her.

    I’m sorry for the long lament of this incident. It will trouble me for a while, I fear, and affect the way I teach.

  22. Like Lonewacko is drawn to a Home Depot parking lot to spy on day laborers, I’m drawn to an education thread to share my retard wrangler stories.


    But seriously, Abdul, she must not have actually been saying “Praise Jesus”. Those words supercede any tenure. That’s a fireable offense. On the spot. Now. Clean out your desk and take it outside, God Girl!

    “She was showing R rated movies with hard core violence and nudity… and she said ‘Praise Jesus’!”

    “What? You mean to tell me she said the ‘J’ word?”

  23. “This American Life” on NPR, of all places, had a great segment describing what life is like for teachers in New York’s “rubber room”:

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