Letter: Orwellian quality control over teachers in New York City

November 28, 2007


I’m sending you this recent memo that our “Chancellor” (Joel Klein, the equivalent of your “CEO” Arne Duncan) sent to all New York’s “good” teachers. I know that some of the salary numbers will raise eyebrows in Chicago (have your salaries gone up “43 percent” the last five years?), but think the “Good Teacher/Bad Teacher” material is most important.

As you know, some of the training for managers (principals) in New York’s schools is now under the control of Jack Welch. Welch once ran General Electric based on the philosophy that you should always be in the process of firing the “least effective” 20 percent of your “people” and making the other 80 percent watch. You can read Welch’s material every week in Business Week or in his books if you want to know more. The question is: Should schools be managed the same as places that produce light bulbs?

New York Chancellor Joel Klein obviously believes in this method. You used to call this “Good Teacher/Bad Teacher” — which seems to be the Orwellian game that Klein is trying to play with the people who received the following letter last week.

We were sent this (to ICE) by several teachers. Some are calling it Klein’s justification for his “hit squad.” New York is also sending teachers out of schools and into “Rubber Rooms” without even informing them of charges against them.

Norm Scott

New York City

Letter from New York Chancellor Joel Klein to New York City’s “good” teachers

November 26, 2007

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing you to honor your extraordinary work on behalf of the children of New York City. Over the past several years, because of your dedication and talent, our students have made real progress. Graduation rates have risen significantly, as has virtually every other indicator of increased student learning. These are not just numbers. They bear directly on the life outcomes of children, from future employment and earnings potential to health and even incarceration rates. You are changing lives for the better every day. I can assure you that Mayor Bloomberg joins me in offering his deepest gratitude for all that you are doing, and have done, to contribute to our students’ progress.

As we move forward together, I take great pride in knowing that that all of us — UFT President Randi Weingarten, the Mayor, and I - share a common appreciation of the importance of your work. Indeed, the research on this point is overwhelming. As the UFT recently reaffirmed, the single greatest factor in improving student learning, especially for our neediest students, is the quality of the teacher in their classroom. Students who are blessed with teachers who have an established record of improving achievement prosper - indeed, so much so that researchers have suggested that our shameful racial achievement gap would narrow dramatically if all our students were fortunate enough to be in their classrooms. But, not surprisingly, the opposite is also true. When high-needs students find themselves taught by teachers with a history of poor success in improving student achievement, the gap widens, and many students never recover.

That is why we are so committed to attracting, supporting, and retaining the best teachers in the nation. Since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, we have increased teacher salaries by 43%. Last month, UFT President Weingarten joined the Mayor and me in announcing an innovative school-wide performance bonus plan to reward teachers in high-needs schools that are succeeding for students. But, even more important than financial considerations, we are committed to providing the professional support and ongoing training necessary to enable every New York City teacher to be successful. Since 2002, for example, we have invested billions of dollars in professional development and mentoring for our educators. But we also know that factors related to school environment are critical to teachers. That is one reason we are committed to class-size reduction. This year alone we expect to have more than 1,300 additional teachers in our classrooms.

If I could have one wish granted, it would be that these and countless other measures were uniformly effective — that every single educator who works in our schools would not only succeed for children, but choose to remain with us for a long and successful career. There are indeed some hopeful signs. Teacher retirements and total separations from service are down this year compared to last. The resignation rate of our first and second year teachers is also dramatically down from 2001-2002. Moreover, the City is now attracting five teaching candidates for each new opening. Clearly, educators view our schools as desirable places in which to pursue their careers.

It would be naïve, however, for me or anyone else to believe that these measures will be 100% successful in ensuring effective teachers in every classroom. Given the extraordinarily high stakes for our children’s future, we cannot in good conscience avoid confronting the reality that not every teacher meets even a minimal threshold of effectiveness, as measured by how much their students actually learn.

On this point as well there is complete unanimity. The UFT and its President have been admirably candid in this regard. For example, a few years ago Ms. Weingarten noted in a speech to the Association for a Better New York that, even as a labor leader, it was important to deal with the issue honestly, “because this is a union not about just keeping people,” but about “keeping qualified people.” Perhaps most interesting of all, I hear regularly from many of you how frustrating it is to achieve great things for your students only to see those gains disappear when they are handed over to a colleague who is demonstrably not up to the job. Here too, we are all in complete agreement. As President Weingarten observed, “the overwhelming majority of our teachers don’t want to see incompetent or otherwise unqualified teachers in the classroom next to them.”

For these reasons, I was disappointed when a recent effort to expand our capacity to address this issue was so badly misunderstood and mischaracterized. Last year, only 10 out of 55,000 tenured teachers were removed from their position for incompetence. That’s two tenths of one percent. I do not believe that anyone can responsibly defend this miniscule percentage as appropriate. Given the research that children’s lives are profoundly and negatively affected by truly poor instruction, all of us have a moral duty to address this issue honestly and openly.

Accordingly, last week I announced steps to provide schools the support they need to handle the real burden of designing and providing intensive assistance to struggling tenured teachers — and then, but only then, take action if those efforts are unsuccessful over a reasonable period of time. To describe these modest steps as something bigger than it is, I believe, represents an unfair characterization that serves only to sow unwarranted concern. We are committed to providing the support and training necessary to help every teacher succeed and want to work with you and the UFT to find more and better ways to do so. (I am extremely grateful to the UFT for the collaboration that resulted in the Peer Intervention “Plus” Program, which holds great promise.) And, of course, I am equally committed to honoring the carefully structured procedures we have agreed to with the UFT, which are specifically designed to guard against arbitrariness. But, as uncomfortable is it may be, we cannot in good conscience simply ignore the concern when support and development prove unsuccessful.

I regret the confusion and concern that the public conversation on this issue has caused and, specifically, our role in it. At the same time, I hope you have the same confidence in yourselves as professionals as I do. As I said at the outset, all but the tiniest minority of teachers are doing good, and often outstanding, work. Our teachers are heroes, one and all, and I am deeply grateful to them. Let’s move forward together to continue to make the great strides for all our students that your talent, dedication, and hard work deserves.


Joel I. Klein


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