Speaking on the first day of school last week, Michael Mulgrew said he was looking at a professional landmark. “This is the most excited I’ve been as president at the opening of a school year,” he said.
The United Federation of Teachers president had been touring schools over the previous couple of days and encountered some encouraging signs. Visiting a Staten Island classroom with Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, he watched pre-kindergarten Teacher Paige Buono on her first day as a Teacher. (“She was perfectly calm, she knew exactly what she needed to do,” Mr. Mulgrew said at a mayoral press conference touting the city’s pre-k expansion.)
He said there’s more support for new instructors like Ms. Buono than in the past. Alongside a more-collaborative environment for educators, he said, were a series of changes in the Teachers’ contract ratified last year. Those included 80 minutes per week of professional development, a career ladder that offers financial incentives for “master” and “model” Teachers, 162 PROSE schools that have charter-like flexibility in classroom size and schedules, and a pivot toward directing more resources to struggling schools instead of closing them, a tactic favored by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“We know that two years ago, morale was basically at an all-time low,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “My feeling is that now it’s definitely getting better.”
He said one of the UFT’s goals was to curb the exodus of educators who are burned out by what he called a lack of support from the bureaucracy and a lack of collaboration among school employees. He said four of every 10 Teachers leave the schools within their first three years, and his goal was to exceed an 80-percent retention rate within three years. (The most-recent statistics compiled by the union show that the three-year attrition rate among new instructors fell from 33 percent in the 2005-6 school year to 21.7 percent in 2011-12.)
A Need for Stability
“We’ve worked out all sorts of things in our system to make everything fast and fair but [the job’s] not for everyone. But the idea is we can’t have 40 percent of the people just walk away,” the UFT leader said. “It’s just not going to allow us to grow our school system, and there are better options now.”
By next June, the city’s teaching force will have increased by 7,000, to 121,500, over the past three years, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Mr. Mulgrew said the city has avoided the shortages that have been reported in other states.
He recalled when he started at Brooklyn’s William E. Grady High School in 1992. “I think in my first year, we had 10 unfilled positions for three months,” he said. “So every day you’d go into school and there would be what you call a coverage slip, extra work. And they would just be piled every morning before anyone called in sick.”
’90s Net Too Wide
He said he wanted to avoid a repeat of the situation in the late 1990s, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani sent recruiters to Austria and other countries to solve a shortage of qualified candidates. “Everybody forgets that happened, because we couldn’t get people to come to New York City to teach,” he said.
But the optimism belied recent political tensions over city schools. Mr. Mulgrew bristled when Governor Cuomo pushed to make Teacher evaluations more stringent, which the State Legislature approved in March. Those lawmakers in June refused to extend Mr. de Blasio’s mayoral control for longer than one year, and last fall, Mr. Cuomo ripped Teacher unions as protecting “public monopolies” as he somewhat successfully attempted to increase the number of charters in the state.
“We finally had this opportunity in New York City and we can feel that there’s this growing momentum and motivation,” Mr. Mulgrew said of the mood in city schools in the early months after the UFT contract ratification. “And then, at the state level, it was like five years ago nationally and they went backwards.”
The de Blasio administration has until next month to determine whether it will apply to the state Education Department for a “hardship” waiver that would delay a deadline for state approval of the newest set of Teacher evaluations. Mr. Mulgrew declined to discuss the negotiations he’s been having with the Department of Education, but said he wanted the measures simplified and not used as a distraction.
“What myself and the Chancellor and [Principals’ union president] Ernie Logan have decided is we’re going to try to isolate our schools as much as we can from the craziness from the state level,” he said. “We’ll do whatever we’re legally responsible for, but we know that stability is the key to education.”
But he agreed when the Governor earlier this month offered to impanel a commission including educators and experts to study the Common Core standards, following a dramatic increase in opt-outs of standardized tests. “I thought it was a good move; it’s a good first step,” the UFT president said. “I’m hopeful, but we’ll see what comes of it.”
Common Core Complaints
Among the complaints he’s heard are those from kindergarten through second-grade Teachers, who say standards are too advanced for the students, and that the rollout offered no curriculum to complement the assessments and standards. The former State Education Commissioner, John King, conceded flaws in introducing the standards.
Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers, said in a Sept. 9 television interview that she also supported Mr. Cuomo’s call. “Let’s finally have the conversations about things such as testing and the over-reliance on testing,” she said. “Let’s look at the Annual Professional Performance Review and what is happening. Let’s not have another botched implementation of the Common Core that we had the last time through.”
To kick off the school year, the UFT ran a weeklong radio ad condemning “politically-motivated attacks.” Several Teacher-union critics have pointed to the students trapped in “failing schools” and charter proponents—including Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who is floating a mayoral run—are reportedly planning a lower Manhattan rally later this month.
Changes Didn’t Work
“We’re going to make sure people know all of the things that are happening in our schools,’” Mr. Mulgrew said. “Let ’em come. They had it their way for over a decade…and they didn’t work,” he said. “They should just own up to the fact that their ideology, because none of it is based on actual research, their ideology is not what is good for the education of our students.”
He said the most-tangible, immediate improvements were the social services at UFT-run community schools and PROSE schools where his members were freely debating new teaching strategies after years of enduring criticism that they were “horrible, when for years we were great.”
“When you stop hearing that and you start seeing the things I just spoke about, that’s when you get happy and that’s when you start feeling that you really can make a difference,” the union leader said.