New Yorkers Give Schools Mediocre Grade

Published January 1, 2004

Three out of four New Yorkers gave the city’s public schools mediocre or failing grades, and the city’s poorest residents were the most unhappy with school performance, according to a recent survey of 1,012 respondents conducted by the Community Services Society and released in December.

Just one in four respondents gave the schools a grade of B or higher, and two out of three said that getting a city high school diploma doesn’t mean graduates are prepared to get a decent job.

New York Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein rates the schools higher than that, but not by much. He said in October that at least half of the city’s public school students aren’t getting a basic education.

“[W]e are not providing at least half of our students with the skills they need to compete in the globalized, service-based economy of the 21st century,” he declared in a remarkably candid article in the October 23 New York Post.

But this is nothing new, he also admitted, because “we have known that public education has been failing many students” for more then three decades, during which time there has been “constant educational reform resulting in virtually no real change.”

With Mayor Michael Bloomberg now in control of the schools, an effort is under way to undo the old system and replace it with one “that all New Yorkers would be proud to have their children attend,” he said. The organizational structure has been streamlined, a new curriculum has been implemented, and new leadership is expected from principals.

Union Rules

Even with these changes, school operations still are micro-managed by the rules and regulations embodied in hundreds of pages of union contracts. Current provisions in teacher contracts “mean there is no employee accountability in the system, no meritocracy, and no incentive to take risks or innovate,” said Klein, arguing the system must undergo a “radical transformation.”

Because of the restrictive work rules:

  • The very best and very worst teachers are paid based on length of service, not student performance;
  • The least-experienced teachers are disproportionately assigned to the most challenging schools and classes;
  • Incentive pay isn’t available to attract teachers in shortage areas, like math and science; and,
  • It’s virtually impossible to remove incompetent teachers in a timely fashion.

Klein admitted there are “several thousand” incompetent teachers in the system but explained it takes years to go through the teacher-removal process, after which an arbitrator could easily put the incompetent teacher back in the classroom.

“No one wants a truly incompetent teacher–one who is perpetually late or absent, one who doesn’t know grammar or how to spell, one who can’t do basic math–teaching his or her child,” said Klein. “Yet the fact is that we have quite a few of them in the system today and there is, as a practical matter, very little we can do about it.”

But three weeks later, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was offering a proposal to streamline the grievance procedure governing teacher removal and reduce it to just two steps. What happened in the interim was that City Councilwoman Eva S. Moskowitz, chairwoman of the Education Committee, exposed details of union work rules in four days of public hearings in early November.

“These rules affect every aspect of the operation of our schools and in many ways these rules have been a mystery to parents and the general public,” said Moskowitz.

She provided a separate summary of the key provisions of the hundreds of pages of collective bargaining rules for teachers, principals, and custodians. Among the provisions:

  • Seniority, not job proficiency, is the key factor in hiring, and a principal may receive several new teachers, sight unseen, on the first day of school;
  • Middle and high school teachers may not be scheduled to teach more than 3.75 hours a day;
  • Schools must consult with the local union chapter committee before setting the agenda for a faculty conference;
  • Teachers are prohibited from patrol duty in the cafeteria or in the halls;
  • “Adequate supplies will be made available in teacher washrooms in schools,” and the Department is required to provide pay telephones and vending machines for teacher use.

Contracts for custodians also contained many restrictions:

  • Seniority is paramount: “The Custodian’s skill set, specific experiences and overall performance rating are not directly taken into consideration” in transfer requests;
  • Custodians are responsible for painting one-fifth of their school each year, but are prohibited from painting anything other than “walls to the height of 10 feet or the height of picture molding (whichever is less)”;
  • Custodians must replace broken door hinges but may not order the parts;
  • Custodians must replace loose or missing floor tiles, but may not replace more than 75, 150, or 200 tiles per month depending on the size of the school.

“Nobody seems to want to claim authorship for these work rules,” commented Klein, while Bloomberg compared the teachers’ contract to the way the former Soviet Union had tried to run things.

Weingarten claimed teachers were being “demonized” by Bloomberg and Moskowitz, and asked, “If teaching under this contract is such a cushy job, why do one in four new teachers leave within a year, 40 percent within three years?”

A likely answer to Weingarten’s question was suggested by Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency. Antonucci pointed to the restrictive transfer provisions in the teacher contract:

“Each year, the number of teachers who will be permitted to transfer out of a school hereunder shall be equal to five percent of the teaching faculty of the school on regular appointment; provided, however, that in the junior high schools and the high schools no more than 25 percent of the regularly appointed teachers in the school holding a particular license will be permitted to transfer. When the teaching faculty of the school on regular appointment numbers less than 20, one transfer shall be permitted, and when it numbers 21-39, two transfers shall be permitted. Where 25 percent of the regularly appointed teachers in a particular license would be less than one, then one teacher will be permitted to transfer.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Joseph Klein’s October 23, 2003 article in the New York Post, “Unions Vs. Kids,” is available through the Post‘s online edition at

The hearing transcripts and Education Committee’s “Council Notes” summarizing the key provisions of the contracts for teachers, principals, and custodians in New York City are available online at the Web site of Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz at