RIP rubber rooms

End of rubber rooms a "big deal," but bigger issues remain

When he announced that he would close the city’s infamous rubber rooms yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared, “To say that this is a big deal is an understatement.”

The agreement will shutter the reassignment centers where teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence wait idly for their cases to be heard, a process both the city and union have accused each other of dragging on interminably. But the deal, which was struck outside of formal contract negotiations, does little to resolve the most contentious issues the city and union have long fought over.

Yesterday’s rubber room agreement traded one largely-ignored time-line for hearing cases for a speedier one. Union and city officials pledged to strictly adhere to the faster schedule and clear out the backlog of cases by the end of the year.

“We want a faster, fairer process,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. “That’s the way this process should work and that’s what this agreement does.”

The deal does little to make it easier to fire teachers for incompetence, a major goal of the Bloomberg administration that the union bitterly opposes.  Nor does it address a costlier problem: the pool of teachers who remain on the city’s payroll after losing their positions to school budget cuts or school closings.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Bloomberg said the delay in reforming the expensive process lay mostly in a lack of political will to change.

“Over the years nobody paid attention to the cost of delay,” Bloomberg said, arguing that much of the arbitration work that has taken years in some cases under the current system could actually have been done in weeks.

“There’s never been any pressure to do so,” he said. “We can’t afford to do that anymore.”

City officials said that they expect the faster arbitration schedule to significantly reduce the $30 million a year they say is currently spent paying teachers to sit and do nothing while they wait for their cases to be heard.

“I think over time we should be able to recapture a significant sum of that and put it back in the classroom,” Chancellor Joel Klein said.

But any savings from the new process likely will not materialize for months, as the city ramps up its short-term efforts to clear the backlog of nearly 650 cases, which city and union officials today pledged to resolve by December.

“The big issue is going to be myself and the chancellor going before the arbitration board and explaining what the expectations are,” Mulgrew said. “I don’t think that’s ever been done before.”

To speed up the hearing process, the city plans to increase the number of arbitrators who hear teachers’ cases from 23 to 39, and to increase the number of days per month arbitrators hear cases from five to seven. The city is accordingly also planning to hire more lawyers and investigators who handle cases of teacher misconduct and incompetence, city officials said. Union officials said they would push for more cases to be settled rather than go through hearings, which would speed up the process even more.

Under the new process, the city will have 60 days after removing a teacher from the classroom to bring charges of misconduct and 10 days to charge a teacher with incompetence. If the DOE fails to bring charges during that time, the teacher will automatically return to the classroom. This is a major change from the previous system, under which the city’s six month deadline to issue charges was sometimes ignored.  Some teachers sat in reassignment centers for months or even years without charges.

City officials are also hoping to shorten the time between when charges are filed and when teachers’ hearings begin. Under the new system, hearings must start two weeks after teachers request them. Most teachers are now supposed to have 10 to 14 hearing days over the next two months, and arbitrators will now be expected to hand down a decision within a month of the final hearing. Extensions to this period under “extraordinary circumstances” are legally allowed, but yesterday’s agreement instructs hearing officers to make extensions “the exception and not the rule.”

The deal calls for the small minority of teachers charged with non-fireable offenses to go through an even faster process of a 3-day hearing.

The mayor dodged a question about whether the rubber room announcement will have any effect on the city’s stalled teachers contract negotiations with the union, which formally entered the mediation process on Wednesday. The city’s negotiation wishlist includes a demand that teachers who have been charged and are awaiting a trial be removed from the city’s payroll until they’re found innocent. It’s unclear if the city intends to pursue its demands for more flexibility in firing as it enters the mediation stage.

Here is the official text of the agreement that Klein and Mulgrew signed yesterday:

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.