Head of the Class

Change is coming to public education, especially in New York City. The teachers’ union must decide whether it will be an agent of or an obstacle to genuine reform. Unfortunately, it seems clear which way the union is leaning.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the nation the other day that he will do away with pro-forma tenure in the city’s public-school system. That welcome announcement came during a national television appearance during which the mayor also announced plans for a new high school that will partner with City University of New York–another institution that has been reformed and revitalized despite the opposition of skeptics–and IBM to provide associate’s degrees and a guaranteed job to graduates.

The mayor’s new program for tenure, designed to avoid handing out jobs for life to incompetent or disinterested teachers, includes a rating system that will be based on test scores, observations and service to the school and the community. The days when more than 99 percent of teachers routinely won a job for life are over–and New Yorkers should be grateful for that. Mr. Bloomberg noted that he has set the bar higher for students, so now it’s time to do the same for teachers.

The mayor’s other announcement–the creation of a high school that will educate students from grades 9 to 14–also shows the kind of creativity that can take place when elected officials and creative administrators are not shackled by outdated work rules and intransigent union officials. The high school, the first of its kind in the nation, will offer traditional course work but will also include college-level classes. Students will graduate with an associate’s degree in computer science and with a standing job offer from IBM.

Meanwhile, as all of this creativity unfolds, the teachers’ union has been very active–in support of members who are annoyed that their rubber-room privileges have been taken away. The city, with the approval of the United Federation of Teachers, announced several months ago that teachers under disciplinary review no longer would be sent to a room to do crossword puzzles and read newspapers (not that there’s anything wrong with that) for months at a time. Instead, they are now assigned administrative tasks at the School Construction Authority and other places–sometimes requiring a new and longer commute.

The teachers aren’t happy with the new arrangement, and have filed grievances with the Department of Education in an effort to get back their rubber-room membership. The union is supporting the aggrieved. Solidarity forever!

So while the union tries to make life easy for teachers who have been suspended and would rather not work during their review, Mr. Bloomberg and other innovators are creating a new paradigm in urban education. And it’s badly needed. If you don’t think so, run to your local theater to catch a new documentary, Waiting for Superman. It follows the stories of five families desperate to win the lottery–no, not the one that makes you rich. The winners in this lottery get a chance to attend a charter school. The losers–well, sadly, they have no choice but to attend a local public school.

Reformers are determined to make that choice a happier one. Those who oppose change have some explaining to do. 

Head of the Class