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Should we un-do due process?

February 23, 2011
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With all the recent attacks on teachers’ due process rights, and on teacher unionism and organizing, continuing reports of retaliation against ethical teachers continue to disturb me. For instance, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported on teacher whistleblowers who have been targeted for helping expose local testing scandals there:

His bosses had no trouble dismissing Ryan Abbott’s report of cheating on standardized tests in an Atlanta school. They simply cast him in a self-fulfilling role, Abbott says: “disgruntled teacher.”

Abbott was already on probation, after four years at Benteen Elementary. His students had not posted the big increases in test scores seen in other classrooms. Yet he had the audacity to level charges against a popular colleague. After word of Abbott’s allegations spread through the school, Benteen’s principal opened an ethics case — against him.

“It’s put me in a very difficult spot,” said Abbott, whose job security remains tenuous even though state authorities corroborated his claims of cheating at Benteen. “It’s a tough place to be.”

Abbott’s experience illustrates the perils that befall Atlanta Public Schools teachers who report cheating or other wrongdoing, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

Miles away in New York City, another teacher shared his story about how unfair evaluations followed his and other teachers’ complaints about an abusive administrator:

As Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Cathie Black are pushing to be able to lay off senior teachers on “merit” grounds, my experience at the Bronx High School of Science raises questions about how teachers’ ratings are handed out.

The national education debate has centered on how to increase “teacher quality.” New York City Chancellor Cathie Black, for example, has called for first laying off teachers who were given “unsatisfactory” (U) ratings (along with those in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool). But there are more than a few cases in New York City that make clear that U-ratings are not always an indication of teacher quality, but sometimes are a result of retaliation against whistle-blowers and union activists.

The recent disciplining of Fordham School of the Arts principal Iris Blige for ordering her assistant principals to U-rate teachers whom she had never seen teach reveals a few important things about the DOE’s process of determining merit. First, U ratings can be arbitrarily ordered by a principal. Second, the penalty from the DOE for doing so is a slap on the wrist — a $7,500 fine for Blige, the same amount charged to teachers who used sick days when they were actually on vacation.

I was unfortunate enough to have witnessed this process firsthand at the Bronx High School of Science. In the fall of 2007, the math department welcomed a new assistant principal, Rosemarie Jahoda. Soon, however, we found that the newer teachers in the department were being subjected to a level of scrutiny and paperwork that was excessive. As soon as I spoke up about the issue, which was my responsibility as a member of a UFT consultation committee that met with the principal, I immediately began receiving unjustified disciplinary letters.  These were quickly followed by groundless unsatisfactory lesson observation reports. I had had a spotless teaching record for my entire previous career, including at Bronx Science.

I was not alone. My newer colleagues were warned against speaking to their more senior coworkers. They were reduced to tears in meetings with the AP, and yelled at in front of their students. One was fired; others soon left. Senior teachers were not spared the abuse — one was called “disgusting” by AP Jahoda after speaking up in a department meeting.

As a result, 20 of us (out of a department of 22) filed a harassment grievance in 2008 against our AP and Principal Valerie Reidy. After spending eight full hearing days over the span of one school year, a neutral fact-finder substantiated our complaints, concluding that the “the totality of Jahoda’s treatment of teachers … constitutes harassment.”

The DOE, however, completely dismissed her findings, and has substantiated my U-rating as well as those of some of my colleagues, in its rubber-stamp “appeals” process. As a result, I’ve been forced to turn to the courts for relief. Oral arguments in a lawsuit against the DOE were held this week.

Misinformation about teachers’ job protections, a hostile sociopolitical climate, and the pressure to trim budgets is putting a number of teachers into threatening situations, where their professional livelihoods (and emotional well-being) are concerned. How do we expect to attract and retain talented teachers when so many will face injustice on the job? How can we grow an effective, productive school system when we push out the most ethical, dedicated professionals? How can teachers put students first when we’re busy looking over their shoulders all the time, trying to do incredibly difficult work in toxic, fear-driven school environments? How can we expect students to learn and prosper when the adults around them are bullied and stressed to the brink?

Simple answer: we can’t. Toxic work environments for adults are toxic learning environments for children– it’s impossible to put students first by leaving the people who support them vulnerable to unfair attack. Instead of launching political battles over teachers’ rights, we should be refocusing on building positive cultures in all schools, that ensure teacher quality before teachers take charge of a classroom and support continued professional growth.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Acacia permalink
    February 24, 2011 5:46 pm

    I’m stunned that that’s happening at Bronx Science of all places – by most indicators one of the best schools in the country.

    • February 28, 2011 9:27 am

      Yeah. That kind of trend is one of the things that has stunned me the most in the course of this project– I was expecting to see the kinds of bullying, harassment, & intimidation I experienced in “failing” schools, but more and more people are sharing stories about it happening everywhere– in suburbia, in highly-rated urban schools, etc. The overall schooling climate has become very difficult, especially given how much we lionize “tough” leaders who show little respect for people’s feelings or rights. It’s Joe Clark (& Michelle Rhee) all over again.

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