School reform is tough. Getting results requires a number of key components. Most important, it takes qualified teachers. But also it takes working conditions that foster real progress, an accountability system that's fair and accurate, engaged parents, and collaboration among teachers and principals.
Today, teachers rightly feel that the school system still has little respect and appreciation for all their hard work making a difference in the lives of children. They will express their dissatisfaction this evening at a candlelight vigil at Department of Education headquarters in lower Manhattan.
What's behind their frustration? A growing sense that, after getting the school year off to a promising start, the department is relying on an unnecessarily punitive and counterproductive management style that is intended to create a climate of fear, rather than collaboration, in our city schools.
In recent weeks here in New York City, we've had a new "progress report" that rates all schools and a set of new national test score results that were not as positive as anyone would want.
Neither of these constitute a final word on the state of city schools — indeed, what they really seem to prove is that neither the federal No Child Left Behind Act nor the issue of school governance, whether through mayoral control or an independent board, is a panacea for helping all children succeed.
Recent disappointments, however, are not a license to resort to the tired, old argument of, "when it gets tough, blame the teachers," particularly when teacher turnover, mainly the number of teachers leaving the system on their own, is still too high, and trending upwards.
Those of us in the trenches know that many schools are moving in the right direction, but to continue this progress — and to do more — we must stay focused on what we know works.
We all agree that quality teaching lies at the heart of every successful school. And being a teacher in an urban public school system like New York is a tough job. Mayor Bloomberg deserves great credit for recognizing this and for working with the United Federation of Teachers to raise salaries for educators by more than 43% in the past six years.
But teachers will be the first to tell you that they aren't in it to get rich. They teach because it's important. They teach because they want to help kids.
That's why they need our support — especially in those difficult early years, when the challenges can be overwhelming. That's why we fight for teaching and learning conditions, such as lower class size, that make it possible to reach kids more personally, for mentoring programs that provide new teachers with guidance and for peer assistance programs help struggling teachers get back on track.
The peer intervention program we negotiated in the 1980s is designed to help identify those who should not be in the profession and counsel them out. More recently, in our last contract, once again we squarely addressed the issue of incompetence by building on the peer assistance concept and creating an independent cadre of experts to work with teachers whose skills are called into question by their principals for a three-to-six month period. Like its precursor, the program is designed to help teachers who are floundering and, if it can't, assists in a humane way with the process of termination.
When the program was announced last year, it was heralded as an exemplary way of taking on the issue of teacher competence. Its implementation began only a month ago, but instead of giving the new Peer Intervention Plus system time to work, the city recently announced a new way to "get rid" of teachers — an ominously named "teacher performance unit" headed by a prosecutor, rather than by educators.
Teachers learned about this new program from a news article and a memo sent citywide to principals. This was both a punch in the gut and a warning shot to a dedicated corps of professionals who deserve neither.
No one wants teachers who are not pulling their weight. Nor should anyone want good teachers to leave the system because they feel their work is neither appreciated nor respected. To ignore the difficulties many teachers face and simply look for them to trip up (or worse, to blame them for a school's bad score, or to punish them for speaking up when they see problems), sends a terrible message to our students and leads many teachers with great potential to give up and leave the profession entirely.
In many schools, teachers and principals have been working hard this school year, in the face of tremendous pressure and big changes, to work collaboratively in implementing the third reorganization of the system in five years.
But instead of building on and supporting the spirit of collaboration, the administration turned to a "gotcha" squad to add even more pressure to the significant load our teachers already bear.
Just a few weeks ago, the tone coming from the administration was very different. Together we hammered out a groundbreaking agreement that will implement voluntary school-wide bonuses in some of the city's highest needs schools. I touted this as a model of what can be achieved when unions and school management work together as equal partners toward common ground.
At the announcement, Mr. Bloomberg said that the new program takes into account that effective teaching requires teamwork and collaboration. That was the right message. Let's stop the "blame the teacher" routine and get back to working together on the real issues of education.
Ms. Weingarten is president of the United Federation of Teachers.