The Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR): Why is Bad Policy So Difficult to Abandon?

It’s embarrassing when leaders of school systems, or cities, or states adopt egregious policies based on false premises. The former governor of Kansas was convinced that if you drastically cut taxes the state economy with grow and create jobs.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s leadership of Kansas came to be synonymous with a single, unyielding philosophy: Cut taxes, cut the size of government, and the state will thrive.

But this week, Mr. Brownback’s deeply conservative state turned on him and his austere approach. Fed up with gaping budget shortfalls, inadequate education funding and insufficient revenue, the Republican-controlled Legislature capped months of turmoil by overriding the governor’s veto of a bill that would undo some of his tax cuts and raise $1.2 billion over two years.

At the end of July President Trump nominated Brownback as “Religious Ambassador at large,” removing him from Kansas politics.

A dozen years ago Dan Weisberg, at that time the head of Human Resources at the Department of Education under the Bloomberg/Klein administration negotiated a section of the teacher union contract: excess teachers would no longer be placed in vacancies in schools, they would be placed in a pool from which teachers could selected by principals to fill vacant positions, and, those not selected would continue to receive full benefits and serve as the equivalent of substitute teachers.. Joel Klein, the leader of the school system immediately began to trash the ATRs, they were “bad,” teachers, were under investigation, etc., and tried to get the state legislature to change the “last in, first out” seniority rules, rules that had been in place for decades.

The New York Post and other conservative sites supported Klein and the canard that ATRs, if they weren’t selected by principals must be bad teachers became “sticky.” The number of ATRs grew and grew.

As Bloomberg/Klein closed schools, they closed about 150 schools, the ATR pool grew to about 1500 teachers.

According to Chalkbeat, the education news website the ATR pool costs about 150 million dollars a year. The Weisberg “innovation” has cost the city, using the Chalkbeat numbers 1.5 to 2 billion dollars.

The current de Blasio/Farina administration announced a plan to sharply reduce the pool. Buyouts were offered to ATRs, and, the controversial part, ATRs will be assigned to vacancies in schools that occur after October 15th, and will be evaluated and rated as all other teachers. If they receive effective or highly effective ratings they will be permanently assigned to the school. ATRs will be observed the same way as all other teachers at the school, a combination of formal and informal, four to six times a year, and if performance is poor, observed by an outside assessor. As all other teachers their rating will fall under the matrix system, a combination of supervisory observations and measurements of student learning (MOSL). If a teacher receives two ineffective ratings under the new law (sec 3012 d) the Department can prefer charges and the burden of proof is on the teacher.

The lengthy process of the past is gone, the new system that combines observations and student learning is supported by the unions and the school districts.

The current ATR pool, about 800 should be reduced by half in the first year and virtually eliminated by the second year.

The New York Post continues to hammer away. (See story here ). Yes, the pool has teachers accused of “misconduct,” the question: why weren’t the accusations pursued? The answer: the Department lawyers say, not enough evidence, in the past, a speedy investigation, a letter of reprimand or charges, today: the easy way, assigned to the ATR pool permanently. A “conviction” without a trial, a stain that effectively bars a teacher from the classroom.  ATR pool teachers become modern day Hester Prynne, wearing the ATR stain as a Scarlet Letter.

And by the way, do principals do a good job of selecting new teachers?  About 40% leave within five years and in high need schools the percentage is much higher. I have sat on numerous hiring committees, sadly principals, and teachers who sit on these committees are untrained. The questions are inane, (“Why do you want to become a teacher?”  “What are your views on restorative justice practices?”) I urged hiring teams to require the candidate bring a lesson plan and the interview focus on the implementation of the plan. New teachers should be matched with an experienced teacher, school should build teams by grade and subject; and, the elephant in the room, are there long lists of highly effective teachers wafting to be hired?  Experienced teachers in the ATR pool can be a valuable school resource.

Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Tech, an enormously complicated very large high school was tapped to phase out the ATR system: an excellent choice.

What is the “misconduct” that resulted in a teacher being moved to the pool: the most frequent misconduct is insubordination, aka, an argument with the principal.  The “easy way out,” dump the teacher into the ATR pool instead of the principal and the superintendent resolving the incident.

The transition from ATR to full time classroom teacher is not automatic: teachers who have been in the pool for a number of years will need intensive professional development to prepare them to take the reins of classroom.

“Easy way outs” are always the wrong way out, avoiding responsibility is not a policy. The Bloomberg/Klein/Weisberg approach was bad from day one and based on seriously flawed premises: firing “bad” teachers instead of building the capacity of all staff, from superintendents to principals to teachers.

Superintendents leading/facilitating collaborative school climates with rich curricula as a bedrock leads to more effective learning environments.

Ridding the school system of bad policies based on faulty premises is difficult, the bad policies stick around, no one wants to admit that the policy was seriously flawed. Instead of panning the Farina administration, the administration should be lauded for hiring an experienced educator to phase out the pool is long overdue.

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6 responses to “The Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR): Why is Bad Policy So Difficult to Abandon?

  1. Jacqueline Foil (retired teacher and concerned citizen)

    Times have changed little since I retired over 20 years ago, Bad policy stays almost forever. Something new and workable may NEVER be implemented. !!!

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  2. It all boils down to the fact that Principals and other supervisors have never had intense management training. The private corporations have on going management training for their managers. A school leader trained with on going management seminars needs to know how to motivate a staff , decide who is not teacher material.There are many ways to nurture teachers; rate them if they cannot fill their job. To say that it takes too much time to remove a incompetent teacher, only reinforces my premise that most have no management skills.

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  3. If I wer looking for a veteran teacher to take over an anticipated vacancy, I would glean the names of teachers of that subject, targeting those teachesr who were squeezed into Atr via the closing of their schools. I would then want to examine their prior observation reports, and Teacher’s file contents. I would be driven by the belief that some of them must have been good teachers, but got caught up in the closing of the school by Joel Klein. Te caveat to that however, is that Klein has been gone for 4 years, and these teachers may very well have become stale and bitter, and not motivated to deliver instruction at their previous capabilities. But I would give them a shot.

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  4. rachel de aragon

    Although it is true that bad policies can linger too long, change is possible! Sometimes quiet victories are the most long lasting. The choice of the de Blasio/Farina administration to appoint a team lead by Mr. Asher who will actually tackle the problem and make real changes for teachers, schools and students is a true testament to an administration that believes in administering public education. Change for the good needs our applause!

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  5. Peter:

    I noticed that you failed to mention how the UFT leadership bought into the ATR pool by agreeing to eliminate the seniority transfer and excessing rules. Moreover, the union leadership allowed the DOE to impose the Fair Student Funding.

    The disgrace of the ATR pool can be blamed both on the Bloomberg administration and our disconnected union leadership.

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