Screen Time

New York City teachers will be screened for ‘suitability’ under new union contract

Teachers gathered in New York City

If teaching in New York City is going to burn you out, the school system wants to know before you set foot in a classroom.

As part of a new contract deal, the city and its teachers union agreed to develop a “suitability” screening for new hires. Their goal: to weed out prospective teachers who would be unlikely to succeed in the city’s schools.

It’s a strange initiative to include in a contract that also makes new resources available to fill “hard-to-staff” positions in lower-performing schools that have high turnover. Why raise the bar to enter city classrooms when so many have vacancies?

“Are we doing better than a lot of other school systems in terms of being able to attract teaching talent? Absolutely,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a Thursday press conference. “Are we in a perfect situation? No, we’re not in a perfect situation.”

Chancellor Richard Carranza echoed the message.

“Again, this is a way to explore: Is there a way to have pre-service screening that gives us an indication that, ‘Yup, you’re suitable for this profession,’ or ‘Perhaps you should do something else,’” Carranza said at a press conference.

In pursuing the pre-hire screening approach, New York City would join several other cities that screen aspiring teachers for suitability before letting them interview at individual schools. Notably, Los Angeles screens applicants based on their college GPAs, sample lessons, and other application materials; research has found that Los Angeles teachers who scored higher on the screen’s metrics eventually boosted their students’ test scores more, received higher ratings, and had higher attendance.

The approach marks a sharp turn from other recent efforts in New York City and beyond to boost teacher quality that have focused on developing teachers once they are in the classroom — and pushing out those who turn out not to be effective. Those efforts have proved onerous and, in many cases, divisive.

The screen has the added benefit of scrutinizing only educators who are not yet part of the teachers union — potentially making the move an easier sell for the union, whose members must sign off on the contract deal.

Pre-hire screening in New York was the city’s idea, but union president Michael Mulgrew said he decided to support it largely because the city plans to review different options.

“They said, ‘Look, we’re just trying to get some sort of suitability assessment,’” Mulgrew said. “I said, ‘Yeah, when I came into the system there were types of things like that in place, but over the last about 18 to 20 years it’s just been a college degree.’ So I said, fine.”

It’s unclear exactly what the screen will test for, since the city is still developing the idea. The next step is to request proposals for the screen.

While parameters are not yet nailed down, officials likened the test to psychological profiles, workshops, and stress tests that police departments use for job candidates — can someone do the job without burning out?

Evidence from other cities offers a mixed review for the approach. In Los Angeles, the system seemed to slightly bump up test scores in schools with more new hires. But the study did not address how the screen affected teacher diversity — another priority for New York City, though not one addressed in the new contract.

“There’s a focus in diversity and hiring in a lot of other things we’re doing,” de Blasio said at the press conference. “We have to create a more diverse teaching corps as another one of the elements of succeeding.”

And in Boulder, Colorado, a screening mechanism drew criticism after it became clear that former teachers who were reapplying for jobs weren’t scoring high enough on the screen to be considered for positions where they had formerly succeeded. In one math teacher’s case, her former students and their parents showed up to support her at a school board meeting, and the board reconsidered the screening mechanism that was in place at the time.

That mechanism was developed by Gallup. Other screening services are sold through companies such as TalentEd and the Haberman Educational Foundation. Mulgrew said officials have been in touch with “very, very reputable institutions” that might create New York City’s mechanism but didn’t elaborate.

What the union would oppose, he said, are screens tied to students’ test results.

“We want to make sure it’s appropriate for you to work inside the New York City public school system. I cannot stress this enough. This is a very difficult profession,” Mulgrew said at the press conference. “We are in a high-stress environment a lot of times here in New York City. We welcome that as educators, but it’s not for everyone.”


ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.