Wall Street Journal

SEPTEMBER 20, 2010

Even Top Teachers Get Laid Off

NEWARK—Sauce Leon ended up with a rating of "distinguished" when he taught history at Arts High School last year—something only about 15% of the teachers in the struggling school system here managed.

"History isn't a series of facts and names," he said, "it's a story."

As part of his class, his students volunteered in soup kitchens, built a home in Mexico and wrote legislators about budget cuts. After school, he created on his own time a program to tutor dozens of students, even after some of his colleagues insisted that he stop working for free.

Then, in June, Mr. Leon lost his job. He was one of about 300 public-school teachers laid off in Newark this year, and, like many cities across the country, the law said the last teachers hired had to be the first ones fired—a method favored by teachers unions that takes no account of a teacher's efforts, abilities or effectiveness.

Basing layoffs on seniority "is a sad example of how policies aren't aligned for what's best for schoolkids," said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps school districts recruit and retain quality teachers. In struggling urban schools in particular, students "can't afford to have a single great teacher cut in a way that maybe a kid in a suburban school district could," he said.

Mr. Leon was the only social-studies teacher to be laid off at Arts High. Of the remaining five social-studies teachers at the school, two were rated less than proficient last year. One of those teachers was rated in a category defined as "fails to establish a culture of learning...fails to communicate clearly...inability to use standard English."

The other teacher who was rated poorly was rated in a category in which a teacher "frequently calls out sick on staff development days" and has shown "patterns of absenteeism and tardiness" exceeding the district's standards. In the classroom, a teacher in this category "demonstrates minimal understanding of the subject," according to the school system.

Newark schools, with about 40,000 students, are at a crossroads. The system spends $22,000 per pupil each school year, and nearly half the students don't graduate. Last month, Gov. Chris Christie informed the superintendent, Clifford Janey, that his contract won't be renewed when it expires in June. Mr. Christie, who can appoint the next superintendent because the state seized control of the city's schools in the 1990s, vowed to make Newark a national model for reforming a troubled school system.

The loss of teachers like Mr. Leon could complicate those plans. In addition to laying off hundreds of teachers, Newark moved about 100 teachers who had not been classroom teachers for up to 10 years back into their own classrooms this month.

These former classroom teachers had spent the past several years coordinating teacher workshops, working with small groups of students or mentoring young teachers. Those jobs were eliminated this summer but because the teachers had seniority, they were offered their classroom jobs back.

"It's a good thing," said Sadia White, chief academic officer at Newark schools.

She said the teachers were "master teachers," and that's why they had been promoted to the job of mentoring other teachers and working with small groups of children.

Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso isn't so sure it's a good idea. "If I went to a doctor and the doctor was a master doctor but hadn't operated in several years, I wouldn't be comfortable having them operate on me," he said. "Do we do that in industry? Do we take someone that wasn't doing a specific job and put them back to do the job or do we phase them in? Phasing in would have been better than cold turkey."

Newark representatives would not say what percentage of the teachers going back into classrooms were rated poorly.

Documents obtained through an open-records request showed that in the 2007-08 school year, at least some of those teachers were rated less than proficient and put on improvement plans.

"We are working with those teachers to make sure they are performing," said Valerie Merritt, a spokeswoman for the schools. Newark "had to lay off some very talented instructional staff," Ms. Merritt said, adding that "the unfortunate practice of 'last in first out' does a disservice to school districts."

Meanwhile, Mr. Leon, the social studies teacher, is still working in Newark—though now at Newark Collegiate Academy, which is part of the KIPP nationwide network of charter schools. This year, Mr. Leon was one of 640 applicants for 21 spots. He makes 13% more than he did in the traditional public school, and teacher salaries at Newark Collegiate are negotiated individually.

On a recent morning, Mr. Leon was teaching his 12th-graders a class about gender roles in the media and society. He varied his presentation, from having students read out loud to writing down their thoughts to group discussion.

He mixed humor with self-deprecation, and he made the students laugh while dropping names such as Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Mr. Leon asked many questions, and the students vied to be called on.

Nathan Smalley, Newark Collegiate's principal, said Mr. Leon "pushes the students' critical-thinking skills; he's relentless about that."

Mr. Leon said he tries figure out how to get the students to soak up the information, not just for tests, but for life.

"When my students don't perform well," he said, "I reflect and look inside instead of pointing the finger."

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