Teacher Swap Quashed

July 28, 2011

When Newark's public school system accepted $5 million from the federal government last year to turn around the poorly performing Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, it agreed to replace at least half of the school's teachers, under the belief that principals could then hire better ones.

Instead, Shabazz swapped teachers with two other failing schools.

Some 68 teachers were shuffled among Shabazz, Central High School and Barringer High School, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

Shabazz, which had 90 teachers, sent 21 of them to Barringer. And Barringer sent 21 of its teachers to Shabazz, according to teacher transfer records obtained through an open records request.

"Federal money may have unintentionally funded the infamous 'dance of the lemons' that has been a harmful practice in districts for decades," said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that helps school districts recruit teachers.

"If these teachers truly were not good enough for one struggling school, we have to ask whether it is a good idea to put them in another one," he said.

For the 2010-11 school year, New Jersey awarded $45.3 million in federal funds to 12 schools, five of which are in Newark. The grants were part of the U.S. Department of Education's $1.4 billion fund to deal with the nation's persistently failing schools.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, Justin Hamilton, said the swap between failing schools in Newark was "wrong."

Mr. Hamilton said that "turning around low-performing schools is not a game. It's hard work, and children's futures are at stake."

He added that other urban districts around the country have made strides in assuring that teachers from one failing school do not end up in another failing school.

Cami Anderson, who became Newark's schools superintendent in May, said teacher shuffling is "common and inevitable in a city with only a few comprehensive high schools and a slew of magnet schools where people are not going to leave."

Nevertheless, Ms. Anderson said she has changed the policies that allowed the swapping to happen.

Principals and teachers are now encouraged to attend job fairs and carry out a robust interview process.

However, because of the state's tenure law, which guarantees a paycheck to teachers regardless of whether any principal wants to retain or hire them, Ms. Anderson's new policy will cost the district an extra $10 million to $15 million a year that will go to paying the teachers who are not able to find jobs within the district.

"In other words, by doing the right thing, we created a massive budget issue," she said. Newark schools have a $900 million budget and employ about 4,000 teachers.

Ten other states, including New York, have tenure laws that make it impossible to dismiss tenured teachers even when no principal wishes to hire them.

Schools apply for the federal improvement grant, which generally is doled out over two or three years, and they must choose one of four improvement models set by the U.S. government. The 'turnaround' model, which Shabazz chose, is the most severe.

On Wednesday, the acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, Chris Cerf, announced a new round of school-improvement grants—totaling $55 million—but with much stricter rules that would, among other things, prevent the last-minute shuffling that was seen in Newark in the last school year.

Mr. Cerf said school districts must prove that they will end "forced placement" of teachers, as Ms. Anderson did. Forced placement—when teachers are placed in a school without an interview process—is common practice in school districts across the state.

Mr. Cerf said districts that want the federal funds must also set up a teacher evaluation system that takes student test scores and other measures of student progress into account—a nearly unheard-of practice in New Jersey.

In Newark, among the failing schools that swapped teachers, one school's test results improved dramatically, while the other two remaining schools' results barely budged or went down.

All three schools are on lists of persistently failing schools or have graduation rates of less than 60%, a hallmark of a struggling school.

In the state's administration of high-school proficiency tests this year in English, Central High School's passing rate rose to 69% from 37%. At Barringer, 38% of the students passed, compared with 36% the year before. At Shabazz, 46% passed, up from 44%.

In math, however, 19% at Barringer and Shabazz passed the test, a lower performance for both schools than in the year before. At Central, the percentage of students passing the math test rose to 46% from 20%.