The average New York City public school teacher shows up at work every morning ready for battle. They may find themselves stressing over standardized test drills, confronting pressure from disciplinarian administrators, struggling to hold students’ attention in classrooms lacking chairs and books, or stretching threadbare budgets to keep supply closets half-filled. So at the end of the day, they may be too tired to fight to protect their labor rights.
A new teacher survey from the rank-and-file caucus of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) shows that educators are squeezed from both sides, by harsh standards imposed from above, and unmet needs among their students, and are left with hardly any room to do their job.
According to the survey, conducted by the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE) in collaboration with the Solidarity Research Center, coping with students’ unmet needs is their chief challenge, both inside and outside the classroom: About one in five students in the city’s public schools have disabilities, one-eighth have limited English skills, and more than three-quarters live in poverty. About one in 12 kids doesn’t even have a home to do homework in.
But their schools, too, are impoverished. About half of students are enrolled at overcrowded facilities, according to the survey, and nearly half of respondents report “the facilities they work in are not clean, in bad repair, and inadequate for student learning.” Subpar facilities are also starved of social resources: Nearly two-thirds say their schools do not provide “adequate special education staffing, planning time for teachers and mandated services for special education students,” and nearly half report similar unmet needs in support services for English language learners. Yet students with disabilities are supposed to be protected by federal civil rights mandates, which in turn raises the question of who—for all the emphasis on “teacher accountability”—should be held accountable if a school system is so under-resourced it literally breaks the law?
But if the city is conserving resources to focus on academics, that’s not exactly showing up in the results either. On English language exam scores, for example, abysmal gaps in meeting proficiency standards persist between white students and black and Latino students; economically disadvantaged students trail their more affluent peers by 21 percent to 46 percent.