Computer science teacher Peter Lamphere says he received a U-rating after challenging an administrator over school policy.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Computer science teacher Peter Lamphere says he received a U-rating after challenging an administrator over school policy.

The computer programming assignment that New York City math teacher Peter Lamphere had given his Bronx High School of Science students in the fall of 2007 had gone okay. But as is customary among new programmers, some students had made mistakes. During a later class, Lamphere focused on helping them correct their errors by working quietly with each of them one-on-one. To keep the rest of his class of about 30 on task, he assigned them some independent practice.

With several years of teaching experience, Lamphere thought it was a good arrangement. Assistant principal Rosemarie Jahoda, who also had several years of teaching experience, did not. After observing him during that class period, she rated her observation of him unsatisfactory, writing in her report: “You do not provide your students with support and instruction. There is no evidence of preparation and scholarship or your ability to facilitate student learning of programming in visual basic.”

That 2007 observation report was the first time that Lamphere – who says he had the respect of many students and colleagues — had ever received a negative evaluation, he says. But it wasn’t his last. During that school year, Lamphere received two negative observation reports and three disciplinary letters, leading his principal to rate him unsatisfactory for the 2007-08 school year.

Lamphere believes his unsatisfactory evaluations—so-called “U ratings”–were politically motivated. They began just after he and other union members challenged one of Jahoda’s policies, and they culminated after he and 20 of the school’s 22 math teachers filed a complaint against Jahoda, alleging harassment, charges that a panel of arbitrators would later sustain.

Despite the arbitrator’s findings, the New York City Department of Education rejected Lamphere’s appeal of his “U rating.” DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg defended the agency’s decision, saying simply “We follow state bylaws.”

Lamphere vehemently opposes the Bloomberg’s administration’s efforts to base decisions about teacher layoffs on their evaluations. He now teaches at a high school in Queens, where he transferred in the fall, and is suing the DOE in an effort to overturn his unsatisfactory rating.

The administrators involved in delivering his U ratings declined to speak with City Limits. So it is hard to draw conclusions about his case. It’s also unclear whether his case reflects what has happened to most of the 1,500 teachers rated unsatisfactory in a typical year.

But in the debate about how to improve schools and soften the blow of planned teacher layoffs, in which U-rated teachers have been a popular tabloid target, little has been heard from such teachers or about the complexities of their cases. Lamphere answered some questions about his:

Q: What’s wrong with firing teachers based on unsatisfactory ratings?

A: They can give someone a “U” [unsatisfactory] rating with relatively little evidence, which means there’s no protection for retaliation, whistle blowing, union activities and relatively little protection for discrimination.

Q: What do you believe provoked the disciplinary actions against you?

A: I was on a committee at the school that represented teachers and had a monthly discussion with the principal. It was a union committee called the consultation committee, the steering committee. At our October meeting, we brought to the table these weekly aims and objectives sheets that teachers had been filling out, raised some questions about was it a useful thing, was it really meant to support the teachers and so on. And the response from the administration was very defensive about this policy. They felt very strongly that it was a policy they wanted to continue. That it was pedagogically useful. The following day, my mentee, one of the new teachers I was mentoring, gets called in and told that it would be good for her career if I was no longer her mentor. … The same day … I got a disciplinary letter. The person gets told to change her mentor at 7:30 in the morning. I get the letter at 11:30 … and then I got another one a couple of days later.

Q: What happened when you appealed your unsatisfactory rating to the DOE?

A: The DOE has an appeals process for U ratings. So anytime a teacher gets an end-of-year U rating, they can go through an administrative appeal. That appeal is heard by a former principal, who issues a recommendation to the chancellor about whether the U rating should be overturned or not. I didn’t go through an appeal on my rating until June 1, 2010. I got the decision June 29, 2010. And that process is widely regarded as a joke. Even if the former principal who hears the appeal recommends to the principal that the U rating be overturned, almost invariably the chancellor sustains the U rating. I’ve talked to a number of people in the UFT office that handles these. I haven’t found anybody who recalls the chancellor overturning a U rating since the previous chancellor, prior to Klein. So, none of these things get overturned through the appeals process. After the appeals process you can file an Article 78 petition through the New York State Supreme Court, which is what we did, arguing that the appeals process and the U rating are arbitrary and capricious.

Q: If there could be an objective method for determining a teacher’s effectiveness, would you be open to allowing the DOE to use that method?

A: I think it’s impossible to ignore the difficulty of creating an objective method. In the current context, if we’re talking about objective, we’re talking about test scores. And I really don’t think we need a further increasing of the stakes of testing. Aside from those problems, I think focusing on teacher quality is actually asking the wrong question about what’s wrong with our education system. It really places the burden on what’s wrong with education on the individual classroom teacher, when there are much larger structural questions at hand. It also places that burden without giving teachers any kind of autonomy or power within their classrooms to make any significant educational decisions. So all of our decisions in our classrooms, irrespective of what our principals look like, are determined by state tests and what the city is pushing. Even in my new school where I have a fabulous relationship with my administration, they’re great folks, happy to let me do whatever I want in my classroom, the future of my school is still determined by the tests and I have very little choice about what I can teach.

Q: It sounds like you believe that if all the structural flaws were addressed, our schools would be okay, i.e. that there would be no bad teachers.

A: I think people are in the classroom who want to see kids learn. It’s very, very rare to run into a teacher who does not care about the kids in the classroom. When you do run into that, it’s a product of burnout, which is also a product of the crappy education system. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. There’s no question that that happens.

Q: How should that be handled?

A: I always found that when I was in a school that was working and functional, my co-workers would always be working on that issue, trying to figure out ways to get their colleagues to improve and do the work that needs to be done. In the end, if I’m not teaching Algebra 1, the Algebra II teacher is the one paying for it.

Q: What if you had a teacher who didn’t want to improve?

A: I think it’s possible to create a school culture where teachers are working together to correct this kind of issue. You can’t do that if people are being subjected to arbitrary control from the top.

Q: There’s no circumstances under which you think the person might be unwilling to go?

A: I think the focus on whether and how to fire a teacher is simply barking up the wrong tree, I don’t think that’s how we’re gonna change the education system. To be honest, it’s far easier than they make it out to be to fire someone. The real crisis in education system is how do you keep teachers in the classroom and keep them from leaving after three or four years.