On a recent Saturday, a young woman passed out free red pencils in front of Bishop Kearney High School to adults filing into the building to take state-required teacher certification exams. The pencils were a gift of New York Urban Teachers, one of several expensive Department of Education projects aimed at streamlining the Byzantine certification process.
But inside the building, the pencils generated confusion and a warning.
"Do not use them," an exam administrator advised test-takers preparing to fill in dozens of bubbles on question sheets. "We have no way of knowing if they are No. 2."
Indeed, the pencils bore a catchy slogan - "Bringing outstanding certified teachers to NYC public schools," but no indication of lead hardness. The most vital information just wasn't there.
The pencils were emblems of the failures of the city's much vaunted teacher recruitment efforts. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the latest of these last month, a glitzy campaign sponsored by the Ad Council said to be the most ambitious in the city's history. The mayor promised TV commercials and billboards that would help attract the city's "largest pool of teaching candidates."
Like the useless free pencils, glitzy ads cannot help the majority of people who already want to be city teachers, but who now face
â€˘ heightened certification requirements,
â€˘ long delays in application processing,
â€˘ and a hiring culture that favors the well connected over the merely qualified.
On Feb. 1, requirements for a teaching certificate jumped significantly, even as the starting salary for most city teachers remained a modest $39,000. On that date New York State changed the requirements for entry-level teachers. First-time teachers sending paperwork after the deadline could no longer get a provisional certificate, which had allowed them to postpone one of three standardized exams until after they started work and demanded slightly less - or, in some cases, just different - coursework.
Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the state toughened the requirements to comply with a portion of the federal No Child Left Behind act (PDF Format) mandating measurable state efforts to improve teacher quality by 2006.
"It's a national trend," Dunn said, adding, "We have no interest in certifying unqualified people as teachers."
But will the new regulations really produce better teachers? Depending on the certificate sought, applicants might need no more than two or three extra courses than they would have in January. Still, that could be a major deterrent for people who lack three credits of "information retrieval" - that is, a computer course -- now required for most teaching certificates.
Even before February, certificates required passing grades on two standardized exams - one in liberal arts and sciences, the other in teaching skills - each costing $70 for registration. With the addition of the third exam, the so-called "content-based test" on the subject to be taught -applying for a certificate costs an average of $500; added to the exam costs are fees for fingerprinting, application processing and required workshops, most of which have risen recently.
There is, of course, no guarantee that the applicant will be awarded a certificate, and then a job, after these expenses.
A LONG WAIT
As the deadline for the changes loomed, an unprecedented 30,000 applications for teaching certificates poured into Albany in the first weeks of the year. Applicants currently enrolled in college education programs apply through their institutions and get priority. Others are being told to brace for a 24-week wait before their transcripts can be evaluated.
The process was delayed further by the state's failure to promptly issue new application forms and lists of coursework requirements. On Feb. 1, the state removed its downloadable application from the Office of Teaching Initiatives website; not until four weeks later did the new form materialize. During the hiatus, officials in the education program at one CUNY campus told students to cross out a heading on the old application reading, "Do Not Use After Feb. 1," and send it in anyhow.
First lesson for new teachers: break the rules. Given the 24-week wait, those who waited obediently for the new applications may not have their credentials in time for the September hiring season.
NAVIGATING THE PROCESS
Or so it would seem. Actually, despite all the subway posters and radio ads contrasting teaching with baser callings like investment banking, networking and connections play as big a role in this low-paid world as they do on Wall Street. Individuals attempting to navigate the system on their own discover that it's like a nightmarish deli line, where those who came later than you keep elbowing to the front.
The New York City Teaching Fellows program streamlines, and subsidizes, the certification process for college graduates willing to teach in low-performing schools, mainly in the Bronx and central Brooklyn. But those wishing to teach high school social studies or elementary school need not apply: this highly selective program looks for people able to teach subjects for which there are acute teacher shortages, like math, science, Spanish and special education.
Another city-funded program that accelerates the process for teachers willing to work at troubled schools is New York City Urban Teachers, the program advertised on the pencils given away at the Brooklyn testing site. But Urban Teachers is mainly aimed at luring back certified teachers who have left the profession, particularly if they're already certified in a high-shortage subject or wish to add a second certificate in one of those subjects.
Those who do meet the criteria of these narrowly focused programs, but whose heart strings have been plucked by the Teaching Fellows recruitment posters ("Take your next business trip on a big yellow bus"), get shoved to the back of the line.
HAVING AN IN
There's another shortcut, one that doesn't get announced at press conferences. A notice that appeared recently on the state's Office of Teaching Initiatives website informs prospective teachers, "If you are offered paid employment in a certified position in a New York City Public School, the New York City Department of Education can request an expedited review of your application."
How can uncertified teachers be offered jobs requiring certification? Dunn, the state education department spokesman, said job seekers who have sent their transcripts and test scores to Albany could show those same materials at an interview and expo. If a local official believes that certification requirements have been met, Albany will evaluate the application in 7 to 10 days, Dunn said.
Asked how local officials could so rapidly master the recent changes in requirements for dozens of different certificate titles, Dunn said, "People are being offered jobs by district hiring officials familiar with the process."
Who imagined that the education ads in the Sunday New York Times - and even in Craig's List, the online swap shop, where some of the city's public schools advertise for teachers - don't necessarily mean "certified teachers" when they describe jobs as open only to "certified teachers"?
It's a safe bet that Albany isn't rushing those applications to the front to reject them. That's why stories abound of job seekers who were "walked through" the certification process by a friendly administrator and landed a job although lacking a few pesky courses.
Thus, those who know someone who knows someone are favored, raising questions about where this leaves members of minority groups without social connections or heavy political wiring.
Maybe that's why the city didn't bother to specify whether the giveaway pencils were No. 2 - those in the know already knew.
Marcia Biederman writes about city public schools for InsideSchools.org and contributes regularly to The New York Times.