With the beginning of the school year weeks away, principals and others who work in education are wary.
Harry Sherman, the principal of Junior High School 127, Castle Hill Middle School, in the Bronx, said that while some teachers in the pool, often referred to as A.T.R.s, are unfairly stigmatized, “There are also A.T.R.s who are A.T.R.s because we have had the choice of whether or not we want to take them. And sometimes those people are not good fits for schools.”
Daniel Weisberg, the chief executive officer of the New Teacher Project, who worked for the education department under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said: “We’ve got this group of teachers who either can’t find a job or won’t find a job. That’s the group we’re dealing with.”
Education experts are worried that a disproportionate number of the teachers will be placed in schools in poorer areas, like the South Bronx, which have difficulty attracting and retaining teachers. Some may be placed in schools in the Renewal Schools program, one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives, which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to turn around low-performing schools.
The principal of a high school in Manhattan, who did not want to be named out of fear of reprisal from supervisors in the department, was blunt about the effect: “You’re going to force the worst teachers in the system into the schools that are struggling the most.”
But the city described the plan as a “common-sense solution” to the problems of both vacancies and the cost of paying unassigned teachers.
“My role is to drive down the A.T.R. and to help take these resources and put them back in schools,” said Randy Asher, the senior adviser to the chancellor for talent management and innovation, and the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School.
The number of teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve increased dramatically after the deal made in 2005 by the Bloomberg administration, which was seeking to close failing schools, and the United Federation of Teachers. Before then, teachers with seniority could claim whatever job they wanted, displacing novice teachers without so much as having to interview with a principal. And teachers without assignments were involuntarily placed in whatever positions were open.
The deal ended that system and let principals decide whom to hire. Teachers who could not find jobs or were not happy with ones available went into the A.T.R., at full salary.
Reserve teachers do monthlong rotations in schools, frequently serving as substitutes, and some get longer temporary assignments. In last few years, the department has offered principals incentives to hire teachers from the pool by picking up all or part of their salaries for the first two or three years. It has also offered teachers in the pool buyouts. As result, on the first day of school last year — traditionally the point in the year when the pool is largest — there were 1,494 teachers in the pool, down from 1,957 on the first day of school in 2013.
The department says the new policy of placing teachers in vacancies is expected to reduce the size of the pool by half.
In interviews, Mr. Asher and Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union, used similar language to defend the plan, saying that it was better for students to have a permanent teacher with the appropriate license than to have a rotation of substitutes.
“We’re talking about being five, six weeks into the semester where they still don’t have a permanent teacher,” Mr. Asher said. “We need to provide stability in these learning environments.”
Mr. Mulgrew said, “What we’re trying to do is give a more stable educational environment for the students.”
A recently retired principal of a school in a hard-to-staff district disputed the idea that putting any teacher into a vacancy was better than other possible solutions. “I have had over the past five years a lot of A.T.R.s come in,” said the principal, who spoke anonymously for fear of repercussions for the school. “And I have to say, less than 10 percent of them — way less, maybe 5 percent of them — would I hire.”
Lynette Guastaferro, the executive director of Teaching Matters, said that in high-poverty schools, it was particularly important that principals be able to choose teachers carefully.
“Kids living in poverty need schools led by strong teams with shared cultures and the best teaching possible,” she wrote in an email.
Principals who are forced to take the teachers will observe them over the course of the year. Teachers who earn an “effective” rating from the principal at the end of the year will then, in most cases, be placed in their positions permanently.
Asked what would happen to teachers who at the end of the year received a less than effective rating, Mr. Asher said the department would, in some cases, start the legal process to remove them.
Nicholas Weber, a special-education teacher who has been in the Absent Teacher Reserve for three years after losing his job at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers because of declining enrollment, said he thought the policy would motivate principals to give bad ratings to teachers so as to not have to hire them permanently.
“It questions the legitimacy of the ratings,” he said.
Mr. Weisberg, who helped negotiate the 2005 deal when he was at the education department, said that one problem with the new policy was that, once principals can no longer choose their teachers, it becomes harder to hold them accountable for their school’s performance.
“The idea that principals get final say over which teachers get selected to work in their buildings should not be thought of as a crazy radical notion,” he said. “This is common sense.”