Long Island school administrators are allowing teachers to take professional development courses such as yoga, stress management and "The Science and Romance of Wine" for credits that count toward thousands of dollars in raises -- over and above the annual increases they already receive, a Newsday investigation has found.
Professional development pay hikes are set in district labor contracts negotiated with New York's influential teachers union, and they add millions to the cost of teacher compensation each year. Supporters say it's worth the investment of taxpayer dollars because the classes make teachers better and give them knowledge they can pass on to their students.
But district course records show that hundreds of classes lack academic rigor, do little to improve student learning, or only help a teacher prepare for a higher-paying job in school administration.
Records show that an Islip music teacher took "Prayer" from Oral Roberts University, and a Middle Country English teacher took fencing. Teachers in Great Neck got credit for workshops at the Statue of Liberty and the Bronx Zoo.
Newsday observed classes where teachers colored with crayons, made flip books out of construction paper, and discussed Australian cheeses. Book clubs, trips overseas and volleyball basics have all led to raises.
Little known to the public, these salary hikes are paid even when annual raises are otherwise limited or frozen. And because most district labor contracts don't cap the number of courses someone can take per year, employees have used the system to add thousands to their pay quickly.
"That's the gift that keeps on giving because those increases get factored into your salary and into your final salary, which increases your pension," said retired Brentwood Superintendent Mike Cohen.
To be sure, district records show that teachers have completed courses related to their subject area or to current issues in education. Science teachers have taken "Galaxies, Stars and Planets," and music teachers have studied the history of rock and roll. Others have taken courses about autism, classroom management or dealing with difficult parents.
The cost can range from $80,000 to $100,000 a year added to the payroll of a small district and up to $1 million for a large district, said Gregory Guercio, whose Farmingdale law firm represents about 45 Long Island school districts. For those taking professional development courses, costs can be a few hundred dollars or up to about $700.
In most districts, a teacher needs to earn 15 credits to get a raise, with a typical raise of about $2,000 to $2,500, according to a review of all district contracts.
A spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the union that represents more than 600,000 teachers and school employees statewide, said professional development courses contribute to the high quality of Long Island schools.
"It is penny-wise and pound-foolish to look at only the cost, without looking at the benefit and the results," NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said. "The benefit is a system that produces among the best education results in the state and even the nation."
State law requires teachers to obtain a master's degree within five years of beginning teaching, and teachers hired since 2004 must complete 175 hours of professional development every five years. Many districts approve staff meetings and other activities for at least part of that requirement, but those don't lead to professional development raises.
Credits toward raises are accrued through graduate and in-service courses. Graduate courses usually involve more work, but do not have to be part of a degree program. In-service courses are often shorter, involve less work and are worth fewer credits.
Salaries of teachers soar
The relative ease of gaining credits by taking classes online or watching a video has contributed to a rapid escalation in salaries that have made Long Island's teachers among the best paid in the nation, according to school administrators.
"When you multiply it by all the teachers in the district, the cost is in the millions," said Terry O'Neil, a Garden City attorney who has represented 20 school districts on Long Island. "The issue is: What are you getting for your buck?"
To answer that question, Newsday examined Long Island's professional development system by reviewing all 125 Long Island school district contracts, district payrolls, emails, educational brochures and by interviewing more than 75 education professionals.
Newsday also obtained records from 44 districts detailing more than 59,000 courses taken over a five-year period. A reporter reviewed all 59,000 records, then performed an in-depth analysis of roughly 2,000 courses from 11 selected districts.
The analysis showed:
At least 100 classes had little connection to student learning or were of questionable academic value. Teachers received credit for 10-day trips to Australia and Costa Rica, hiking a Long Island trail, visiting railroad museums or for taking virtual trips over the computer.
Districts approved more than 750 classes that were outside of the teacher's subject area, including a Manhasset music teacher for a Photoshop course and a Longwood fifth-grade teacher for "Designing Artistic Benches."
At least 40 school employees who do not teach classes at all got professional development credits, including administrators, guidance counselors and union officials. Among them was a Roslyn school secretary who participated in a book club, and a Three Village union president who hasn't taught in a district classroom since 2001.
Just 40 of Long Island's 125 school districts have contract language limiting the number of courses that can be taken in a year. In districts with no caps, employees can quickly drive up their pay. A teacher in Roslyn completed 22 courses in a year, and a Connetquot social studies teacher completed 10 in a single month, earning 30 credits. In Middle Country, an elementary school teacher earned enough credits in 15 months to increase her salary by more than $17,500.
The system subsidizes a teacher's rise to school administrator. Courses such as school finance, school district leadership and personnel management are among the nearly 300 that arguably benefit a teacher's career more than a student's education.
Monitoring is uneven
Oversight of professional development programs is spotty. The state Education Department does not regulate companies offering courses and says decisions regarding course approvals are up to local districts.
Some districts have approved classes provided by educational institutions that other districts have completely banned because they've deemed the company's course offerings too lax. Overall, far more courses are approved than denied. For example, in Franklin Square, administrators approved 815 courses and rejected only six from 2006 through 2009.
The professional development raises have persisted even as school districts lay off teachers and make other sacrifices to compensate for the state-imposed 2 percent property tax cap and a stagnant economy.
For example, administrators in the Central Islip school district cut more than 100 employees and increased class size in the last two years. Despite the budget woes, the district has paid out thousands of dollars each year to teachers and administrators who have taken courses such as Golf Basics and "I'm So Stressed I Could Scream!"
Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said Long Island's professional development system is unusual.
"Any credit counts," Jacobs said of the courses Long Island districts have considered appropriate. "It makes absolutely no sense."
Raises for reading
In Brentwood, an elementary school nurse earned raises simply by reading online medical articles.
District records show she read 80 articles from 2006 through 2009 for credits toward raises. Twice, she read five articles in one day. In one month, she read 12.
Several articles appeared relevant to her work, such as "When Kids Swallow Dangerous Objects" or "Asthma Follows Thunderstorms." But she also got credit for reading several articles that have little to do with medical issues facing elementary school students, including "Vigorous Walking May Slow Biological Aging" and "Soybean Compound Cures Hot Flashes Safely."
Cohen, who was Brentwood's superintendent for the 2006-2007 school year, said it's difficult to carefully scrutinize courses taken by a staff of 2,500.
"In a district the size of Brentwood, who the heck has the time or inclination to go through courses toward in-service credit?" he said. "You're dealing with a huge number of people."
School administrators are charged with monitoring professional development courses taken by their staffers. Superintendents interviewed by Newsday said they try to ensure that classes relate to classroom work, but that they are hamstrung by state collective bargaining laws and union contracts.
NYSUT's Korn disagreed.
"This is another excuse by superintendents who want to pass the buck onto the union instead of doing their jobs," Korn said. "If they do not believe a course is valid, they should not approve it."
Cost of union grievance
Connetquot Superintendent Alan Groveman, past president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said approving a course is sometimes cheaper than rejecting it and triggering a union grievance, which can cost $7,000 or more.
"It's very expensive for a district," he said.
While no one tracks how many grievances are filed, Korn said grievances or disputes about course approval "have essentially been a nonissue since the early 2000s."
Nonetheless, administrators who reject courses may face the ire of the teachers union.
Union president objects
Emails obtained by Newsday show that William Floyd Assistant Superintendent Kevin Coster in 2008 rejected an elementary school teacher's request to take a course on study skills. Coster did not think the course would help the teacher in class, according to the emails.
Then-union president Karen D'Esposito objected. In an email to Coster, she wrote:
"No one even bothered to talk to me about this -- we have a legal document and you can't just change it. I have been very lenient also in listening to your concerns and in many cases agreeing with you BUT this is a collective bargaining issue -- you took something away arbitrarily . . . you can't do that."
Coster said he eventually approved the course, but only after reaching an agreement that it would not set a precedent.
D'Esposito could not be reached for comment.
As far as Karen Lessler is concerned, she earned her raise the hard way, and she said it has paid off for her students.
The Kings Park social studies teacher completed her doctorate in education at Dowling College, course work that cost her nearly $50,000. The advanced degree helped bump her annual salary from $64,540 in 2008 to $96,730 in 2011.
Lessler said there's a big difference between teachers who take legitimate programs to become better educators and those who load up on easy courses just to pad their salary.
"There are people who are trying to move themselves up the pay scale, and they find inexpensive ways to do it," she said. "I resent people that are looking for shortcuts not based on education."
Teacher evaluation plan
Professional development is likely to be discussed even more as New York implements a controversial plan approved by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to evaluate teachers based on student performance and allow parents access to the results.
Details are still being worked out, but professional development is expected to be a component of the new system.
Thirty years ago, achieving those professional development requirements would have meant hours of sitting in a classroom. But the dynamics changed with online learning.
College gets percentage
Colleges and universities, in recognition of a profitable new revenue stream, have entered into financial agreements with online education companies. The affiliated college or university gets a percentage of the revenue collected or a flat fee, and the online company can use the institution's accreditation to offer graduate courses.
"Universities need money, particularly less selective, low endowment institutions," Levine said. "What happens is it's in everybody's interest if what they offer is easy, short, nondemanding programs of professional development."
At least nine different companies offer professional development courses -- many of them online -- to Long Island's teachers. And publicly available financial records show online education is a booming business.
"What started as a cottage industry is now a multimillion-dollar, if not multibillion-dollar, industry," said attorney John Gross, whose Hauppauge law firm represents more than 40 school districts on Long Island.
Gross said the business "exploded" in the mid-1990s as online and hybrid courses, which are a combination of online and classroom meetings, meant teachers didn't need to invest time in traditional classroom settings.
The ease of taking such courses has made them a popular option for teachers looking to quickly increase their pay, said Guercio, whose law firm represents Long Island school districts.
"Teachers move across that salary grid at the speed of light," he said. "The primary objective here is to increase wages, not increase knowledge."
Some districts add limits
At least 10 Long Island school districts have modified their labor contracts over the last two years to limit the number of courses that can be taken for raises each year.
Some districts' concerns
Some districts, like Oceanside, have limited online courses over concerns about their rigor and because of how quickly they can be completed.
"As soon as online courses came into existence, I certainly became leery because I know there are good courses and not-so-good courses," said Oceanside Superintendent Herb Brown, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. "The speed of the course becomes an issue, as well."
Instructors of the courses understand the appeal of completing them quickly: "This course could be completed in two or three weeks if you work at a steady pace," reads the syllabus for the online course "Touring Long Island's Educational Resources."
Research has shown that advanced study in teaching methods or a particular subject area can contribute to greater student achievement. Courses such as "I'm So Stressed I Could Scream!" -- which covers meditation, visualizations and "finding your chakra" -- do not, said Sean Corcoran, an assistant professor of educational economics at New York University.
"There's very little evidence that these kind of professional development credits translate directly into better outcomes" for students, Corcoran said.
Mark Dellecave, a Connetquot social studies teacher who also runs a professional development company called the Dellecave Educational Institute in Bohemia, said all sorts of classes are beneficial.
"When a teacher feels prepared and has knowledge about what they're doing, they're more enthusiastic in the classroom," he said.
Several instructors at Dellecave's institute teach as many as five courses a year, while also working as teachers in public schools. Dellecave said his instructors were able hold down full-time jobs teaching students -- and teach so many professional development courses -- by working hard.
Cold Spring Harbor, however, does not accept Dellecave's courses.
"If it really is worthwhile professional development, it really has to have a certain level of rigor," Superintendent Judith Wilansky said.
Elsewhere, Dellecave's courses are accepted.
Dellecave said his classes aren't denied because they're weak but because of a lack of union influence in certain districts.
"It all depends upon the teachers union -- how strong they are," Dellecave said.
Raises for union officials
NYSUT's Korn said the union strongly supports the system of awarding raises for professional development as a way of producing the best teachers.
Records show the system has also rewarded union officials.
In Mount Sinai, union president Mitch Wolman earned 60 credits for attending union workshops and conferences. Even though most districts require that a teacher get approval before taking professional development classes, Mount Sinai approved his courses retroactively.
That led to raises of $6,000 to $8,000, according to former Superintendent Anthony Bonasera, who approved the deal in 2007 when he was a deputy superintendent.
District payroll records show Wolman's pay has increased from $103,791 in 2007 to $134,707 this year. Wolman teaches half time because he attends to union business for the rest of the day.
Wolman did not return calls for comment.
Bonasera said he approved union workshops for professional development credit because the union training helped Wolman secure grants for the school.
"It was beneficial to the students," Bonasera said, although he did not specify the grants.
The Three Village school district lists Claudia Reinhart on its payroll as a music teacher, even though the union president has not taught in a district classroom since 2001. Though she does not teach students, the district approved 45 professional development credits for Reinhart for classes such as "Desktop Publishing" and "Introduction to Microsoft Word."
In response to questions from Newsday, Reinhart wrote in an email that although some courses "may not appear to offer much value," professional development is worthwhile.
"I believe that the courses I took both as a classroom teacher and after I left the classroom are relevant to the work I do today, whether those were leadership courses, presentation skills courses, and related courses," Reinhart wrote.
For those who support the idea of professional development, the union's influence has made it difficult to make meaningful changes to the current system, said Daniel Domenech, a former Long Island superintendent who is now the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va.
"When you talk about reform -- good luck," he said.