the new normal

Tenure crunch continues, but just 41 teachers denied on first try

Percentage of New York City teachers who had tenure denied or extended, 2006-2013
Percentage of New York City teachers who had tenure denied or extended, 2006-2013

For the third year in a row, nearly half of teachers up for tenure last year did not receive it. But the number of teachers outright denied the job protection remained small.

Just under 4,000 teachers were up for tenure in the 2012-2013 school year, with 2,551 of them facing the decision for the first time — fewer than usual because hiring restrictions had been in place three years earlier. Of the total, 53 percent received tenure and 3 percent were denied it, effectively barring them from working in city schools. The remaining portion — 44 percent — had their probationary periods extended for another year.

Only 41 of the 2,551 teachers up for tenure for the first time this year were told they could not continue to work in city schools, according to city data. That means the denial rate for teachers in the tenure pool was about 1.6 percent, lower than in each of the past two years. The extension rate for teachers up for tenure for the first time was 44 percent, up slightly since last year.

The high extension rate is a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to make tenure tougher to achieve. Bloomberg vowed in 2010 to move toward “ending tenure as we know it,” a change he favored because teachers who do not yet have tenure can more easily be fired. The previous year, 11 percent of teachers up for tenure had been denied or extended. At the start of the mayor’s tenure, that figure had been about 1 percent.

“If you turned back the clock, tenure was an automatic right and not something earned,” Walcott said in a statement today. “But that’s changed.”

Department of Education officials also argue that it makes sense for teachers to spend four or more years on probation, rather than the minimum of three, because research suggests teachers do not reach their full capacity until they have been on the job for more than five years.

Half of the 1,369 teachers up for tenure who previously had their probationary periods extended received tenure this year, according to the city. That figure was higher than last year, the first when the tenure pool included large numbers of teachers who had previously been considered for tenure.

Teachers who had their probations extended last year for the first time were denied tenure 3.5 percent of the time this year. For the 623 teachers in the tenure pool who had received at least two extensions already, the average denial rate was 7 percent, according to the department.

This year was the third in which principals had to justify tenure recommendations to their superintendents, who make the final determination about whether teachers receive tenure. Under the review process put in place in 2010, principals and superintendents consider each teacher’s student performance data, his “practice” as represented by a portfolio of work, and the way that he contributes to the school community.

The student performance subcomponent has been the most contentious change. In the past, some principals reported being told that they could not recommend tenure for teachers whose students had low test scores, and union officials said the tenure tug of war had taken place mostly at schools with many struggling students. This year, principals were encouraged to weigh teachers’ state “growth scores,” available for the first time for teachers in tested grades and subjects, whenever able. Starting this year, those scores will factor into teachers’ annual evaluations.

Walcott said the tenure changes and the evaluation system were both designed to ensure that city teachers are high-performing. “We are not only keeping our best teachers in city schools through our more rigorous tenure process, but coupled with our new evaluation system, Advance, we’re developing them into even better educators,” he said.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who has said the teachers union supports “a rigorous but fair” system for awarding tenure, said the new data mask the reality that the city loses many teachers well before they come up for tenure, a reality that he blamed on the Bloomberg administration’s emphasis on test scores.

The department’s “self-congratulatory announcement ignores a more important issue,” Mulgrew said. “In the teeth of the worst recession in decades, more than one-third of the over 6,800 teachers hired in 2006-2007 left New York City public schools of their own accord.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.