Building Better Teachers

Advocates preparing lawsuit to target New York state teacher tenure laws

A national movement to prove that job protections for teachers prevent students from learning is getting ready to target New York state.

Six students and families, with the pro-bono help of a powerful New York City law firm and new advocacy group headed by former CNN journalist Campbell Brown, announced on Tuesday that they would file a lawsuit challenging state laws that critics say make it next to impossible to fire ineffective teachers. The process, they say, violate a student’s constitutional right to a sound and basic education.

The group said their lawsuit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, will be filed in the coming weeks.

The plans come two weeks after a judge in California said data showing that poor and non-white students in California are more often taught by low-performing teachers convinced him that the laws violate the state’s constitution.

The Vergara suit hinged on the idea that poor students were more frequently taught by “low-performing” teachers, designated by value-added formulas that took student performance into account. But litigation in New York would have to contend with a different set of laws.

Here’s how the advocates describe their cause in their release:

Families are suing the State of New York, claiming that the institutionalized retention of ineffective teachers deprives each child of their right to a sound basic education as guaranteed under the New York State Constitution. There are three basic claims:

1.    Similar to the recent ground-breaking Vergara ruling in California, the lawsuit will specifically challenge the “Last In, First Out” mandate in New York, stating that the policy of forcing school districts to base layoffs on seniority – not a teacher’s performance in the classroom – violates the state constitution by denying students access to effective teachers.

2.    Also similar to Vergara, the lawsuit will claim that New York’s Tenure Statute forces administrators to either grant or deny permanent lifetime employment after three years – an arbitrary time period that does not provide administrators enough time to determine a teachers’ effectiveness. Also similar to Vergara, the suit claims that the complicated disciplinary statutes make it nearly impossible to fire or discipline ineffective teachers – creating a burdensome, costly, and lengthy process that rarely removes ineffective teachers.

3.    Also similar to Vergara, the suit claims that the complicated disciplinary statutes make it nearly impossible to fire or discipline ineffective teachers – creating a burdensome, costly, and lengthy process that rarely removes ineffective teachers.

That reasoning has come under fire from teachers unions and others, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also note that tenure protects teachers from capricious administrators and say tenure helps make teaching an attractive profession.

In New York City, the percentage of eligible teachers who received tenure has declined in recent years, as the Bloomberg administration delayed many teachers’ tenure decisions in an effort to make the protection less automatic.

“The tenure system, done right, is a valuable piece of the way we educate because what it’s going to allow us to do is get quality teachers, get them to stay in our school system,” de Blasio said earlier this month.

There is also no guarantee that the Vergara ruling will stand, as the state of California and its teachers unions are gearing up to appeal.

race in the classroom

‘Do you see me?’ Success Academy theater teacher gives fourth-graders a voice on police violence

Success Academy student Gregory Hannah, one of the performers

In the days and weeks after last July’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teachers across New York grappled with how to talk about race and police violence. But for Sentell Harper, a theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2, those conversations had started long before.

CNN recently interviewed Harper about a spoken-word piece he created for his fourth-grade students to perform about what it means to be black and male in America. Harper, who just finished his fourth year teaching at Success, said that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, he wanted to check in with his students.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today, we’re going to talk about race,'” Harper told CNN. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Inspired by their stories, he created a performance called “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” drawing on poems by Danez Smith, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes.

Wearing gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was killed while wearing one, the boys take turns naming black men and boys who have been killed: Freddie, Michael, Philando, Tamir. The list goes on.

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Harper says honesty is essential for him as a teacher. “Our kids are aware of race and want to talk about it,” he wrote in a post on Success Academy’s website. “As a black male myself, I knew I wanted to foster conversation between my students and within the school community.”

Click below to watch the performance.

Half-priced homes

Detroit teachers and school employees are about to get a major perk: Discount houses

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is announcing an educator discount that will allow employees of all Detroit schools to buy houses from the Land Bank at 50 percent off.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is getting ready this morning to announce a major effort to lure teachers and other school employees to the city of Detroit: Offering them half-priced homes.

According to a press release that’s expected to be released at an event this morning, the mayor plans to announce that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter or parochial schools — will now get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

That discount is already available to city employees, retirees and their families. Now it will be available to full-time employees of schools located in the city.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future,” Duggan is quoted as saying in the release. “It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.”

If the effort can convince teachers to live in the city rather than surrounding suburbs, it could help a stabilize the population decline that has led to blight and neighborhood deterioration in many parts of the city.

For city schools, the discounts give administrators another perk to offer prospective employees. District and charter schools in Detroit face severe teacher shortages that have created large class sizes and put many children in classrooms without fully qualified teachers.

Detroit’s new schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has said he’s determined to make sure the hundreds of teacher vacancies that affected city schools last year are addressed by the start of classes in September.

In the press release, he’s quoted praising the discount program. “There is an opportunity and need to provide innovative solutions to recruit and retain teachers to work with our children in Detroit.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program will be announced at an event scheduled for 10:45 this morning in front of a Land Bank house in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Land Bank currently auctions three homes per day through its website, with bidding starting at $1,000.