the tenure track

New York City is among the hardest places to fire a low-performing teacher, report claims

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.

Despite changes in state law and several attempts at overhauling teacher evaluations, New York City remains one of the most difficult places in the country to fire an ineffective teacher.

That’s according to a report released Thursday by the conservative-leaning Thomas Fordham Institute, which ranked New York City fourth out of 25 large, geographically diverse school districts in terms of how hard it is to fire low-performing teachers.

The findings offer another piece of evidence that the national effort to remove ineffective teachers through harsher evaluation systems — which have already been significantly rolled back in New York state — has not taken hold locally.

“We made this massive push to improve teacher quality,” said David Griffith, a co-author of the report, referring to efforts around the country to overhaul the way teachers are evaluated. “The bottom line probably hasn’t changed as much as people might think.”

The report assessed teacher contracts and state tenure policies and rated each school district on three key questions: Does tenure protect veteran teachers from performance-based dismissal? How long does it take to fire an ineffective teacher? And how easy is it to challenge a decision to dismiss a teacher?

New York City ranked as more favorable to teachers than Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco’s school districts on those questions, but is still among the most challenging places to fire a tenured teacher in the country, according to the report.

The only question on which New York City did not receive a zero when it came to toughness on teachers: The amount of time it takes to fire a tenured educator. It takes two years of consecutive “ineffective” ratings to dismiss one in New York City, roughly a third of the time it can take in Los Angeles, in some cases. (In response to the report, New York City education officials said teachers can be removed for incompetence, even without two ineffective ratings.)

Still, the vast majority of New York City teachers rated ineffective are never fired — even those who have received that bottom ranking multiple times.

Out of 77 city educators who received two consecutive ineffective ratings since September 2014, 57 had cases brought against them, but only nine have been fired, according to state officials. (Nineteen of the 57 cases are still active, two were withdrawn, and 27 were settled. The results of those settlements were unclear at press time.)

City education department officials noted those statistics don’t account for the all the ways in which teachers can be removed for incompetence, and that teachers may leave the system before charges work their way through the full removal process.

In the 2014-15 school year, for instance, incompetence charges lead to 106 teacher “exits,” an education department official said, nine more than the previous year.

“We are using the tools at our disposal to recruit and retain great teachers and also to move those who shouldn’t be teaching out of the system,” department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in a statement.

But when it comes to removing teachers who have received two ineffective ratings, Griffith said, the process can often keep school leaders from following through on firing a teacher.

“During those two years [in which teachers are rated ineffective] you have to do at least eight formal observations and teachers have the ability to challenge it during a grievance process that can take months,” he said. “And if you make a minor mistake, then the whole thing can be thrown out.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, blasted the report, and said the focus should be on improving teaching conditions. “Hundreds of teachers depart the New York City public schools every year based on their professional performance – failure to maintain licensing requirements, disciplinary action and similar reasons,” he wrote in a statement.

“But every year thousands of teachers in good standing leave of their own volition because the system has failed to provide the supports they need to effectively help the students in their classrooms. That’s the real scandal that critics like the Thomas Fordham Institute ignore.”

Nationwide, job protections for teachers have been under increased scrutiny in recent years, and lawsuits have been filed from California to New York that claim leaving ineffective teachers in place can violate students’ civil rights — though the courts haven’t necessarily bought that argument.

The Fordham Institute’s Griffith said there is not one single policy lever that would protect quality teachers while allowing low-performing ones to be fired, but he pointed to the tenure process as one place for reform. (There’s been some recent movement on that front: Teachers can now be considered for the job protection only after four ‘probationary’ years, up from three.)

A focus on delaying tenure is in line with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach. His administration promised to move toward “ending teacher tenure as we know it” and oversaw a massive decrease in tenure approval rates.

Under current Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is considered more union-friendly, the education department has quietly started approving more teachers for tenure — though still far below pre-Bloomberg rates. Still, both administrations have held rejection rates essentially flat at 2 percent.

“To fix the process would require a lot of little changes,” Griffith said of the teacher tenure and removal process. “If it’s a lifetime guarantee of a job, the bar to getting it should be really high.”

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”