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.”

Detroit

Week in review: A raise for some Detroit teachers — no pay for others

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

The situation at the Detroit charter school where teachers won’t get their summer paychecks is a reminder about the precarious finances that can affect both district and charter schools.

Charters don’t typically have historic debts like those that nearly drove the Detroit Public Schools into bankruptcy last year, but Michigan does not provide charter schools with money to buy or renovate their buildings. Unlike districts, charter schools can’t ask voters to approve tax hikes to pay for improvements. And when charter schools borrow money, that debt isn’t supported by the state or backed up by district taxpayers the way some school district debt is. So when a charter school shuts down and money stops coming from the state, there could be many people — that includes teachers — who simply won’t get paid.

Scroll down for more on that story as well as updates on the just-ratified teachers contract and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news.

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

 

Paying teachers — or not

  • Detroit teachers who mailed in ballots this month have narrowly approved a new three-year contract in a vote of 515 to 474. “We certainly deserve more,” the union’s president said in a statement “but the package offers us the opportunity to build our local, move our school district forward and place students first.”
  • The new contract, which will now go to a state financial oversight board for approval, would raise teacher salaries by more than 7 percent over the next two years but would not increase wages enough to bring them back to where they were before pay cuts a few years ago.
  • Meanwhile, teachers at the shuttered Michigan Technical Academy charter school — which had a lower school in northwest Detroit and a middle school in Redford — were furious to learn that they won’t get money they’re owed for work they did during the school year. The money will instead go to pay off debts. More than 30 teachers are collectively owed more than $150,000.
  • The school is the second Detroit-area charter school to run into financial problems affecting teacher pay. Educators at the Taylor International Academy in Southfield say they haven’t been paid since their school shut down abruptly in early June. Taylor and MTA also have this in common: Both schools had their charter authorized by Central Michigan University.
  • Meanwhile, across the state, Michigan’s average teacher salary has dropped for the fifth year in a row, and many districts say they have trouble retaining high quality teachers because of low pay. The finding is included in a six-story series on state teacher pay from Michigan Radio that already has detractors.
  • An investor service says the controversial changes Michigan made to its pension system are a “positive” for the state.
  • A University of Michigan economist says substitute teachers are paid less in Michigan than other states — part of why the state has a sub shortage.
  • A suburban district got 952 applicants for a single teaching job but the district’s superintendent says that doesn’t mean there’s not a teacher shortage.

On the home front

In Detroit

Across the state

  • A judge has blocked the state from spending public money on private schools. A Catholic leader explains why he thinks private schools should be entitled to the money.
  • MIchigan has dumped its school ranking system in favor of a dashboard.
  • An advocate who wants schools to face tougher consequences for poor performance slammed Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent school reform efforts. “Parents are tougher on their kids when they don’t eat their vegetables than Detroit’s turnaround plan is with its hometown failure factories,” he wrote.
  • Many of the hurdles that make it difficult to provide enough early education in Detroit also exist in rural Michigan communities.
  • A New York writer says Betsy DeVos might be powerful and influential in Michigan but in Washington without her checkbook, she’s “like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

In other news

money money money

New York City teachers get news they’ve been waiting for: how much money they’ll receive for classroom supplies

New York City teachers will each get $250 this year to spend on classroom supplies — more than they’ve ever gotten through the city’s reimbursement program before.

The city’s 2017-18 budget dramatically ramped up spending for the Teacher’s Choice program, a 30-year-old collaboration between the City Council and the United Federation of Teachers. More than $20 million will go the program this year.

On Thursday, the union texted its members with details about how the city’s budget will translate to their wallets. General education teachers will each get $250, reimbursable against expenses. (Educators who work in other areas get slightly less; teachers tell the union they spend far more.)

Money given to New York City teachers for classroom supplies, measured in dozens of tissue boxes.

The increase means that Teacher’s Choice has more than recovered from the recent recession. In 2007, teachers were getting $220 a year, but that number fell until the union and Council zeroed out the program in 2011 as part of a budget deal aimed at avoiding teacher layoffs. (Some teachers turned to crowdsourcing to buy classroom supplies.) As the city’s financial picture has improved, and as the union lobbied heavily for the program, the amount inched upwards annually.

“With this increase in funding for Teacher’s Choice, the City Council has sent us a clear message that they believe in our educators and support the work they are doing,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “At a time where we see public education under attack on a national level, Council members came through for our teachers and our students.”