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.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.