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.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”