Fewer teachers granted tenure this year, but denials hold steady

In a stark departure from tradition, more than 40 percent of city teachers up for tenure this year did not get it.

Just over 5,200 teachers were up for tenure this year. Of them, 58 percent received tenure and 3 percent were denied it, effectively barring them from working in city schools. The remaining portion — 39 percent — had their probationary periods extended for another year.

The number of extensions inched up in 2010 to 8 percent, but skyrocketed this year after the Department of Education revamped the tenure evaluation process in an effort to make the protection tougher to receive.

Yet the rate of tenure denials actually fell slightly from last year, from about 3.3 percent in 2010 to 2.7 percent in 2011, or 151 teachers, despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s insistence that the figures were the first step toward “ending tenure as we know it.”

The numbers, which Bloomberg touted at a press conference today, confirm anecdotal reports pointing to a sharp rise in the number of probation extensions under the new system. Before last year, that option was rarely used and the vast majority of teachers received tenure almost as a formality.

But last fall, Bloomberg vowed to make tenure a reward not for time served but for pushing students forward. In December, the city unveiled a new evaluation rubric for teachers up for tenure and said that teachers falling in the bottom two categories of four should not receive tenure.

“Tenure ought to be reserved for only the best teachers, and unfortunately, as we all know, for far too long it has been awarded primarily on the basis on longevity, not performance,” Bloomberg said today.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today that he expects the number of tenure denials to rise next year.

Teachers whose probationary periods were extended will get individualized support, Walcott promised. He did not offer specifics about what form that support would take but said the point of the extra year is improvement.

Of the 426 teachers who had their probation extended in 2010, 58 percent had their probation extended a second time this year, DOE spokesman Matthew Mittenthal said. Thirty-one percent of those teachers earned tenure this year.

“Getting an extension is not a bad thing, it’s not a punishment,” Walcott said. “It’s another year to take your game to the next level.”

But Walcott said he would be scrutinizing teachers whose probations are repeatedly extended, as city schools policy allows. And Bloomberg indicated that multiple extensions could help weed some teachers out of the system.

“Keep in mind, if a teacher gets turned down year after year, common sense says that they’ll say, maybe this is not an occupation for me. Everyone has self-esteem, they want to do something they can do well, so a lot of it would take care of itself,” Bloomberg said.

But with the results of the new evaluation system not actually altering the makeup of who is in the city’s classrooms, some say the high extension rate reflects not on teacher quality but on confusion and data troubles within the DOE.

In many cases, principals and teachers say, the extensions were not prompted by concerns about teachers’ skills. Some principals reported being told they could not exercise discretion in the case of mismatch between DOE data reports’ assessment of teachers and their own assessments.

UFT Secretary Michael Mendel said today that the union continues to supports tougher tenure evaluation standards but objects to the use of “broken tools,” such as the city’s Teacher Data Reports, and to principals being told that they cannot recommend tenure when they feel it is deserved.

“You can’t tell me [principals] went from, I’m not sure about 7 or 8 percent of teachers to, I’m not sure about 40,” Mendel said. “It’s not the case. It’s people being told by principals, we wanted to grant you tenure and we can’t.”

And some teachers said they were told they weren’t eligible for tenure for reasons other than their own performance. At Aspirations High School in East New York, for example, administrators’ failure to complete classroom observations and the school’s F grade were cited as reasons for across-the-board extensions, teachers said earlier this month.

In a letter to Walcott earlier this month, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the union was “outraged” if problems with data or supervision contributed to some teachers’ probation extensions.

The city did not immediately offer breakdowns of tenure denials and extensions by school. But Walcott indicated that such data would show “a correlation” between low-performing schools and tenure denials and extensions.

Educators 4 Excellence, the organization of young teachers that has called for changes to layoff and evaluation rules, said in a statement that the group supports the mayor’s efforts to make tenure “a significant professional milestone.” But the group also wants clarity about how tougher evaluations are conducted.

“What we learned from this year’s effort is that teachers need more transparency about how decisions are made and the process must be standardized across all schools,” E4E’s statement said.