NYC teacher tenure rates continue to rise under Mayor Bill de Blasio

New York City teachers were more likely to earn tenure during the 2016-17 school year than at any point in the previous seven years, though approval rates remain far lower than they were a decade ago when nearly every eligible educator won the job protection.

Sixty-seven percent of the nearly 6,000 eligible teachers were granted tenure in the 2016-17 school year, a 14 percentage point increase since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, according to new data provided to Chalkbeat.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who promised to move toward “ending tenure as we know it,” tenure approval rates plummeted from 89% to 53% at the tail end of his administration, before de Blasio took control of the school system in 2014. 

Bloomberg argued that too many teachers were earning tenure too quickly, and the city began delaying decisions for a large portion of eligible teachers. After being awarded tenure, teachers earn due process rights that make them difficult to fire.

Under de Blasio, teachers have been more likely to win tenure as soon as they are eligible. But the statistics show that de Blasio has not returned to the approval rates of a decade ago, when more than 90% of eligible teachers earned tenure protections. 

The tenure rate ticked down last school year, though officials cautioned the data is not comparable. For one, far fewer teachers were eligible last year due to a change in state law requiring at least four years of service instead of three before a teacher can earn tenure. And the pool of eligible teachers was skewed toward those whose tenure decisions had previously been deferred, a pool that is less likely to win the protection.

“We’re committed to recruiting, retaining, and developing strong teachers in every classroom, and we continue to make rigorous tenure decisions,” education department spokeswoman Danielle Filson wrote in an email.

Still, the number of teachers who are denied tenure has remained flat for the last decade, hovering between 2 and 3%. Those teachers are “discontinued” from their current position, Filson said, but are not necessarily barred from teaching in the city’s public schools.

More often, tenure decisions are deferred to a later year, which can give teachers more time to demonstrate their effectiveness, or allow for more evidence to be considered to make a tenure decision, officials have previously said. Thirty-four percent of teachers had their tenure decisions extended last school year.

Education department officials emphasized that teachers who have had their tenure decisions delayed are less likely to be ultimately approved. Last year, 59% of teachers whose tenure decisions were previously deferred won the protection, compared with 69% for teachers eligible for the first time.

Some research focused on New York City has found that extending tenure decisions can lead to teachers switching schools or exiting the district entirely. Those that leave tend to be less effective than the teachers who replace them.

In response to the latest figures, teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew said in a statement that “the real issue is not a tenure numbers game, but the fact that thousands of teachers — tenured and untenured — decide every year to walk away from their New York City public school classrooms.”

Nationally, tenure rules have attracted scrutiny and have been subject to lawsuits from Minnesota to New York that claim the protections keep underperforming teachers in the classroom and violate students’ right to an adequate education. But the courts have not necessarily bought the argument. The New York lawsuit is still winding its way through the legal process.

Yet the debate locally around the tenure process seems to have receded, said David Bloomfield an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“This whole thing has fallen into disinterest,” he said. “It’s another indication that the era of data-based teacher accountability is over.”