Building Better Teachers

Advocates preparing lawsuit to target New York state teacher tenure laws

A national movement to prove that job protections for teachers prevent students from learning is getting ready to target New York state.

Six students and families, with the pro-bono help of a powerful New York City law firm and new advocacy group headed by former CNN journalist Campbell Brown, announced on Tuesday that they would file a lawsuit challenging state laws that critics say make it next to impossible to fire ineffective teachers. The process, they say, violate a student’s constitutional right to a sound and basic education.

The group said their lawsuit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, will be filed in the coming weeks.

The plans come two weeks after a judge in California said data showing that poor and non-white students in California are more often taught by low-performing teachers convinced him that the laws violate the state’s constitution.

The Vergara suit hinged on the idea that poor students were more frequently taught by “low-performing” teachers, designated by value-added formulas that took student performance into account. But litigation in New York would have to contend with a different set of laws.

Here’s how the advocates describe their cause in their release:

Families are suing the State of New York, claiming that the institutionalized retention of ineffective teachers deprives each child of their right to a sound basic education as guaranteed under the New York State Constitution. There are three basic claims:

1.    Similar to the recent ground-breaking Vergara ruling in California, the lawsuit will specifically challenge the “Last In, First Out” mandate in New York, stating that the policy of forcing school districts to base layoffs on seniority – not a teacher’s performance in the classroom – violates the state constitution by denying students access to effective teachers.

2.    Also similar to Vergara, the lawsuit will claim that New York’s Tenure Statute forces administrators to either grant or deny permanent lifetime employment after three years – an arbitrary time period that does not provide administrators enough time to determine a teachers’ effectiveness. Also similar to Vergara, the suit claims that the complicated disciplinary statutes make it nearly impossible to fire or discipline ineffective teachers – creating a burdensome, costly, and lengthy process that rarely removes ineffective teachers.

3.    Also similar to Vergara, the suit claims that the complicated disciplinary statutes make it nearly impossible to fire or discipline ineffective teachers – creating a burdensome, costly, and lengthy process that rarely removes ineffective teachers.

That reasoning has come under fire from teachers unions and others, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also note that tenure protects teachers from capricious administrators and say tenure helps make teaching an attractive profession.

In New York City, the percentage of eligible teachers who received tenure has declined in recent years, as the Bloomberg administration delayed many teachers’ tenure decisions in an effort to make the protection less automatic.

“The tenure system, done right, is a valuable piece of the way we educate because what it’s going to allow us to do is get quality teachers, get them to stay in our school system,” de Blasio said earlier this month.

There is also no guarantee that the Vergara ruling will stand, as the state of California and its teachers unions are gearing up to appeal.

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.