The Unfireables.

photo by Thomas Favre-Bulle. Used via Creative Commons.

At the risk of belaboring the point on just how ridiculous our current teacher tenure policies are and the role the teacher’s unions play in keeping them that way, it should be pointed out that in New York City, which has a school system that employs 80,000 tenured teachers, almost never finds any of them incompetent. Either the city’s schools  employ the most amazing H.R. department in the history of the world, or more likely, the teacher’s unions have amassed way too much sway over how the city goes about (or doesn’t go about) evaluating its teachers.

Even when the schools do identify teachers as incompetent, it’s staggeringly difficult to get rid of them.  And though this issue has gotten lots of attention lately as the mayor has pushed to excise bad teachers from the school system, it looks like little has changed.

The Bloomberg administration has made getting rid of inadequate teachers a linchpin of its efforts to improve city schools. But in the two years since the Education Department began an intensive effort to root out such teachers from the more than 55,000 who have tenure, officials have managed to fire only three for incompetence.

Ten others whom the department charged with incompetence settled their cases by resigning or retiring, and nine agreed to pay fines of a few thousand dollars or take classes, or both, so they could keep their jobs. One teacher lost his job before his case was decided, after the department called immigration officials and his visa was revoked. The cases of more than 50 others are awaiting arbitration.

Ridding schools of subpar teachers has become one of the signature issues of national education reformers, but the results in New York City show that, as is true in many school systems around the country, the process is not easy.

The city’s effort includes eight full-time lawyers, known as the Teacher Performance Unit, and eight retired principals and administrators who serve as part-time consultants to help principals build cases against teachers. Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor, said that the team, whose annual budget is $1 million, had been “successful at a far too modest level” but that it was “an attempt to work around a broken system.”

Mr. Klein and his boss, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said they were hampered by cumbersome state laws that had been heavily influenced by the teachers’ union here, although many of the rules that govern the cases were agreed to by the city.

Think about that: 3 people fired from a pool of 55,000 over two years. As I’ve blogged about before, education experts have come to see teacher effects as so important to student achievement that it can cancel out other factors like socioeconomic status or even the quality of an entire school. Clinging to this system of tenure and seniority (in New York City, tenure is typically granted after three years) regardless of a teacher’s performance doesn’t make economic or educational sense. Bad, tenured teachers still receive raises for time served, and still hinder student performance. And a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality shows that when cash-strapped school districts conduct layoffs,  they overwhelmingly go the “last hired-first fired” route, sacking newer teachers who make less than their older counterparts. That means more new teachers have to be let go to achieve the same fiscal goals as sacking fewer longer-tenured, better paid, not-necessarily-better teachers — which  has the added deleterious effect  of driving up class sizes.

As Dr. Bitch pointed out in our last discussion on tenure, our methods for evaluating teachers currently leave a lot to be desired. But that only means we need better metrics for performance, not that teachers should be spared evaluations.

I’ll leave you with this from the NYT article:

Inside a barren room near City Hall, the teacher, Michael Ebewo, sat at a table as the principal of the Manhattan middle school where he had taught for years, Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science, began to go through each of the many deficiencies she said she had found in his classroom.

There was a chart with misspellings and unclear instructions. There were students staring into space and doodling rather than completing their worksheet, which contained questions that the students, who were in special education, had difficulty understanding. Rather than pressing the students for answers, Mr. Ebewo simply answered himself, making the students only more confused.

At the time of that visit, the principal, Lisa Nelson, criticized Mr. Ebewo, who had been teaching for 15 years, for not having proper behavior incentives and consequences for the students. The next time she came to the classroom, Ms. Nelson said, he distributed candy to students early in the morning, something she said “even a layperson” would object to.

Mr. Ebewo’s lawyer interrupted with objections more than two dozen times, but the arbitrator overruled him in nearly every instance. The hearing, which covered lessons dating to 2005, lasted four hours. The principal was only the first of several witnesses the Education Department would call to try to prove that Mr. Ebewo was unfit to be in any classroom.

And because of red tape, it took years for this case to even make it this far. Ridiculous.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Yeah tenure can be a good and bad thing. People can screw around after they get it and there isn’t a lot to be done. It’s crazy.

  • Ron

    Meanwhile in Central Falls, Rhode Island, one of the worst performing high schools had all of its teachers fired for next year, after the union took a hard line stance against reforms the School Board was making. I think that union overplayed their hand, since the district has no intention of negotiating with them…though apparently they plan to bring some of the teachers back.

  • @G.D.
    This is tough for me. I am hugely pro-labor in general and am immediately suspicious of anti-union arguments. I also have a personal attachment to the teacher’s union my mom walked the line in support of. Twice.

    So while you make compelling arguments I guess I’d ask what the alternative is to this admittedly flawed system? Without strong unions in general and tenure specifically what protections do teachers have? This system of seniority evolved because teaching is an extremely difficult job with few compensations. Without the protection of tenure and a strong union a single disgruntled student, parent or co-worker can ruin a teacher’s life. Who could be expected to do even an easy job under that constant threat? And teaching is not an easy job.

    Of course I agree that the system should be reformed and that incompetent teachers should be weeded out. But no one ever asks the most obvious follow-up question… who will replace those bad teachers? People aren’t exactly lining up to teach in public schools now. Will removing what little protections they might get encourage more people to join the profession?

    What’s the pitch? Hey you! You are young and idealistic and you care about education! If you want to make a difference become a teacher– for bad money, high stress and now with the added disincentive that your students and/or their parents can take away your job at any point in your career if they decide they don’t like you… for whatever reason!

    Everyone always concentrates on the misuses of tenure but what about the ways it supports good teaching? Tenure gives teachers the traction to make unpopular decisions–fail students, hold them accountable, push them to succeed even when they would rather not–without worrying that it will cost them their jobs. I’d argue that this is a necessary element in effective teaching. I don’t disagree with your underlying premise and am especially moved by the point that good teachers make a difference beyond even the economic circumstances of their students or the overall quality of the school. But without some benefits and protections do you know what will happen to those good teachers? They will leave. Tenure doesn’t just make it difficult to fire bad teachers, it protects the good ones and helps them do their jobs.

    I come from a family of teachers. I went to public schools myself and now I teach in them (at the college level). And I don’t think weakening the teacher’s union or making tenure more difficult to achieve are workable answers to the crisis in public education. If we valued education as a society–and by extension the work of teachers–we would not need such extreme (and yes, easily abused) measures to protect teachers. But we don’t. So we do.

    • Joseph,

      I’m a pretty pro-union cat myself, but I think it’s possible to believe unions should serve as a counter to the unfettered power of employers and still believe employers should wield some discretion in hiring and firing, or that union recalcitrance can result in a crippling inability of institutions to simply perform their functions or undertake much-needed change. (Think G.M., and the way attempts to streamline its operations were stifled by its health care costs and generous benefits packages.)

      There’s a lot of space between ending teacher tenure — which is important for all the reasons you listed— and reforming the way it’s currently granted to tie it to performance. If you’re going to make someone unfireable, we should determine first whether they deserve that protection instead of blindly granting it.

    • knottsy

      “Without the protection of tenure and a strong union a single disgruntled student, parent or co-worker can ruin a teacher’s life. Who could be expected to do even an easy job under that constant threat? And teaching is not an easy job.”

      Welcome to the world the rest of us live in, where disgruntled customers, clients, vendors, and competitors can ruin the average person’s job. A world where everyone is constantly under threat that back office might get sent to India or the factory sent from NY to Florida. And not to take away from the difficulty of teaching, but it’s not like it’s the most difficult job in the world.

  • @G.D.
    It’s hard to argue against professional accountability. But as I said, I don’t disagree with you in principle. I do think there is less space between ending tenure and reforming it than you might think though. Because while tying tenure to teacher performance seems like an appealingly straightforward idea, it suggests several questions with complicated answers.

    What is meant by teacher “performance” and how is it judged? Through student evaluations? Student testing? If so, based on what standard? Who gets the final say about who deserves to get tenure and who doesn’t? Do parents have a role in that decision? Is there an appeal process? Etc. etc.

    …I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m just trying to see past the argument and look at its implications. For example we have known for a long time that standardized tests are culturally biased. So tying teacher tenure to standardized student test scores just pays those inequities down the line. And in my recent interview with Professor Steven Salaita over at Vs. the Pomegranate he made the point that the way the tenure system is administered at the college level is sometimes misused to invisibly screen out teachers of color and/or those with unpopular politics. So if the tenure system in public schools is easily exploited as it is, so too could any of the ways it might be reformed.

    I would also like to see tenure reformed but not merely to trade one set of abuses for another.


    The issue of teacher tenure is really getting to me. I am a new teacher in New York City and I came in happy to be joining a union that protects me from all manner of threats to my livelihood. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person can have. I say this as someone who used to be a social worker and deal with severe mental illness, drug use, etc. It’s really interesting that everyone believes that they can comment on what a good teacher is, especially when they may never have been at the head of a classroom themselves. I find it hard to believe that anyone who thinks they are a bad teacher would just stay in the system for the hell of it even with tenure.

    Teachers are on the front line and it seems as if we are also the ones who get blamed for all of the ills of the education system in this country. The budget is cut every single year, schools are inadequately staffed and their is really no accounting for the socioeconomic and social factors these kids are going through. We are dealing with a lot and it doesn’t get any better when you fire teachers left and right. Thats what is so saddening about the issue in Rhode Island.
    For example I don’t have an adequate classroom library, why? Not because i’m a bad teacher but because I am expected to furnish the library from my own funds b/c there isn’t any room in the budget. I barely make enough to cover all of my bills.

    Don’t tell me that I can use teacher’s choice (the $150 we get to buy supplies for a year) to build a library because I also have to provide pens, paper, notebooks, uniforms (yes I have purchased some of my students uniforms), and various other materials. I will also admit that sometimes the kids aren’t learning in my class but that isn’t because i’m not trying. It’s because I have to stop every couple minutes to break up a fight, quiet the chatting, refocus them, get them to sit & do their work, etc. teaching is honestly about 60% discipline/behavior managemnet, and 40% teaching/planning. Perhaps this is because i’m in special education and my students have severe emotional disturbance but I have been in other classrooms and witnessed some of the same things.

    To end let me just say that i am looking forward to my 3 years and 1 day (when you get tenure in NYC) but not because that means I can dick around. Instead I look forward to it because that is when I will have been teaching for 3 years and +hopefully+ will feel like I finally have a handle on what it is that i’m doing. I don’t expect that it will be smooth sailing, not at all because part of teaching is constant reflection and trying something new but it may be nominally better. That is why tenure exists because you honestly do get better after several years on the job. Commitment and dedication that it takes to last 10+ years in this field should be rewarded and celebrated.