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 One teacher lost his job before his case was decided, after the department called immigration officials and his visa was revoked.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.