School Climate & Safety

Analysis Cites Holes in N.Y.'s Teacher-Dismissal Process

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 07, 2014 3 min read
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New York’s due process procedures for teachers are dominated by a focus on teacher rehabilitation, with the end result that even abusive teachers are often fined or suspended rather than fired, according to a newly released analysis of more than 150 such cases in New York City.

Though it concerns just a tiny fraction of that city’s approximately 75,000 teachers, the analysis paints a disturbing picture of educators returning to the classroom after serious infractions, such as failing to show up to work for weeks on end or using racist language.

“The operative minimum standard for teachers is not demonstrated effectiveness, but any potential capacity to be even marginally competent in the future,” the study states. “This explicit aim means that the law now keeps chronically ineffective teachers in the classroom by design.”

Data from the analysis have already been cited by plaintiffs in Wright v. New York, a lawsuit seeking to overturn New York’s teacher due process rules. The report could play a role in the trial.

The report is based on a chapter from a 2013 Columbia University doctoral dissertation on New York City teacher-accountability policies by Katharine B. Stevens.

It was released Oct. 2 by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank that Ms. Stevens recently joined as an early-education research fellow.

States’ due process laws vary in key details, including who conducts the hearings, the charges that can be filed, and the forum for appeals.

Shifting Standard

Another factor is the accretion of case law on such decisions. Ms. Stevens contends that in New York, the central purpose of due process hearings is no longer whether a teacher is guilty of charges, but whether he or she is beyond any hope of improvement.

Ms. Stevens’ study is based on an analysis of final decisions for “3020-a” hearings, named for the section of New York education code governing teacher discipline. Through an open-records request, Ms. Stevens reviewed the 155 decisions from July 1, 1997 through June 30, 2007 in which a teacher was convicted of at least one charge related to his or her professional performance.

Among her findings:

• Of the 155 cases, just 39 percent ended in termination. Sixty-one percent resulted in suspension, fine, or no penalty.

• Teachers convicted of sexual misconduct were the most likely to be discharged, but those guilty of excessive absenteeism were much more likely to be suspended or fined.

• A requirement of “progressive discipline” meant, in practice, that teachers typically faced escalating penalties over many years rather than dismissal.

• In a random selection of 22 cases, hearing officers repeatedly cited the need for teachers to be given more support and time to improve.

Changes Debated

In a statement, the United Federation of Teachers said that the report’s figures were “outdated.” The union pointed to data it released in July on 3020-a cases opened between 2012-13 and 2013-14. They indicate that teachers accused of misconduct were most likely to be fined, and those accused of incompetence were most likely to resign, retire, or be terminated. The UFT’s statement did not address the report’s contention that the state’s due process standard is skewed toward rehabilitation.

Aspects of New York’s rules have also been changed since Ms. Stevens undertook her research. For example, two successive poor performance evaluations now provide “very significant” evidence of incompetence and grounds for a 3020-a hearing. Other changes added incentives for hearing officers to speed up the proceedings.

But officials for New York State United Teachers, the UFT’s parent union, said recently that it is too early to tell whether those provisions have led to different outcomes.

It’s unclear to what extent other states’ due process procedures create similar patterns of results. But anecdotes are rampant.

Witnesses for the prosecution in the Vergara v. California trial testified that the California hearings hinged on whether a teacher was incapable of improving, not merely incompetent. The ruling in that lawsuit declared the current due process rules unconstitutional.

In an interview, Ms. Stevens said that she does not view changing the rules as a silver bullet to improving schools.

“I’m not saying this is the problem, but it is a problem that needs to be fixed, and that would help ... kids that are in classrooms,” she said, adding that she supports the concept of due process.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Analysis Cites Holes in N.Y.'s Teacher-Dismissal Process

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