Teaching Profession

New York City Taps Lawyers to Weed Out Bad Teachers

By Vaishali Honawar — November 29, 2007 3 min read
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An aggressive drive meant to weed out incompetent tenured teachers in New York City is under attack from the local teachers’ union and some teacher-quality advocates, who describe it as a “witch hunt.”

The Teacher Performance Unit, made up of five lawyers and headed by a former prosecutor, will help principals prepare cases to fire tenured teachers who fail repeatedly to raise student test scores and are also found lacking during principals’ observations.

The plan also includes peer-intervention and other help for struggling teachers. Only if a teacher continues to fail to show improvement despite those interventions will the process for removing a teacher begin, district officials say.

“In any organization where you have tens of thousands of key employees, there are some people who are not performing well,” said Dan Weisberg, the chief executive for labor policy and implementation for the New York City school system. “For tenured teachers, it is a particular challenge because tenure protections are quite strong, making it difficult to hold [them] accountable. This initiative is designed to give principals the tools and support they need.”

‘Adversarial’ Approach

But teacher-policy experts say the city is going about the job of removing incompetent teachers the wrong way.

Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, criticized the approach as “adversarial.”

“It appears they have created a pack of prosecuting attorneys who are sent out on a witch hunt against teachers, which is very destructive to the relationship between teachers and administrators,” Mr. Carroll contended. “That’s not too constructive in terms of forward progress or improving schools.”

The United Federation of Teachers, the city’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate, has labeled the legal team a “gotcha” squad, and this week protesting teachers held a candlelight vigil outside district headquarters in lower Manhattan.

The union this month also released figures showing that 4,606 teachers, or 300 more than the previous year, left the district in 2006-07—numbers that district officials dispute.

“To ignore the difficulties many teachers face and simply look for them to trip up (or worse, to blame them for a school’s bad score, or to punish them for speaking up when they see problems), sends a terrible message to our students and leads many teachers with great potential to give up and leave the profession entirely,” UFT President Randi Weingarten wrote in a Nov. 26 commentary in the New York Sun.

State labor laws in New York and elsewhere offer public employees, including teachers, job-protection rights that typically require extensive hearings and appeals processes before they can be fired. Teachers’ unions have fiercely guarded the lengthy processes as necessary to ensure teachers get a fair hearing, even as some education analysts have criticized the protections as unduly cumbersome and a hindrance to school improvement.

“You ask any principal in any big-city system, and they say it takes two years to fire a teacher who is tenured. A principal has a hard time firing more than one teacher in a year,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council for Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group. She called the New York City strategy a “smart idea.”

Mentors and Consultants

Officials of the 1.1 million-student district point to their own statistics: Just one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the city’s teachers are fired for incompetence in a typical year, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein told principals in a letter dated Nov. 16 in which he outlined the new plans. Last year, just 10 teachers were fired for incompetence in the district, which has a total teaching corps of 80,000, including 55,000 tenured teachers.

Mr. Weisberg, the district’s labor-policy chief, said he hopes struggling teachers will take advantage of new improvement opportunities the district is offering, such as a peer-intervention program, implemented in October, that builds a pool of independent, experienced teachers who will work with a struggling teacher for three months.

Under the new plans Mr. Klein announced, principals can also draw on a group of consultants, including former principals in the city’s schools, to guide them on providing support to struggling tenured teachers.

New York City earlier this year also launched a system to weed out ineffective novice teachers, requiring principals to rate the performance of those who are within a month of tenure eligibility.

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as New York City Taps Lawyers to Weed Out Bad Teachers

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