In the herculean effort to improve its failing schools, New York City isn't shying away from one of the most difficult tasks--getting rid of incompetent teachers.
And, the city school system is devoting significant resources to that process. Chancellor Joel Klein, with the full support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has assigned eight full-time attorneys to build cases against educators who can't get the job done. Known as the Teacher Performance Unit (TPU), the group also includes retired principals and administrators who assist in case preparation. The unit has an annual budget of at least $1 million.
So, two years into the assignment, how is the effort faring? According to The New York Times, the unit has only fired three teachers for incompetence, among the 55,000 with tenure in the city school system. Ten others charged with incompetence resolved their cases by resigning or retiring, and nine more took classes, paid small fines (or both) to retain their jobs. More than 50 other incompetence cases are awaiting arbitration.
Mr. Klein says the unit has been successful, but "at a far too modest level." Both the Chancellor and Mayor Bloomberg say attempts to weed out bad teachers have been hampered by a "broken system" that protects incompetent and makes it almost impossible to fire them.
Here's an example; a Times reporter was allowed to sit in on a hearing between a middle school principal and one of her math teachers, who has been judged unfit:
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.
Mr. Ebewo, through his lawyer, declined to comment for this article. His case took years to reach a hearing because of a state law that requires the city to show evidence that it has given the teacher a chance to improve and instruction on how to do so. Any missing file could jeopardize a case, lawyers for the department say.
And the hearing will probably go on for months, because of a rule the city agreed to four years ago. In an effort to impose more order on the process, the city and the union agreed to set up a panel of arbitrators to hear such cases regularly. There are only so many arbitrators, however, and lawyers can handle only so many cases at once, so the arbitrators hear a case only five days a month.
At that pace, some of these cases will drag on indefinitely. During the hearing and arbitration process, teachers are removed from the classroom and pass their days in one of the city's "rubber rooms," with full pay and benefits. To be fair, not all of the educators in the holding centers are accused of classroom incompetence; some were placed there after run-ins with administrators, while others are facing charges of misconduct. By one estimate, New York City spends $30 million a year on salaries for teachers in the rubber rooms.
And one more thing: the number of teachers in New York facing potential removal for incompetence? Less than 2% of the system's 55,000 tenured educators. It doesn't take a statistician to understand that many of the unfit teachers will keep flying beneath the radar, and remain on the job, to the everlasting detriment of their schools and students.
Still, New York City is light-years ahead of other large systems in trying to get rid of incompetent teachers. LA Weekly recently published a lengthy article on attempts by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to get failing teachers out of the classroom. The piece is entitled "Dance of the Lemons," and for good reason.
Over the past decade, LAUSD has spent $3.5 million on trying to fire just seven incompetent teachers. Only four were actually dismissed, following legal battles that lasted an average of five years and cost the district thousands of dollars in legal fees. Two others received substantial settlements in their cases and one was reinstated. The average cost per teacher: $500,000.
To make it easier to fire incompetent teachers in the future, both New York and Los Angeles are attempting to limit tenure for new educators. Under the current system, a teacher with only three years of experience can receive life-time tenure, provided they receive satisfactory evaluations. School officials are also encouraging principals to take a harder look at classroom performance, and hand out more unsatisfactory evaluations. But the number of teachers who receive failing grades is also low; in New York City and LA, less than two percent of educators have been rated as "unsatisfactory."
That may not seem rather low, and (truth be told) many teachers are doing a good job, against long odds. But the impact of those classroom "lemons" cannot be underestimated. Sources told LA Weekly writer Beth Barrett that as many as 1,000 teachers in the LAUSD could be classified as incompetent and targeted for dismissal. Collectively, those individuals are responsible for as many as 30,000 students who struggle with basic skills because their teachers aren't up to the job.