Policy

Teacher tenure approvals tick up, continuing a de Blasio-era shift

Photo by Grace Tatter

New York City teachers were more likely to earn tenure last school year than at any point in the previous five years, but approval rates remain far lower than they were just a few years ago, when virtually every eligible teacher won the job protection.

Sixty-four percent of the 5,832 eligible teachers were granted tenure during the 2014-15 school year, up from 60 percent the year before, according to data released Thursday to Chalkbeat. Another 34 percent had their decisions deferred, and 2.3 percent were rejected, effectively ending their teaching careers in the district.

The numbers show that eligible teachers are slightly more likely to receive tenure under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch. But they also show that the de Blasio administration has not reversed the approach of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration made attaining tenure dramatically more difficult not by rejecting tenure applications, but by delaying a larger share of those decisions to a later year.

Under Bloomberg, who promised to move toward “ending tenure as we know it,” tenure approval rates plummeted from 89 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 53 percent the year before de Blasio took control of the city school system. Bloomberg argued that too many teachers were earning tenure too quickly, and the city began delaying decisions for a large portion of eligible teachers.

Over his first two years, de Blasio has slowly changed course. In his first year, tenure rates inched up to 60 percent, a 7 percent increase that de Blasio said reflected his administration’s interest in rewarding and retaining top teachers. And last year, the approval rate increased again to 64 percent.

The number of teachers whose tenure prospects were deferred fell slightly to 34 percent, down from a high of 44 percent in Bloomberg’s final year. Under both administrations, rejection rates have hovered around 2 percent.

“This process is working,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We’ll continue to focus on retaining quality teachers and expediting the process for those who don’t belong in the profession.”

Six percent of teachers whose tenure decisions were previously delayed faced outright denial, up from 4 percent the previous year, which a department official emphasized as a sign of a rigorous tenure process.

But a more important statistic is that overall rejection rates have largely remain unchanged, according to David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The publicity surrounding this is like, ‘we’re getting rid of bad teachers from the classrooms,’” he said. “The fact that the denials are flat – that’s always been the important point.”

The education department only released the tenure numbers — which have historically been distributed months earlier — to Chalkbeat after multiple requests. Observers say that reticence could reflect the political reality that both union supporters and advocates who want stricter tenure rules can use the data as a political bludgeon.

“What’s maybe going on is a peculiar calculus that the number of grants of tenure has gone up and somehow that makes them look bad,” Bloomfield said. “The raw data is likely to be used by the mayor’s opponents no matter what it is.”

For their part, union officials said they were not aware of last year’s tenure numbers until Thursday.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, said the new data “reflects the trend that we have seen, fewer teacher complaints about probation extensions and fewer requests for legal reviews” of those extensions.

Tenure rules have been the subject of increased national scrutiny in recent years, and there are active lawsuits from Minnesota to New York that claim the protections keep underperforming teachers in the classroom and violate students’ right to an adequate education. (An appeals court in California recently struck a blow to that argument, saying the tenure rules in that state did not deprive low-income students of their civil rights.)

A key feature of the national debate is how long teachers should be in the classroom before being considered for the job protection. U.S. Secretary of Education John King recently waded into that conversation, saying that two years is not enough. Under a recent change to state rules, teachers can be considered for the job protection only after four ‘probationary’ years.

Meanwhile, New York City school leaders are already making the next round of tenure decisions. Most of this year’s recommendations were due from principals April 30; teachers should be notified of those decisions by late June.

This article was first published on Chalkbeat New York on May 6.

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