On the Front Lines of the Teacher-Tenure Battle

I agonized as unionized staff defended a system that protected bad teachers but not children’s futures.

Opening arguments in the appeal, which began Feb. 25, had me reflecting on the disheartening lessons I learned regarding teacher’s contracts and labor laws during the five years I served as superintendent of New York City’s Alternative High Schools and Programs (District 79).

In 2006 my team and I were charged with improving the lives and academic outcomes of some of our city’s most at-risk young people. About 30,000 students ages 16 to 21, most from low-income families of color, attended our education programs in drug-treatment centers, juvenile detention, in jail on Rikers Island or in the basements of high schools. From the start it was clear that many of these resilient and brilliant young people—trapped in what some call the “school-to-prison pipeline”—had limitless potential, if only they had caring, quality educators.

Not long into my term, however, the ugly reality of the dysfunctional systems working against our students hit me. Far from setting the high expectations our students needed to beat the odds, many teachers and staff reinforced our students’ deepest self-doubts. The young people who needed the best, most motivated educators sat downwind of policies that meant they too often got the least-effective educators.

At the time, most teachers attained tenure after three years in New York. In District 79, most teachers had attained tenure decades before I became superintendent. (Under California’s now-unconstitutional tenure law, teachers achieve tenure even more quickly: 18 months or less.) Annual performance evaluations are supposed to ensure ongoing quality among tenured teachers, but all too often the system fails. In New York 99% of teachers receive “effective” ratings while fewer than 40% of high-schoolers graduate college-ready. Union and management officials admit in private that the results of teacher evaluations have little to do with reality.

Even worse, teachers engaging in egregious conduct, like showing up late 40 times in a single year, physically assaulting a child, or falsifying records (actual examples), incurred no consequences—unless we spent over $100,000 and up to two years to revoke their tenure. Even then, a slow and broken arbitration system could order the teacher back into the classroom due to technicalities.

More shocking, if a teacher is merely incompetent and delivering mediocre lessons, the process is twice as long and costly, even though, as evidence in Vergara v. Californiaestablished, the damage to students is equally as devastating.

Statutes forcing us to retain tenured educators regardless of quality also prevented us from adapting staffing to meet evolving student needs. For example, if we wanted to hire a new, highly motivated person with alternative-high-school experience to teach computer code, the job security of the tenured “teacher of plumbing” or “elevator operator” prevented us—even if the unneeded teacher was mediocre or worse.

As a huge believer in unions, due process and collective bargaining, I agonized seeing union staff zealously defend a tenure system that essentially traded students’ futures for jobs at all costs. Quality-blind tenure systems for teachers have a devastating impact on students and on the teachers who want most to make a difference.

The incredible work of some dedicated educators was overshadowed by far too many who lamented that our students were unreachable and regularly told me students were best served with low-level work sheets and mindless busy work. When I arrived at District 79 in 2006, it was the exception, rather than the rule, to observe a teacher conducting lessons that actively engaged students.

Meanwhile, our district employed nearly a dozen “principals” and “vice principals” who did not serve in any formal leadership capacity. Lawyers had negotiated settlements to place them “off the radar” rather than attempt to navigate the byzantine tenure-revocation process. Caring teachers were often discouraged and driven to become less effective or leave the district. People were quick to tell me there was nothing I could do about it because of labor laws and practices—and that asking questions made you a target.

Despite the painful effects of a broken tenure system on our district, over five years, we made tremendous strides through better mental-health services, smarter curricula to close academic gaps, and individualized plans for students coming out of incarceration. Courageous staff and union leaders bucked the status quo and put the interests of students over the interests of adults. Unfortunately, the unnecessary obstacles we had to tackle to attain these results demoralized many dedicated educators, confronted daily by the overall lack of quality personnel.

Over and over, I saw the issue at the heart of the Vergara case play out in my district—the worst educators serving children in the toughest circumstances, in part because these students and their families had limited ways to fight back. Why should doing the right thing require nine brave students to sue the state, as we’ve seen in California, or “rule-breaking” educators and union leaders, like I knew in District 79, to defend students’ rights to quality instruction? Shouldn’t public policy that puts students first be the status quo?

Ms. Anderson is a former superintendent of Newark Public Schools (2011-15) and former superintendent of Alternative High Schools and Programs in New York City (2006-11).

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