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Instead of giving or denying tenure, city is deferring decisions

Under pressure from the Bloomberg administration to make tenure tougher to receive, principals and superintendents are withholding job protections from some young teachers.

Instead of simply granting or denying tenure at the end of a teacher’s third year, they are extending the probationary period for some teachers by another year.

In 2006, just 30 teachers had their probation extended. As the city has moved to toughen all teacher evaluations, that number has risen steadily, to 465 last year. Reports from teachers and principals suggest the trend is likely to continue when official numbers about the past year’s tenure decisions is released in the near future.

The reports suggest that many superintendents, who make final tenure decisions based on principals’ recommendations, are responding to a directive that teachers who score low on a new rubric not get tenure. The city urged that teachers who scored in the “ineffective” range be denied tenure and teachers who fell in the “developing” range have their probations extended.

A low score on the city’s Teacher Data Report was particularly influential, even if other information, such as classroom observations, contradicted it, principals said. The reports, which only some teachers receive, use value-added formulas to estimate teachers’ effectiveness at increasing students’ test scores, and teachers with low scores are “red-flagged” in the city’s tenure system.

Of the nine teachers Principal Joe Lisa had up for tenure this year at IS 61 in Queens, six taught in subjects without data reports and received tenure. Three math teachers had their probationary periods extended. One in particular seemed to be a shoo-in, Lisa said. But his superintendent rejected the idea of giving her tenure this year.

“I didn’t have enough evidence,” Lisa said. He said turnover among administrators meant that observations of the teacher didn’t show improvement, and in fact the school, which has more than 2,200 students, might not have conducted as many observations as it should have.

“There is more pressure on administrators to have an abundance of evidence, to prove without a shadow of doubt” that a teacher is up to par, he said. “If you’re ELA or math you have a much more difficult job getting tenure. My opinion didn’t matter.”

Union officials report hearing about large numbers of extensions, including at schools where most or even all of the teachers up for tenure had their probation extended. In Brooklyn’s District 32, for example, all of the teachers up for tenure at at least four schools — PS 145, IS 296, PS/IS 184, and IS 162 — received extensions, union officials said.

At least some teachers had their probation extended for a second time this year. There is no limit to how many times the extensions can happen, according to Matthew Mittenthal, a Department of Education spokesman.

The principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn said she wanted to give tenure to a third-grade teacher but was required to extend the teacher’s probation instead. The teacher had taken on a class of ill-prepared students and her data report showed that she was under par.

“She was hurt,” said the principal, who asked not to be named to protect the teacher’s identity. “But she’s coming back. She knows she’s wanted.” Next year, administrators will work with the teacher to put together additional evidence to make the teacher’s case to the superintendent.

The data reports are too full of errors to be used for a decision as high-stakes as whether a teacher gets tenure, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said. The union has requested a formal review of the reports’ accuracy.

“It is absurd that the DOE is judging how well many new teachers are doing by using a metric with a margin of error well over 50 percent,” he said in a statement. “Teachers and school communities deserve better.”

Other teachers say their bids for tenure were stymied by inadequate evidence of their quality.

At Aspirations High School in East New York, many teachers did not have any formal observations from their principal, teachers said. None of the eight Aspirations teachers up for tenure this year received it; instead, their probationary periods were extended.

One of them, Samantha Love, said she had finished her third year at the transfer high school with increasing confidence in her abilities. Following the city’s new guidelines, she put together a portfolio that included detailed statistics about her students’ Regents exam passing rates; evidence that she had improved her instruction; and proof that she helped run the school, even earning thousands of dollars in grants to buy supplies and pay for a class trip to Washington, D.C.

But she learned that she did not receive tenure the same day she turned in the portfolio, before the school’s superintendent could have reviewed it.

Jeff Kaufman, the teachers union chapter leader at Aspirations, said the extensions came as a surprise because the principal never told the teachers their tenure was in jeopardy.

Love and Kaufman say Aspirations teachers were told that they were not eligible for tenure because their school received an F on its most recent progress report — one of just nine high schools to do so.

In fact, the city does not have a policy of prohibiting tenure for teachers in F-rated schools, Mittenthal said.

Along with some of her colleagues, Love and other teachers at Aspirations are members of Educators 4 Excellence, the group of young teachers that advocates for tougher evaluations and changes to layoff rules. “I do believe we should be examining our personal effectiveness, and I don’t think [tenure] should just be a given,” she said. “But the way the process is being carried out is not an objective assessment.”

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