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Included in evaluation deal: language ensuring little protection for new teachers

The State Education Department is about to make it abundantly clear that New York’s teacher evaluation law doesn’t offer much protection to rookie teachers.

proposed amendment, expected to pass at this week’s Board of Regents meeting, clarifies that first-year teachers can be fired for their performance in the classroom at any time—even before they’ve received their first evaluation.

That’s already true, state officials insist. But the proposal is meant to address concerns, raised by lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that the wording of the state’s teacher evaluation law implies that school officials are more limited in their ability to fire new teachers than they were before.

In the past, in the rare instances where it becomes clear early on that a teacher isn’t cut out for the classroom, principals have been able to cite many reasons—classroom performance included—to remove them and begin termination proceedings.

Under the new evaluation system, districts must consider a teacher’s evaluation as a “primary factor” when deciding to terminate or grant teachers tenure, among other personnel decisions. Since a teacher’s final rating doesn’t come out until more than two months after the school year ends, some district officials have wondered if they have to wait to remove teachers, said Jay Warona, general counsel at the New York State Boards Association.

State education officials have long insisted that is a misguided fear. The state’s tenure laws, which doesn’t allow teachers to be eligible for tenure until three years of work, are clear that untenured teachers can be fired at any time and for any reason, spokesman Dennis Tompkins said.

The state teachers union agrees. “Probationary teachers have always been at will employees,” said New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn.

And Warona said that he has yet to hear about any districts that have been restricted from firing new teachers mid-year.

So, why was a change necessary?

Just to be extra clear, Tompkins said. “It codifies in regulation what we have always said in guidance” to districts, he said.

The proposal came out of last week’s negotiations between Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature, which ended with an agreement to restrict the use of student test scores in some teachers’ evaluations, for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

Warona said the change could also be “a statement” that untenured teachers are definitively excluded from those new protections, in which teachers can’t be fired or denied tenure because of the test score portion of their ratings.

The proposal is unlikely to affect New York City’s plan to spend nearly $18 million to pay the salaries of untenured teachers who are removed from the classroom after begin rated “ineffective.” A Department of Educations spokeswoman did not immediately respond.

Those teachers are entitled to a lengthy appeal process that could take up to seven months, but only begins once the teacher has received the “ineffective” rating.