New York's Teacher Disciplinary Process Debated

05/24/2011 02:24 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2011

NEW YORK -- A state Senate hearing in Albany on Monday explored ways to make the process for disciplining teachers suspected of incompetence or ethical errors less cumbersome and more consistent.

"I really haven't met anyone who thinks it's going swimmingly," said state Sen. John Flanagan, who convened the hearing, according to GothamSchools. He said the process as it stands favors teachers, allowing them to resign quietly as hearings lag or as school districts choose not to formally press charges and risk spending thousands of dollars in litigation.

Monday's senate hearing focused on the state's 3020-a hearing, the process that requires districts to prove their case for terminating a tenured teacher. The 3020-a hearings, senators said, are too lengthy and expensive. As the Albany Times Union notes, such cases can cost the state up to $7 or $8 million per year. The arbitrators of these cases are now facing delays in payment because of the state's deficit.

Flanagan and fellow Republican state Sen. Stephen Saland noted that the process charges $217,000 per case to taxpayers.

That needs to change, according to Valerie Grey, the state Education Department's chief operating officer.

"If we don't do anything, the system has a chance of collapsing," Grey said. Outside of New York City, she noted, cases take two years to resolve.

The teachers union shot back by blaming the system's faults on the education department. Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, said the department takes up to two months to send out a roster of hearing officers.

At the hearing, officials pointed to New York City as a district that was able to turn around the lagging hearings. Until last summer, the city put hundreds of teachers awaiting hearings into so-called "rubber rooms," where they received their regular salaries to do non-classroom work. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the union worked to close the rubber rooms by getting arbitrators to work more days per week. This hastening of the hearings schedule reduced the backlog from about 700 cases to just 16 in four months.

State lawmakers praised New York City for its speedier disciplinary process, but the city's school chancellor Dennis Walcott said it still needed to be faster and fairer. For example, Walcott pointed to a case in which it took the city an entire year to fire a teacher convicted of manslaughter. He recommended putting the termination process into the hands of judges -- specifically, the city's Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings instead of arbitrators. That office has a full-time staff of lawyers and rules in similar cases against other city employees.

But the city's teachers' union isn't having any of it. Carol Gerstel, the chief counsel for the United Federation of Teachers, testified that the city's judges might not be impartial in ruling on teacher disciplinary cases.

"We think that a fair and expeditious process can be had using impartial arbitrators -- hearing officers -- as we are doing in the city right now," she said, according to GothamSchools.

Other critics of OATH say its judges are not equipped to deal with education. "In regular courts like OATH, judges don't know or understand the rubric or what is appropriate in the classroom," said Steve Landis, a labor employment and education attorney and chair of the New York County Lawyers' Association education law committee. "Education is different because you're dealing with students and a squishy issue of competence that is not readily identifiable by a test or a graph or a number."

Julie Cavanagh, a public-school teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and a member of the Grassroots Education Movement, said a move toward OATH hearings would be a mistake.

"To assume that the disciplinary hearings of teachers are straightforward and the same as a firefighter's is a mistake that I think could be very costly in terms of protection for teachers and students," she said.

Dan Weisberg said switching to OATH is important, but noted it would be just one step in overhauling the disciplinary process. Weisberg was formerly the NYC Department of Education's chief executive of labor policy and implementation and now works as vice president for policy at the New Teacher Project.

"One of the issues that you have with using arbitrators is that the arbitrators themselves depend on avoiding offending either party for their livelihood," he said. "Asking them to make tough calls on termination is problematic."

Teachers find themselves at the center of a national debate about the country's education system, as more and more states pass laws that drastically change the way they can be hired and fired. While job security for teachers was traditionally pegged to years of experience, new laws are taking student test scores into consideration.

New York's discussion of teacher discipline comes one week after the state's Board of Regents voted to adapt a new teacher evaluation system that requires districts to use standardized test scores to evaluate 40 percent of teacher review scores -- 20 percent from state tests, with the other 20 precent from either district or state tests.

New York City is working on developing new tests designed to evaluate teaching, according to The New York Times, funded by millions of dollars of Race to the Top grant money. The new evaluation scale replaces the binary grading system of "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" with a spectrum ranging from "ineffective" to "highly effective."

Critics say these moves encourage teaching to the test and encroach on students' learning time.

"Race to the Top really encouraged states to do this," said Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University. "The only people who will make money off of this are people who manage data sets," she added. She also stressed a need for new tests that would measure teacher growth.

This story has been updated to include comment from Steve Landis, Julie Cavanagh and Dan Weisberg.