NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

New York Teacher Dismissal Standard Sends Incompetent Teachers Back into Classrooms

October 3, 2014

Two lawsuits have been filed in New York claiming that the state's tenure laws violate children's state constitutional right to a "sound basic education," writes Katharine Stevens, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. As Stevens explains, Section 3020-a of the state's education law is at the center of the controversy. The effect of the law is staggering, as dismissal decisions focus not on the teacher's poor performance but on the teacher's capacity to be rehabilitated.

Section 3020-a covers "Disciplinary Procedures and Penalties." According to the provision, tenured New York teachers may be dismissed from their jobs only if an administrative hearing finds "just cause" for doing so.

Stevens analyzed 155 different administrative decisions. What she found was that the disciplinary system focused far less on whether the school was correct in finding a teacher's performance to be inadequate and more on "whether there is any possibility than an inadequately performing teacher can be rehabilitated." It is the school's duty to rehabilitate that teacher, she explains, which it is required to do "until it is essentially indisputable that rehabilitation is impossible."

The focus on teacher rehabilitation, explains Stevens, "keeps chronically inadequate teachers in the classroom." In order for a New York school even to file dismissal charges against a teacher, the school must first prove that they have made attempts to rehabilitate the teacher. In short, "the law compels school administrators to knowingly leave ineffective teachers in the classroom for years while trying to rehabilitate them."

Even when an administrative hearing does determine that the teacher is ineffective, teachers are routinely sent back to classrooms with the hope of improvement. For example, Stevens cites one case in which a school district had made clear, over the course of a 22-day hearing, that a teacher had spent three years being "guilty of incompetence more often than not." Yet, the hearing officer in charge of the case sent the teacher back into the classroom, as he stated his belief that "with appropriate remediation, [she] may be rehabilitated to the point of competence."

Stevens quotes from one administrative hearing officer who handles these tenure cases. According to the officer, mere incompetence cannot justify dismissal of a New York teacher. Instead, the school must prove that the teacher is ineffective as well as "incorrigible" without "a probability or even a hope of rehabilitation."

As a result, New York students across the state are forced to learn from grossly inadequate teachers -- including those who are incompetent, fail to show up to work or are even abusive -- who are protected by the 3020-a standard.

Source: Katharine B. Stevens, "Tenured teacher dismissal in New York: Education Law § 3020-a 'Disciplinary procedures and penalties,'" American Enterprise Institute, October 2014. 


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