UFT: our tenure system is broken.
And our members deserve that we fix it. Repost of the New Action / UFT blog.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve heard from fellow unionists about tenure decisions. April/May is ‘tenure’ season. But, it’s also ‘denial/extension’ season. This year, there seems to be an unusual amount of bad news. Some of the best teachers I know are being extended, sometimes for the second time. Often, the rationale principals are using to withhold tenure seems dubious. Indeed, weaponized tenure gatekeeping has become an epidemic in New York City. When a system is broken as badly as tenure is for UFT members, we have to analyze why – and come up with ways to fix it.
Defining Tenure: the Right to Due Process
Before we get started, let’s define what we mean by ‘tenure.’ Because ‘tenure’ is one of those words that means very different things when used in different contexts. The more liberal definition of the term applies to tenured college professors, where tenure has the specific quality of protecting academics from termination over controversial speech, research, or ideas. Famously, this version of tenure makes it almost impossible for higher education institutions to fire professors. But that’s not what tenure means for UFT members. For us, tenure is a far more limited concept – protecting teachers (and others) who have successfully completed their probationary period from being dismissed without due process. That’s it – due process. Right-wing ed-deformers have successfully chipped away at teacher tenure, in part, by making false equivalencies between the college version of tenure and the k-12 version of tenure. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s apples and oranges. For teachers, the modern version of tenure has always been a simple right to due process—analogous to that given to essentially every unionized worker in the public sector. For UFTers, it just takes longer to get it.
Today, UFT members must wait a minimum of four years to apply for tenure, must complete loads of paperwork to qualify, and can be routinely extended for nearly any reason at all. The process to obtain due process is much quicker and simpler for other unionized municipal professions. Sanitation positions, for instance, have a flat probationary period of 18 months. Some may argue that teachers should wait longer than sanitation workers, seeing as we need to be deemed fit to educate the city’s children. Of course, teachers have other ‘non-tenure’ checks on that, including extensive background checks, Masters-level education requirements, and the need for certification and PD hours. Moreover, other ‘high-consequence’ positions are afforded due process much more quickly than teachers. For instance, even after years of police reform efforts, NYPD officers get a flat two year probationary period. And no, they don’t have to submit ‘tenure binders’ to get due process rights.
It used to be that teachers in New York City also had an essentially ‘flat’ probationary period. If you survived three years of working at-will, you earned the right to due process, and that was it. Those days are long gone. At the state level, we can thank Cuomo, who upped the period to at least four years and solidified the use of student test scores in decisions. At the City level, we can thank Bloomberg. Per Chalkbeat, “Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who promised to move toward “ending tenure as we know it,” tenure approval rates plummeted from 89% to 53% at the tail end of his administration, before de Blasio took control of the school system in 2014.” Under de Blasio, rates ticked up a bit, but never got back up to pre-Bloomberg numbers. And with Adams now in power, those numbers could easily go back down.
A Kafkaesque Process: Paperwork, Denials, and Extensions
In part, what has changed is that tenure is now a much more arduous process. Instead of just ‘getting’ tenure after completing several months to a few years of employment, as occurs in most other professions at the end of a probationary period, teachers must now complete ominous and time-consuming tenure-binders. These binders, whose requirements are often surreptitiously customized by different superintendents and principals, follow the same general rubric. Teachers must demonstrate that their instructional practice is up to par (i.e. teacher observations, also known as MOTP), that a majority of their students are learning (i.e. student ‘growth’ on test scores, also known as MOSL), and that they exhibit ‘professionalism’ beyond their instructional duties.
Assuming you are OK with the ways that MOTP and MOSL are computed (follow the links on the left to see why I am not), this may all sound well and good. But consider: even if you are OK with the tenure rubric in the abstract; in the wrong hands, it can easily be misused or weaponized. For instance, I’ve heard from teachers who were rated effective for their entire careers, only to be told that they could not qualify for tenure because of some arbitrary cut-off-point on MOTP. Contractually, teachers might only need a 2.51 on MOTP to be rated Effective, but a principal might decide that teachers need a 3.0 or higher to be given the right to due process. I’ve also seen teachers extended for tenure, in whole or in part, because of their MOSL data—even when their MOSL data was tied to the test scores of students they didn’t teach themselves. And, I’ve seen teachers be pressured to take on extra-contractual clubs, tutoring, and other activities—sometimes without pay—because a principal told them (erroneously) that this was a part of the ‘professionalism’ component on the tenure rubric (it’s not).
These might be extreme cases—indeed, I hope they are. But even in the right hands, tenure binders cause another problem. They are excessive paperwork. They normalize doing work outside of the contractual workday without pay. And that’s not OK. It’s especially not OK, because upon review of these binders, many principals opt to ‘extend’ teachers and force them to go through the process again. This puts UFT members in troubling power dynamic, through which a single chancellor, superintendent, or principal can make sure that teachers go years without due process, even while staying employed. This ability to ‘extend’ is particularly problematic then, as the DOE can keep even ‘good’ teachers in the system without giving them due process rights.
The Consequences of Tenure ‘Deform’ – and the Need for Progressive Reform
None of this is acceptable. Teachers deserve the same due process rights as those afforded to workers in other unionized municipal professions. They deserve to get those rights in a fair amount of time and without having to jump through hoop after hoop to get them. Moreover, because even the most effective probationary teachers can be discontinued or denied tenure for a number of non-pedagogical reasons, including as retaliation for political or union activity – the never-ending tenure process prevents far too many UFT members from fully participating in the union life of their chapters. ‘Teacher tenure de-form,’ then, has directly reduced the organizing capacity of our chapters.
Tenure may not be subject to collective bargaining, but the UFT/NYSUT have other mechanisms of working to achieve reforms. At a minimum, we must initiate a multifaceted organizing/lobbying campaign to achieve tenure reforms at the State/City levels: including a reduction in the number of years necessary to apply for tenure, a reduction/elimination of undeserved extensions, and an elimination of tenure-related paperwork. We could also work outside of the confines of state tenure law to increase due process protections for UFT-represented positions, just as we did for paraprofessionals in the 2018 contract. Many untenured teachers see no end in sight to their ‘at-will status.’ To get them the due process they deserve, we must act today.
Nick Bacon is a member of the UFT High School Executive Board and a Co-Chair of New Action / UFT. For more information about New Action and how to join the movement to improve tenure outcomes for teachers, click here.