The tenure wars are coming to New York.
Since a California judge ruled last month that several teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws were unconstitutional, it has sparked a new national debate over tenure in New York City, where 11 students have filed a class-action lawsuit in state Supreme Court.
The issue goes to the heart of the debate in the city over public versus charter school education, carrying with it all the emotions that have framed that discussion.
On the one hand are public school and teacher-union advocates, who say that added pressures from tougher testing and teacher evaluations have made the need for tenure more urgent than ever.
“Tenure is useful for the protection of teachers,” said Erin Farmer, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Farmer said tenure is necessary for “committed classroom teachers to do their jobs without the fear of losing it over pedagogical decisions they may make.”
The most recent lawsuit in the city was filed on behalf of 11 students, and more expected to be added soon. The basic argument is that tenure hurts students, by keeping in place subpar teachers.
In response to the lawsuit, parents and education advocates have emerged to speak out in favor of tenure in court, alongside the city and state officials. Their main message: the only way to attract a new wave of energized, committed educators is to ensure some job security. A spokesman for this group, Arthur Schwartz, said he expects to file a motion in state Supreme Court within two weeks, hoping to name is clients as co-defendants with the state and city in defense of tenure. Most of their case has build built around the argument that teachers aren’t the ones failing students, but increasing budget cuts, and excessive class size are hurting students ability to learn.
Alex Newman has been teaching at the Upper West Side charter school, Success Academy Harlem 2, for the past four years, and has been recently named the new vice principal starting this fall.
An avid believer in the use of the Common Core educational curriculum, Newman argues against tenure because he believes job security should be based on your performance as a teacher.
“The school has a responsibility to develop their teachers, you can’t just throw them into the fire so to say, and think they are going to succeed,” Newman explained. “I realized very quickly after graduation that nothing can really train you effectively for this job except getting up in front of those kids and doing it.”
Success Academy helped Newman through his first few years teaching, which he said was overwhelming. His advisors would observe his classroom and conduct a “real-time coaching session” where his school would hire outside education consultants to come in, observe him, and talk him through a lesson by using an earpiece. “They would be giving feedback in the moment in real time, which gave me the opportunity to implement immediately.”
For now, though, the debate has moved to the courtroom. Legal experts say the success of the California case makes it likely that more, similar lawsuits will follow, forcing teacher advocates to begin work on a legal strategy of their own. Meanwhile, the first day of school, where all of the skirmishing ultimately coalesces, is just weeks away.