Fine Print: State Arbitrator Slams Newark – and State – Over Teacher Evaluations

Latest ruling again rejects school district’s ‘arbitrary and capricious’ criteria for denying tenure

Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson
What it is: State arbitrator Tia Schneider Denenberg on March 30 overturned the Newark public schools’ tenure charges against Thirteenth Avenue School teacher Rinita Williams based on “inefficiency,” the legal term for ineffective teaching.

What it means: The decision continues Newark’s dismal record in cases heard under the state’s new teacher tenure law, known as TEACHNJ.

Under state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson, the Newark school district has been by far the state’s most aggressive in filing tenure charges – but it has won just one of 13 tenure cases involving allegedly ineffective teachers.

What’s different this time: Up to now, most of the decisions against Newark have hinged on the district’s claims that it could legally use teacher evaluations from 2012-13, before TEACHNJ went into full effect, in its tenure charges.

But the latest tenure case went beyond such a claim. In this instance, Denenberg also rejected Newark’s cases on the grounds that the district did not properly evaluate Williams and did not give her required support.

State also blamed: Denenberg also laid some of the blame on the state Department of Education. She said the state had not given districts enough guidance on the procedure for removal of teachers.

“Determining procedural rules for removal under a complex statute has been a considerable task,” Denenberg wrote. “Many aspects of the new system were ill-defined, challenging stakeholders to devise a suitable scheme for evaluation.”

The district’s argument: The Newark district filed tenure charges against Williams for two consecutive years, based on “ineffective” or “partially effective” evaluation ratings, as allowed the law. It said that Williams, who taught a number of different grades, had received unsatisfactory evaluations in a series of classroom observations, which represent the bulk of the overall evaluations.

Williams’ defense: The teacher maintained that the classroom observations were not conducted properly, and that she was placed in an untenable position – working without the necessary materials and assigned to grades she was not trained to teach.

Her defense also maintained that her evaluation for the 2012-13 school year was incomplete, and that teachers subject to the evaluations had received incomplete training in the process.

Denenberg’s findings, Part I: The New York-based mediator and arbitrator sided with Williams on virtually every point.

On one point, Denenberg sided with previous arbitrators and said that the school district was continuing to develop their evaluation systems in 2012-13, and that the evaluations from that year should not have counted.

But some of the most critical words were about the state of the district during the first year of the evaluations. Denenberg said the district had placed Williams in a position at the Thirteenth Avenue School that put her at a disadvantage.

“Teachers were recruited hurriedly and thrust into conditions that bordered on chaotic,” she wrote. “Key curriculum materials were not even shared with teachers until mid-January — that is, after the observations of teacher Williams had been completed.”

Denenberg’s findings, Part II: The arbitrator found that the evaluations were not much better in the second year after the new tenure law was fully enacted. She said the process was “replete with arbitrary and capricious actions that materially affected the outcome by placing the teacher at a distinct disadvantage.”

Among those “arbitrary and capricious actions” were the lack of any announced observations, as required under the law, and even one unannounced observation on Williams’ first day back from a lengthy leave.

Denenberg’s conclusion: “For the reasons discussed above, and after considering the arguments and the entire record, the arbitrator concludes that all charges against the teacher must be dismissed.”

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