Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Giving Lousy Teachers the Boot: From the Wall Street Journal

Michelle Rhee

Donald Trump is not the only one who knows how to get attention with the words, "You're fired." Michelle Rhee, chancellor for the District of Columbia schools, has just done a pretty nifty job of it herself.

On Friday, Ms. Rhee fired 241 teachers—roughly 6% of the total—mostly for scoring too low on a teacher evaluation that measures their performance against student achievement. Another 737 teachers and other school-based staff were put on notice that they had been rated "minimally effective." Unless these people improve, they too face the boot.

The mass dismissals follow a landmark agreement Ms. Rhee negotiated with the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) at the end of June. The quid pro quo was this: Good teachers would get more money (including a 21.6% pay increase through 2012 and opportunities for merit pay). In exchange, bad teachers could be shown the door.

At the time, many gave the teachers union credit for approving this deal. Here's how another New York-based newspaper described the contract:

"Teachers' unions around the country are realizing that they can either participate in shaping reforms or have others' reforms forced upon them. The latest example comes from Washington, where the union has wisely negotiated and ratified a contract that gives the city greater leeway to pay, promote or fire teachers based on performance."

The danger, of course, was always that the taxpayers would make good on the money, but the promised accountability would never materialize. In this case, however, the accounting has begun. Apparently Ms. Rhee is a lady who means what she puts her name to.

The same cannot be said for the other side. WTU President George Parker told the Washington Post that the union would appeal the firings—and he threatened to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the District. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused Ms. Rhee of "stubbornly adhering to the destructive cycle of 'fire, hire, repeat.'"

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a national voice for charters and school choice, says the responses from union leaders show they are not used to dealing with a chancellor willing to call their bluff. "The union has been given so much credit for 'coming to the table,'" she says. "But if you really believe what you signed, you don't then announce to the local paper you are filing a grievance when the other side tries to make good on that contract."

Now, getting good teachers in the classroom and rewarding them for their work has always been a key aim of reformers. Alas, that also requires getting the dead weight out of the classroom and off the payroll. That's not so easy to do in big-city school districts, as reformers like Joel Klein, New York's school chancellor, have found.

So why has Ms. Rhee succeeded where others have come up short? One huge reason is the advance of school choice and accountability throughout Washington. Though reform has come fitfully to D.C., today 38% of the district's students are in charter schools. Until the Democrats killed it, there was also a voucher program for a few thousand more. The result of all this ferment is that the teachers union is feeling pressure it has never felt before.

Maybe that's why, unlike so many in her position, Ms. Rhee has not been afraid to speak up for more choice and more competition. "I'm a huge proponent of choice," she told The Wall Street Journal three years ago, "but I'm also an unbelievably competitive person, and my goal is . . . to create schools within the system that I believe are the most compelling choices."

Another way of putting that is this: Ms. Rhee is smart enough to know that when she negotiates with the unions, the shift to charters and choice in the district gives her more leverage for the reforms she needs.

When I emailed a spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan asking if the administration supported Ms. Rhee's decision to fire the teachers not measuring up, the answer came back that "we have not weighed in on D.C. specifically but we support the use of student achievement as one factor in teacher evaluation." When asked if I could say that meant the secretary supports Ms. Rhee, the answer was "No," because "we do not know the facts." Two emails later, the clarification: "This is basically a staffing decision executing on their new labor agreement—something that is happening all across America—which is a local issue."

So goes the Obama administration. On the one hand, it deserves credit for contributing to a climate that challenges the status quo and supports certain initiatives. On the other hand, when a brave reformer such as Ms. Rhee actually makes a tough decision, it can be shy with the backup.

The good news is that Ms. Rhee isn't waiting for it.

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