D.C. chancellor shakes up teacher firing policy

Michelle Rhee, the new chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, made a name for herself last year by announcing plans to fire 100 central office administrators and close 23 schools. Before her appointment, Rhee had never run a school, herself. But at age 37, she was picked by Mayor Adrian Fenty to reform a low-performing school district legendary for its bureaucracy.

The Washington Post reports today that Rhee has announced that she will bypass union negotiations and impose her own program to fire ineffective teachers if they don’t improve in 90 days.

Teacher evaluations will now be based mainly on test scores and other achievement data, according to the Post story:

“The goal and responsibility and moral imperative of this administration is to make sure that each child gets an excellent education,” said Rhee, who had hinted broadly in recent weeks that she was ready to invoke what she has dubbed “Plan B.”

Rhee also had proposed an aggressive performance-pay plan, under which high-performing teachers could earn more than $100,000 a year in salary and bonuses in five years if they suspend their tenure protections for one year.

Union leaders denounced Rhee’s evaluation and dismissal plan and promised to take legal steps to stop it.

What do you think of Rhee’s ideas? Do you think they benefit kids by holding teachers accountable — and rewarding good teachers — or that they threaten to destabilize the teaching profession?

image from The Washington Times

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Catherine

    At my daughter’s school there would only be three teachers who would be in the $100,000 category. Those teachers teach in a way so that every child advances at least one full grade level from where they started and the gap between children of color and white children is narrowed considerably.

    The remainder of the teachers would not receive any type of bonus at all. This is not to say they don’t love the kids and like teaching, but some of their students slip through the cracks and the children who are ahead do not adequately have the opportunity to advance a full grade level.

  • Katy Murphy

    Catherine: Do you think that a performance-pay system such as Rhee has proposed would attract a greater number of strong teachers into the profession, and into your daughter’s school?

  • http://farwelljs@yahoo.com Jim Farwell

    Ms. Rhee’s approach to changing Washington D.C.’s educational woes is typical of today’s new breed of administrator. The attitude is don’t bother me with facts, let’s just move on and do what I want to do. Union busting is a common strategy in this type of agenda. (I am impressed that she can become head of schools without ever having been a principal or director)

    Washington’s poor academic showing is a part of a comprehensive set of issues that need to be acknowledged. There are no quick fixes. A teacher who is properly motivated and who is committed to his/her students is not all that is necessary for learning success in the classroom. What kind of professional development is Rhee providing her staff to improve their teaching and classroom management skills? I commend Bill Cosby’s book Come On People for a detailed discussion of what goes into making inner city students struggle in school.

    In relation to her proposed raises, there are two districts – Richmond and Oakland, who provided significant raises only to go bankrupt. Will her funding be available to maintain the pay increases she is proposing? What safeguards does she feel are appropriate to protect staff from off the wall charges from administrators. She sounds like a short term wonder whose agenda means more to her than really fixing whats broken.

    Her selection of Phyllis Harris as Director of Special Education in Washington, D.C. undermines her creditability. Harris was a district joke in Oakland. For Rhee to have selected Harris to “improve” Washington’s Special Education program suggests that she is impulsive and ignorant in her decision making process. She seems to shoot from the hip, has little experience and substance and wants a quick fix to issues that don’t lend themselves to quick fixes. I hope that there is more to her than there seems to be.

  • turner

    It’s not wise to have teachers under this kind of pressure. Now, they will be forced to go into CYA mode and work to save their jobs.

    I just don’t get why teachers must always be to blame if a district is failing. I’m not a teacher or a principal. But, I do know that most school districts would be disaster if it were not for several dedicated teachers.

    Rhee must have been impressed by the dictatorial method of Dr. Ward that she has decided to implement it herself.

  • Art

    Insane for two reasons: while I’m not always the biggest fan of teachers’ unions (they do lots of great things but can also make it really difficult to get rid of legitimately bad teachers in many districts), cutting them out of the conversation is a tested formula for an all-out strike, which is a no-win situation for kids. More importantly, though, using testing to measure teacher quality unilaterally is pretty appalling. Yes, ideally kids should be improving on test performance as they learn, but many students are grappling with challenges that go far beyond what happened in the classroom yesterday. (High schoolers with sub-par reading skills that date back to grade school; children in poor home situations; children whose learning differences have been ignored over the years by a broken system thereby losing critical time; etc.)

    If you really want to assess teachers and reward/punish, you need a comprehensive qualitative evaluation program (and STAFF for this!) where teachers and students can be observed in the classroom, in addition to whatever testing you may be doing. You need to understand whether the factor is the teacher’s inability to teach, the teacher teaching material that isn’t being tested, the students’ difficulty in learning material that is, in fact, being well-taught, etc. Lots of factors in play.

    I don’t have a problem with a good, qualitative assessment program that does evaluate teachers and teaching, but this is not what that looks like. You need the support of your principals so that they can oversee this—with support—in their individual schools, and you may want to cycle it such that teachers are reviewed every so many years, not every single year. That way, you have more diverse data to look at (not just one problem class that an otherwise good teacher is struggling with) and more opportunity to focus on individual methods and actions. And most importantly, opportunities to provide feedback and have teachers correct actions where possible. Don’t threaten teachers with firing if their kids don’t pass a test in 90 days….there’s simply nothing to gain from that. In 91 days, the kids have a sub and are back where they started, the district has a vacancy to fill (which costs money too!) and no one’s made any real progress.

  • Catherine

    I don’t know if it will attract better teachers. We have a huge PTA influence at our school so we already have many people applying for each job that becomes available. We have a PTA budget that sits around $400,000 per year.

    What we need are principals who work with teachers to move every child forward. I was speaking to an acquaintance this week and there is an aid in every classroom all day at the school. This is what their PTA chooses to do with the money. They also have a Gifted and Talented Program for which they receive grant money and a Reading and Math coach after school for any student who wants to attend. The Reading and Math coaches hired depend on average attendance 10 children for every coach. You can be ahead, on par or behind.
    I think our school has good teachers however in the past there has been a belief that we were not responsible for those children who fell through the cracks because of lack of support at home. However, now we are in a situation where 5% of our students leave every year because their children are not have needs met – on the high end, kids are getting about 2 – 3 months advancement on the previous year, in the middle they are advancing one year and on the low end they were advancing 4 – 5 months.

    Our PTA has made a commitment to the kids that used to fall through the cracks. They are trying to make a commitment to the advanced kids as well – at least some of the teachers.

    However, there are many teachers at our school who have tenure and who count down their years. My wish is that teachers are paid to move each child’s knowledge ahead at least one year per grade. We now have more than 20 kids in each k – 3 class (closer to 30) because OUSD s pushing for bigger and bigger schools from the district.

    So, to answer your question Katy, I don’t think we could draw new teachers to our school because of those teachers who are entrenched. What I do believe is that some teachers would challenge their students more, would provide the school environment with more potential solutions to solve the problems such as achievement GAP and it would raise the bar on what is expected.

    In the non-academic world, if you want to get ahead in terms of money or position, you provide more value to those served – an auto mechanic who can analyze what needs to be done is paid more, a doctor who can accurately detect and treat illness is paid more (even by Kaiser) and financial planner who can help clients make solid investments is paid more. I often hear teachers talk about wanting to be treated as professionals. Money, status, choices about assignments, and educational opportunities are the way our country rewards professionals.

  • Catherine

    If I were a mechanic and a significant portion of the cars I worked on had problems after I finished, if I were a loan officer and 25% of the loans I approved went bad, if I were a doctor and the death or disease rate of my patients was significantly higher would you say it was the dealership, the bank or the health care plan?

    Would you say it’s to much stress because the car owner had taken their car to a Jiffy Lube, the loan went bad because the customer changed his mind or the patient got worse because they didn’t take care of their health?

    In this day and age in America if you work or own a business, you have stress. I see teachers working in flat land schools that consistently year after year after year work with different principals, different administrators, different students, yet the gap is very narrow if at all and all children learn. How? Because the teacher is there early, tells the children the facts of their education (you need to complete your homework, stay away from people who do not value education, etc.), stays after school and is willing to keep their classroom open at lunch. The kids are safe, educated and relatively stress-free while at school. The educators I am thinking of actually have less stress because they are doing their jobs, avoiding administration nightmares and paying close attention everyday to the job at hand: educating children.

    Professionals have stress. I ask you, what professional job that you know does not have a high level of stress? Teachers who either cannot or will not raise the level of education for all need to find jobs that are less stressful.

  • Catherine

    Finally one last thing and I’ll get off my soap box. One thing that is in the Asian culture is performance. Performance matters, not effort. Education is a job. The student’s job is to learn. The teacher’s job is to teach. The parent’s job is to work during the day and teach their children at night.

    If you want to really understand how learning works and why this DC Administrator will succeed at her job – and I have no doubt she will, read the book “Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers–and How You Can Too.”

    It’s an eye-opening, quick read that makes sense.

  • political corrector

    Why can people get fired at stores like Walmart,Target, etc. for ineffectiveness or lack of productivity, but not when educating (or miseducating) our nations future.

    From all of the blogs I have seen regarding education, I think unions should be significantly reduced (Being nice! 😉

  • Art

    Here’s a better analogy—consider a doctor who is hired or fired based on how many of his patients get well. That’s the model DC is using. The thing is, at face value it’s hard to tell why one doc’s patients are dying. Is he a lousy doctor who’s missing diagnoses? Is he diagnosing right, but not using aggressive enough treatments? Or are his patients just coming to him extremely ill, and even the best diagnosis and treatment can’t help? Do you fire him regardless simply because you don’t want to employ a doctor whose patients die?

    I don’t debate that there’s value in firing teachers (or doctors!) who are ineffective, or rewarding those who are with better pay. It’s just that in the context of public education, using test results (especially in October) to determine which are which doesn’t work.

  • Don Draper

    This plan is just another step in the absurdity of this DCPS administration (full disclosure, I went to DCPS, my dad teaches in DCPS, my wife used to teach there, we now live in Oakland, with kids in OUSD)

    First : This whole, “get out the bad teachers and administrators” approach presupposes that there are thousands of other more motivated and qualified people lining up to take those teachers and administrators jobs. This has happened before. Hundreds are fired, and then rehired, because no one else wants to work there. Hmmm, why could that be? Maybe because these mythical great teachers waiting to take DCPS jobs know that you can work hard, be paid little, then get fired because you happen to be teaching students who don’t tend to do well on the tests. Sounds enticing. This policy drives away even the good and motivated teachers, because it lowers morale across the board.

    Second, as mentioned above, many of these tests are really quite poor measures of a student’s performance, and even worse measures of a teacher’s performance. I am still waiting for someone to preach accountability, and then actually be sophisticated about what kinds of standards are held up. No Child Left Behind is a classic example, by not taking into account ESL students and Special Ed students, most schools with higher percentages of these students were immediately failing, with no chance of passing, for starters. No one in any of these positions would hire someone based on their SAT scores (or any other test score), why should a teacher be only held accountable to a single standardized test score?

    There is no huge magic bullet for these embattled public school systems. They just need a leader who is competent, and willing to do some logistical work. Drastic hiring, firing, or really drastic changes of any kind, just serve to further drive families away and drive down the morale of everyone who works hard in these systems.

  • Catherine

    Kaiser does exactly what you have said. They are paid to keep their patients well. They cause insurance rates to go up with misdiagnosis, therefore they are fired “let go” as well.

    Unless there is gross negligence they are not fired the first error. Just as school teachers under NCLB are given 3 – 5 years AT THAT SCHOOL.

    If teachers really want to be treated as professionals, they must accept both the positive and negative aspects of being professionals.

    I see in my daughters classroom the same assignment being given to all children regardless of ability. That would be like giving antibiotics to every patient who came in with a ear ache.

  • turner

    I don’t know, Catherine. I just see this as more of the same. More bureaucracy; more interference with the teaching.

    And it’s not only in the Asian culture where performance matters.

    Bypass the unions; threaten the teachers with termination. This is not the recipe for good education. This is just a dictatorial approach.And, we should know: it did not work with Ward.

  • Nextset

    I don’t see anyone talking about firing the Students who will not perform. Just the teachers when the kids don’t magically do better. That is never going to change anything.

    And yes, Unions are important and have a place in the scheme of things. They are supposed to halp prevent a rotten school district that socially promotes illiterate non-performing kids from dumping all over the teachers because they won’t discipline the kids.

    We need good teacher unions more than ever. And the first thing the unions should do is start a propaganda war about teacher discipline being used in lieu of student discipline.

    Workers of the World, Unite!

  • political corrector

    I dont know about all of the medical analogies, but I’ll tell you what I would not send my mother to a doctor whose patienets continually die regardless of how sick they as they arrive.

    Howmany parents are forced to go to terrible schools?

  • Kyle

    One of the things not immediately clear to me in the DC case is what the future of the Union will be. Several of the Post articles that preceded this one point to the fact that George Parker (the DCTU President) has been under intense pressure from many teachers who want the chance to make a six figure salary. While this is often portrayed as dividing the union along age/experience lines (and this may indeed be the case) there is certainly no clear evidence that is the case.

    To Mr. Draper’s first point, the idea that there are many more qualified teachers waiting in the wings might be a stretch under current conditions, but with the right blend of new incentives, that could become a thing of the past. Second, a single test might be a noisy measurement tool, but there is a significant literature out there on measuring teacher value-added, and of course that should not be the only metric consulted. Finally, while you might not hire someone based only on their SAT score, most Universities look at it along with a portfolio of other things — why can’t schools at least consider the performance of students in a sophisticated, statistically viable way, so long as they ensure transparency and a reliable appeals process?

    The analogy to a doctor is only true if you were using an absolute measure of student performance to grade a teacher’s performance. Likely, a doctor that worked in a trauma unit would be graded differently than a doctor that worked in a family practice. If the trauma unit was able to stabilize patients he would be a good doctor, even if she lost many patients. At the same time, the family practice doctor might not have any patients die, but we would hope she was able to help the smaller percentage of serious cases that came into her office while making sure that people who were already healthy stayed healthy.

  • Teri

    First I will disclose that I am an 8th grade teacher and a union member, although not in OUSD, and this is my 20th year as a teacher. I have taught exclusively in middle school and have focused on 7th and 8th grade Language Arts, History, and Reading. I am also the parent of two OUSD students. It doesn’t appear that teachers have weighed in on this, so I thought I would put in my two cents.

    I think merit pay is not sound educational practice for a variety of reasons. To begin with, there are many variables when teaching students. For example, last year I taught the most amazing students, all of whom came to me reading at or significantly above grade level, and many of whom were in the Gifted and Talented program (GATE). I loved teaching them every day because they were there to learn. Naturally, they performed beautifully on the STAR test. But previously, I taught many students who were on IEPs in heterogeneously-grouped classes. Although I try to differentiate instruction as best as possible, it is a challenge that the best of us struggle with. Many of my students progressed significantly, but not all. And some progressed significantly in my classroom and I could measure their growth, but on the STAR test, they did not perform well. For a number of my students, there are reasons as to why they didn’t show progress on the test, and many of them were beyond my control–test fatigue (this is the over-tested generation), high absenteeism, failure to complete assignments, phone calls home with no credible action taken by parents, unwillingness to come at lunch or after school for help, etc. A teacher never should be held responsible for students who, for whatever reason, fail to live up to their responsibilities as students. I can lead them to the water, but I can’t make them drink.

    Just the the other day I had a conversation with a student who reads 4 grade levels behind. He is in a Reading Workshop class with me. He is also a gang banger wannabe, and quite frankly admitted to me that reading is not important to him, school is not important to him, but that his image he projects to the world is. And the image he wants to project is precisely that he is tough, in a gang (or ready to be), and not “a student.” He is not the only student of mine to express thoughts like that. He is bright enough, but unwilling to live up to his potential. Will I give up on him? NO! Will I try to make reading and learning meaningful to him? Absolutely! Should I be held accountable for his failure to progress?

    Or how about my 7 students out of 35, who come in tardy to 1st period every day? Some arrive as many as 25 minutes late. I called home the other day about one of the kids who is failing my class, and his mother admitted that she drove him and couldn’t get him there on time. What’s the message he’s getting from home?

    Or how about my student who has been absent 14 times since the beginning of the year (we’ve been in school now for about 28 days) and is in 8th grade and reads at a 3rd grade level? We have spoken with him and his mother, and all of his teachers are unified at getting him on track. Will it work? We absolutely hope so. But we can only provide the support he needs at school. We can’t physically get him to school.

    People love to dump on teachers, and I have to say, it is disheartening. In my 20 years of teaching, I have worked with many dedicated, committed teachers who continue to grow and learn because we didn’t go into teaching because we just wanted to have summers off. And I have also worked with teachers who should have left the profession years ago, and I wish they had. But there are far fewer of those teachers than there are of the teachers who are in it for the long haul, who love to teach and learn, who want to reach all students, and who believe in the kids.

    Here’s another example why merit pay is not good policy. Last year, one of our teachers broke her ankle at school very badly. She ended up being out of school for 6 months. In that time, her classes had at least 6 or 8 subs. The district managed to get 3 subs who stayed longer than a couple of days. One stayed a month but then declined to continue. The other stayed the longest, but he was also a full time night school student who often was unprepared to teach. And the third, the best, was a teacher looking for a position. By the time he arrived, the classes were so out of control that it is a miracle he was able to get them to focus and do work. The injured teacher’s classes were challenging to begin with. One class had 5 students on IEPs, two of whom had Asbergers. Another class was a sheltered class designed for kids who are still learning English but are beyond a special ELD class. The third class was a Reading Workshop class designed for kids who performed Basic on the STAR test (but had no specified curriculum for it). The injured teacher came back a couple of weeks before the STAR test. How did her students do? Not well at all. Should she be held responsible for their lack of progress?

    The problem, so often, with educational solutions is that they are cookie cutter approaches. The best way to improve student performance is the following: smaller class sizes; curriculum that allows for differentiation; classroom aides; copy machines that always work; common prep time so teachers can get together and discuss their students and their practice as teachers; all the supplies and materials that teachers need; real and meaningful staff development that speaks to the needs of the teachers as well as the students; a school culture led by a principal, that is open, engaging, as well as firm and disciplined; reasonable, grade-appropriate standards; and policies and approaches whose foundations are sound and research-based.

  • Nextset

    2nd para of my post above isn’t clear. My point is that the school districts design their programs to fail – ensure there is no discipline or force used to get the students to perform – then the districts blame the teachers when the kids don’t perform.

    You cannot create a nuthouse, call it a school, then blame the teachers when there is little learning going on.

    I have my issues with public school teachers but – they are not SUPPOSED to educate the students of a degenerate school district such as DC – and similar districts. We only see window dressing on social promotion. The students who do well would have done well homeschooled with self-study. No “value added”.

    The solution includes entrance requirements for high school, and exclusion of those not prepared and ready for high school.

  • John

    Nextset: You are absolutely right! Teacher unions “are supposed to help prevent a rotten school district that socially promotes illiterate non-performing kids from dumping all over the teachers because they won’t discipline the kids.”

    I also agree that, “We need good teacher unions more than ever.” So where are they?

    Contemporary local teacher unions are money grabbing (teacher dues collection) agencies for CTA & AFT. They don’t take on critical issues they take money (& cathartic volunteer time) from teachers for BIG UNION INC. What a joke!

  • John

    Oops! I left NEA & CFT off the culprit list. I certainly don’t want to be unfair.

  • Nextset

    My problem with firing teachers based on the test scores of their students is that places a huge negative premium on black students compared to, say, Ashkenazi Jews (if they have any left in the DC schools).

    And don’t think this negative premium won’t affect how people are treated. The more serious and tangible teacher punishment is, the more the push to not deal with certain people in favor of others. Kind of like NCLB.

    On the other hand, if you ended social promotion and imposed entrance requirements for high school maybe the schools and the teachers wouldn’t have these problems. Since that transfers the onus for failure from the teachers to the students – where it belongs – that’s not politic and it won’t happen. The students and their families must be publicly treated as raw eggs not responsible for a thing.

    There is a way of punishing teachers who don’t add expected value to their student groups. But one way or another this would involve race norming the student groups – a politically unacceptable thing in an urban public school. They’d have to officially admit that all people are not created equal and they won’t do that damn the consequences.

    So when I look at Ms Rhee’s smiling Asian face I wish her well but shudder at the prospect for “accidently” making things worse – and dumping on the unfortunate teachers in the process.

    And I continue to say that the teachers had better make sure they have a strong and farsighted Union. They’re going to need it more than ever.

    Brave New World.

  • Nextset

    Additional thoughts. Some readers of my post #21 might say that DC has already run off the white students and tends to be a uniformly black district anyway. So the race norming sort of problems no longer matter.

    Uniformity still goes out the window as certain people within the “black” group become the new profitable subgroups. Nigerians, for example. I won’t even go into the other subgroups for fear of offending sensitive feelings. The point is you still are going to have teachers wanting to pack their groups with those most likely to score well to avoid sanctions. And they will be quite sneaky about it. Or in the alternative proclaim the new scheme a teacher pay take-back and start job actions.

    You can’t just stick the teachers with whatever students come through the door and tell the teacher they will be fired if the class doesn’t meet statewide norms. This issues made national news in Pasadena years ago when a teacher there circulated a memo about the changing demographics of his school matched up with the new pay scheme and pronounced the pay scheme (tied to performance of the students) as a stacked deck against the teachers. There was a huge uproar of political correctness and that teacher was suspended for racial heresy. But no one could dispute the accuracy of his calculations.

    These punitive pay schemes are just a fraud. As long as the students aren’t punished and/or removed from campuses for underperformance (like everywhere else in the world), nothing will change.

  • local.ed

    I think it’s a good idea. We don’t need 300 page contracts dictating every moment of a teachers’ day, which support mediocrity and don’t help professional growth, or student learning. OUSD certificated contracts seem to advocate rights at the expense of learning.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Teri and Don, you said a lot and it was worth reading.


    Sounds to me like this woman just wants to make a political name for herself. She’ll end up as a corporate honcho or federal Ed. Dept. honcho for her “innovative” ideas, making 300K. She’ll blame her failure in D.C. on lazy teachers and the union.

    Plan B, indeed.

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  • http://www.thelonelytraderv2.wordpress.com Jay

    Where are the parents?

  • http://www.thelonelytraderv2.wordpress.com Jay

    This woman is doing what she can to move the system forward. I am a product of public education and, from experience, I know that more than half of my teachers were not up to the job. I have traveled the world since and seen several other education systems and they are ALL better, producing far more with much less and under circumstances that are much more adverse.

    The entire system in the US is set up to be contentious — this inherent friction and inertia is a “double-edged sword”. Rhee is a vital and POSITIVE part of this, as are the unions. What I’m so frustated by are lazy parents and several detractors who have posted here, who focus on all the wrong things.

    And, the inference that in an inner city school, underperforming “children of color” do not get the attention that “white” children get really riles me. The true discriminators can be found in a much broader context, in which the teacher/administrator is the last person to influence the child. The rest of you lazy people better get busy with your kids, or they will end up like so many of my own childhood friends.

    Their faillure is on your shoulders more than anyone. You can say anything you want, but we all know it’s the parents who are to blame more than anyone else. A child’s desire to learn will overcome a teacher’s mediocre desire to teach — or even total negligence. That child’s desire starts with good parenting, which is rare in the inner city.

    Haters and deniers: Admit it. It is rare to see a good parent in the inner city adn there is NO excuse. None. Nada. If you’re honest, you will see this is true.

    I for one applaud Rhee’s efforts as part of a comprehensive move toward education reform. But the damn parents have to get on board for any of this to work.

  • Collin

    This is exactly what our schools need. Unions are for the teachers’ benefit, not the students. I have no empathy for them as they’ve been paid too much for too little.

    I don’t have a problem paying teachers but it should be for performance not time served.