November 9, 2012

REMEMBER THE predictions that former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s overhaul of teacher evaluation and compensation would lead to damaging upheaval? That there would be an exodus of good teachers? Those claims — like much of the criticism of D.C. school reform — have been proven baseless: Three years of dramatic change in personnel policy has made the District a model for smart teacher retention.

A study released this week by the nonprofit New Teacher Project lauds the District for its record of retaining good teachers while shedding low performers. Most school districts, as the group has established in previous reports, retain their best and worst teachers at similar rates. It’s the result of a cookie-cutter approach to personnel that enshrines mediocrity, tolerates ineffectiveness and has terrible consequences for students.

The District, the group found in the study that examined four other urban school districts, retains a much higher percentage of its best teachers than its worst. In the 2010-11 school year, D.C. kept 88 percent of its top performers — about as many as the other districts studied — but only 45 percent of its low performers. That it retains nearly twice as many good teachers as low-performing teachers is the direct result of policies — won by Ms. Rhee in hard-fought battles with traditional union interests — that set high expectations for teachers, reward those who meet them and remove those who can’t. Kaya Henderson, Ms. Rhee’s able deputy who succeeded her as chancellor, stuck with and strengthened the reforms. Students have benefited, and teachers say they feel more valued and, compared with other systems studied, less likely to leave because of compensation.

Problems remain. The report pulled no punches in detailing the continuing challenges that confront the city’s public schools, foremost being that top performers are less likely to teach in the struggling, less affluent schools that need them the most. But the District’s success in retaining good teachers and weeding out bad ones should make it easier to address those problems.

Debate about how to improve schools will continue, as in the sadly effective effort by the teachers union in Chicago and in some election-day initiatives to defeat reform. Evidence that the common-sense changes engineered by Ms. Rhee are paying off should be part of the discussion and hopefully will spur other systems to follow the District’s lead.