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A Lesson From D.C. Schools

By Joseph I. Lieberman
Monday, July 21, 2008

Michelle Rhee should be commended for her determination to implement courageous and innovative educational reforms in the District, and Congress should take note as it considers reshaping the No Child Left Behind Act.

When Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee chancellor of D.C. public schools in June 2007, she inherited a system that was near the top nationally in per-pupil spending but ranked among the nation's worst in the percentage of its students who were proficient in reading and math as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Clearly, taxpayer money was not being put to good use. Nor were students being well served.

Rhee took office determined to reform the system's unresponsive bureaucracy so that District schools would deliver for parents and their children. She had to make tough choices about marshaling resources and dealing with failing schools. Her bold steps have led to some dramatically positive results, and her initiatives are worth noting:

She has dismissed 100 administrators, closed 23 schools and given notice to 38 principals, 23 assistant principals, 250 teachers and 500 teacher's aides. She has moved to put effective principals and teachers in every school and classroom, to this end recruiting motivated principals who share her belief in the use of data to assess student progress and make adjustments.

She seeks to reward teachers for good performance. While this is common, indeed intuitive, in most professions, it is considered a revolutionary concept in public education. Most union-negotiated teacher contracts base compensation on seniority. While this approach offers job security, it does not reward teachers for inspiring enthusiasm or promoting achievement in the classroom. This hurts children, particularly those from low-income families. Rhee proposes offering teachers the choice of staying in the seniority system or giving up their seniority and tenure rights in exchange for the opportunity to earn as much as $131,000 a year for raising student performance.

The results, after Chancellor Rhee's first year in the job: The D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System data released this month show that the proficiency of fourth-graders rose 11 percentage points in math and eight points in reading. For eighth-graders, proficiency increased nine percentage points in reading and math. All are substantial increases from previous years. While other factors are in play, including the mandate of No Child Left Behind, this is stunning progress in one year.

Innovative practices are being introduced in other jurisdictions as well. In Prince George's County, for example, Superintendent John E. Deasy is planning to offer bonuses of up to $10,000 for exceptional teachers who choose to participate in an incentive pilot program. And in New York City, Chancellor Joel Klein has sought major reforms, including enhancing the charter school system, rewarding successful schools, closing the worst schools and evaluating teachers in part on the basis of their students' progress.

The original No Child Left Behind law recognized the importance of teacher quality but did not properly emphasize teacher performance in the classroom. The reforms in the District and elsewhere offer a lesson for national policymakers: To best serve our nation's children, Congress needs to fix No Child Left Behind rather than abandon it. Lawmakers can do this by identifying, promoting and rewarding successful teachers; by better targeting professional development; and by strengthening provisions that hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students.

Congress should encourage states to develop programs that attract the best and brightest teachers to the public schools, and we should ensure that educators are given the compensation they deserve. The innovations here in Washington and in school districts across the country demonstrate how this approach to education can work.

We owe it to all of America's children to ensure that they have every opportunity to succeed in the 21st century. The way forward includes enhancing teacher quality and insisting on high standards and accountability. The vitality of the American dream and the strength of the American economy depend on it.

The writer, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the District.

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