Rhee's 'Plan B' Targets Teacher Quality

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is preparing to bypass the Washington Teachers' Union in pursuit of the objective she considers essential to overhauling the District's public schools: the power to fire at will teachers she deems ineffective.

What she calls "Plan B" involves a more aggressive use of powers she already has and that are not subject to contract negotiations with the union. These could include strengthening the existing system of annual personnel evaluations that spell out procedures for terminating teachers.

Rhee is also positioned to benefit from a potentially groundbreaking revision that has unfolded largely outside public view during contract talks. It would make the District school system one of the few in the country to link the licensing of teachers to their classroom performance, rather than their academic credentials. New rules, scheduled to go into effect this week, would grant State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist the discretion to create an advanced teaching credential specifying the bench marks instructors would have to meet to keep their jobs.

Speaking to a roundtable of education writers on Friday, Rhee declined to discuss her alternative path in detail, except to say that it had "multiple facets." She said she wanted to make changes in collaboration with the union -- and in a way that teachers would profit financially -- but that she was prepared to move ahead unilaterally.

"The contract is the way that I would prefer to go," Rhee said. "But if we can't get to agreement on the contract, there's another very clear way that we can get there. . . . The bottom line is we are going to bring accountability in a very significant way to the educator force in this school district."

Since mid-July, Rhee has tried to sell union leaders and the rank and file on a proposal that would propel salaries to more than $100,000 annually in pay and performance bonuses for many teachers. But in exchange, she insists that they relinquish tenure and spend a year on probation -- risking dismissal. Instructors have the option of keeping tenure and accepting lower raises. New hires would have no choice, remaining on the probation griddle for four years, twice as long as the current requirement.

The pay proposal, along with a slew of other initiatives, has turned Rhee into a national standard-bearer for urban school reform and, in particular, a champion for those who regard teachers' unions as the most significant obstacle to progress. From Charlie Rose to Katie Couric to Newsweek, she has become the national media's go-to figure for discussions of what ails big-city schools.

Rhee had once hoped to wrap up a contract by June, but as national and local acolytes look on, she has been unable to build a consensus among teachers, who remain sharply divided over the pay plan. As contract talks continue, she is pressing George Parker, president of the teachers' union, to bring the salary package to a membership vote. So far, he has resisted.

In recent weeks, Rhee has moved to defuse expectations surrounding the contract and novel pay package. Asked earlier this year by Fast Company magazine what happens if she fails to get the labor deal she wants, Rhee replied, "Then I'm screwed." But at Friday's roundtable, she suggested that "Plan B" could have a national impact as far-reaching as the pay plan because it would show other cities a path to reform that does not require winning over unions and spending millions more on raises.

Rhee's ultimate goal is clear: to weed the District's instructional corps of underperformers and remake it, at least in part, with younger, highly energized graduates of such alternative training programs as Teach for America, where she began her career. Unlike many tenured Washington teachers, those emerging from such programs are unlikely to invest their entire working lives in education. But they will, in Rhee's estimation, be more inclined to embrace her core message: that children can learn no matter what economic and social conditions they face beyond the classroom, and that teachers should be held directly accountable for their progress through test scores and other measurements.

Without union buy-in, however, Rhee faces a longer, harder slog, which might involve changes in teacher licensure.

Under current D.C. rules, a teacher can receive a standard license by completing a college- or university-based teacher education program and passing Praxis, a teacher exam. It is renewable every five years upon completion of six credit hours of course work or 90 hours in professional development workshops.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company