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.
Gist, who as state superintendent can set professional standards, has proposed amending the District's municipal regulations to make most licenses non-renewable. Teachers would be required to get a new "advanced teaching credential" by demonstrating classroom effectiveness through criteria she will determine during the next six to 12 months. Her plan would also broaden the range of accepted teacher education programs to include such nonprofit groups as Teach for America.
The proposed rules would give Rhee "maximum flexibility in selecting and placing candidates," according to a PowerPoint presentation on the state superintendent's Web site.
Gist has been working on the revisions through the rulemaking process, which does not require review by the D.C. Council or the D.C. State Board of Education. The revisions were posted on the D.C. Register Aug. 8 and become effective this week. Parker said he had no idea what Rhee's "Plan B" entails but that any attempt to use the licensing process to weaken tenure protections was unacceptable.
"It really appears to be a backdoor process of firing teachers," said Parker, who sent an e-mail to most of the District's 4,000 teachers last week warning them of the proposal.
He added that there is no evidence that the proposed revisions would apply to non-unionized charter schools. "If this is so important, how come it doesn't apply to charter schools?"
Parker said he had no indication that Gist and Rhee, who meet regularly, were acting in a concerted fashion to develop the new licensure rules.
Asked for an interview last Wednesday, Gist said she first had to receive clearance from Carrie Brooks, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's chief of staff. Gist, who reports to the mayor, did not respond to the request. Brooks did not return a phone message.
Rhee is free to unilaterally overhaul the school system's "Professional Performance Evaluation Process," and even Parker readily acknowledges that it needs work.
Instructors judged by principals to be underperforming can be placed on a 90-day "improvement plan" and assigned a "helping teacher." What follows during the three months is a series of classroom observations, each of which must be preceded by a principal-teacher "pre-conference" and then a follow-up meeting. All must take place within precise time frames, a challenge for often harried, distracted administrators.
"You blow one deadline, you go back to ground zero," said one principal, who asked for anonymity because she was speaking without authorization. She said she has used the 90-day plan just once in nearly a decade.
Asked last month how many tenured teachers the District fired for poor performance last year, former Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson initially said only one. She subsequently said the number was not correct but did not provide a revised total.
Union leaders say administrative bungling and principals with little expertise in evaluating teachers enable the union to reverse many firings through the appeals process.
"It's very poorly implemented," Parker said. "This is what frustrates me. A lot of times teachers and unions get blamed for holding on to poor teachers, when the bottom line is they haven't trained the principals correctly."