For Kids' Sake, Power to Fire Teachers Crucial

By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 29, 2008

Sarah Hayes, principal of the KIPP DC:KEY Academy, realized that two new teachers were not working out. Their résumés and recommendations had been good. They were nice people. But their classes were disorganized, their standards low. Efforts to help them improve had little effect.

If KEY were a traditional school, Hayes's only reasonable option would have been to mentor the teachers, note her dissatisfaction on their evaluations and recommend that they not be kept after a two-year probation. That is the way it goes in most school systems. Staffing rules, tenure agreements and low expectations tend to favor weak teachers unless they do something awful.

But KEY is a public charter school, one of many in the District that do not have such rules. Hayes was able to get the teachers out of her middle school by Christmas and replace them with proven talents, who were freed from other duties at KEY because of flexibility allowed such schools.

In a traditional school, the teachers' classes would have suffered for the rest of the school year. But because of the quick change in instructors, KEY maintained its record for the highest achievement in the city for impoverished children: Ninety-two percent proficient in math at the end of that school year, compared with 32 percent in traditional D.C. schools, and 57 percent proficient in reading, compared with 34 percent in traditional schools.

The story of Hayes and the two struggling teachers goes to the heart of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's effort to persuade D.C. teachers to put themselves at risk of removal if they do not perform well in the classroom, in return for a chance to earn more than $100,000 a year. As my colleague Bill Turque has revealed, Rhee also has a Plan B, which might give her principals power similar to what Hayes wields through administrative changes, even if the Washington Teachers' Union objects.

This is a difficult choice and a hard time for D.C. teachers. They are fine people who have chosen a tough profession and put their hearts into their work. Many fear being judged by principals who, unlike Hayes, were not skillful teachers themselves and have little clue as to what helps kids learn and what doesn't. But I don't see any way the city's children are going to get the instruction they deserve -- the imaginative, fun-loving, firm teaching found at schools like KEY -- unless principals are given the power to hire and fire teachers based on demonstrated skill and improved learning in class.

Rhee is likely to pick a few principals who fail, much as Hayes erred in hiring the two teachers. But the great virtue of the approach used at KEY and similar charter schools, the approach Rhee wants to adopt, is that achievement results -- not friendships, not union rules, not inertia -- would determine which principals and which teachers keep their jobs. If Hayes and other KIPP principals don't show learning gains, they are out. Rhee says her principals will also be gone if they don't show good results.

This shift sounds pretty drastic, and it is. For the past several years, D.C. schools have ranked near the bottom of city school systems in student achievement. They are the educational equivalent of the financial services industry and need the same kind of bitter medicine being prescribed for those downfallen businesses.

Not everyone is convinced that D.C. teachers are the problem. They reason this way: All low-income neighborhoods have relatively low achievement in reading and math. All low-income neighborhoods have large numbers of children whose parents did not do well in school when they were young. Maybe these parents and their children are just not up to it. Why fire teachers for failing to solve an insoluble problem?

Some charter schools with mediocre results buy into this flawed thinking and keep teachers who aren't performing. But the most successful charter networks, such as KIPP, Achievement First, Aspire, Noble Street and Uncommon Schools, provide a reality check. Experts debate the size of the gains the best charter schools have made and whether they can ever reach, one small school at a time, the large number of urban children who need good teaching. But the numbers we have are enough to draw some preliminary conclusions.

For instance, nationally, KIPP middle schools have been shown to raise average reading achievement from the 32nd to the 60th percentile and math achievement from the 40th to the 82nd percentile for children who stay from grades five through eight. These children, neglected in regular public schools, thrive when they transfer to KIPP. That seems to be because the principals and teachers in their new schools want to be judged by their results and don't need a promise of higher salaries to take the risk that they might fail.

Next week: Is Rhee's teacher bonus plan a good idea? E-mail

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