By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee made good yesterday on repeated threats to bypass labor contract negotiations by imposing her own program to fire ineffective teachers, including a measure that gives poorly performing instructors 90 days to improve or face dismissal.
"The goal and responsibility and moral imperative of this administration is to make sure that each child gets an excellent education," said Rhee, who had hinted broadly in recent weeks that she was ready to invoke what she has dubbed "Plan B."
The blueprint includes a new teacher evaluation system based primarily on student test scores and other achievement benchmarks. She has also decided to employ rules that are on the books but seldom used, including one that allows her to deemphasize the importance of seniority in deciding which teachers would lose jobs in the event of declining enrollment or school closures. Seniority would become one of multiple factors taken into account.
Exactly how teachers will be evaluated on the basis of test scores is still under review, Rhee said. The provision allowing a 90-day review of teacher performance, however, could have a more immediate impact.
At a meeting last week, school officials asked principals to produce lists of underperforming teachers who could be placed on the 90-day plan immediately. According to the school system's updated personnel evaluation manual, principals have until early December to initiate actions against teachers they want to remove. School officials did not respond when asked how many teachers might be involved.
Although it has been on the books for years, the provision has been difficult for school officials to administer. Instructors on 90-day status are supposed to be assigned a "helping teacher" and work with the principal to develop a remedial plan. The process also involves classroom observations and conferences, all organized around a series of deadlines that are frequently missed by harried administrators.
Rhee said that additional staff would be available, paid for by private grants, to help principals more efficiently execute the 90-day plans.
Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker denounced Rhee's decision, saying that her focus on how to terminate some of the city's 4,000 teachers has come at the expense of ideas to support and professionally develop them.
"You cannot fire your way to a successful school district. It will not happen," said Parker, who added that the union would take whatever steps necessary to protect its members, including "court proceedings, arbitration and teacher job actions."
Contract negotiations, which started 11 months ago and continued through Monday, have not been suspended. But Parker said he planned to confer with the union's executive board this week about declaring an impasse, which would send at least portions of the dispute to third-party mediation.
The unilateral approach represents a setback for Rhee, who seeks to remake the District's teacher corps by recruiting and retaining more instructors willing to be held directly accountable for student performance on standardized tests.
She had hoped to leverage increased control over hiring and firing by making it part of a financial package that would earn many teachers more than $100,000 a year in pay and performance bonuses within five years. Rhee had asked the union to accept a proposal under which teachers seeking the top pay levels would have to relinquish tenure and go on probation for a year, risking dismissal. Those unwilling to risk tenure could opt for smaller, but still significant, raises and bonuses.
The chancellor drew national attention for the potentially groundbreaking pay proposal, which would be funded for the first five years with $200 million in private foundation grants. She frequently described it as a top priority in her long-term plans for overhauling the city's troubled school system.
But the package -- especially the one-year probation proposal -- has deeply divided the membership. The union and the District also remain at odds over how teachers fired after the year's probation can appeal the decision. Parker has said that he will not bring the package to the membership for a vote without adequate due process protections.
Appearing with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) at an early morning news conference, Rhee said she will be able to reach her goal of eliminating underperforming teachers with the policies. Although she has always had the power to impose these rules, she said, she also wanted to reward the Washington teachers "who do so many heroic things day in and day out." But she said she had no choice but to move forward.
"Where we are now is an incredibly unfortunate place," Rhee said. "We are leaving more than $200 million in external funding on the table."
Teachers who support Rhee's pay proposal expressed deep disappointment at yesterday's announcements.
"I'm sick about it," said Jennifer Miller, a teacher at Janney Elementary. "There are so many of us in favor of this program, and [Parker] is not allowing us to vote on it."
Jerome Brocks, a special education teacher, opposes any plan by Rhee to weaken tenure or seniority. "She hasn't been in my city but a day, and she's going to tell me that my seniority is no longer in effect?"