Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009

At the heart of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's vision for transforming D.C. schools is a dramatic overhaul of its 4,000-member teacher corps that would remove a "significant share" of instructors and launch an ambitious plan to foster professional growth for those who remain.

Rhee wants more teachers who share her central belief about education reform: All children can become high academic achievers, regardless of the disadvantages they face outside the classroom. She promises to "identify and transition out a significant share" of instructors, through buyouts or dismissals, according to the five-year plan she submitted to the D.C. Council in November.

Rhee plans to move the District away from the regimen of courses and workshops that have defined continuing education for teachers. Borrowing from best practices in surrounding suburban districts, she is building a system of school-based mentors and coaches to help instructors raise the quality of their work. She also wants to import a nationally prominent Massachusetts consulting firm with a reputation for improving teachers' skills.

But budget uncertainties, labor tensions and the timetable for the program's rollout have sparked questions from teachers' advocates about its effectiveness. At the same time, Rhee has dropped the school system's direct support for instructors seeking certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a rigorous one- to three-year teacher development program, citing a lack of evidence that the training improves student achievement.

There is broad agreement that the District's efforts at teacher development -- often left to individual schools and their principals -- have been spotty. Courses sponsored by the District and the Washington Teachers' Union are available, but instructors and administrators said there has not been a coherent or unifying definition of good instruction.

Cheryl Krehbiel, Rhee's top deputy for professional development, said the rudderless nature of the program was apparent when she arrived in summer 2007 after spending most of her career as a staff developer in Montgomery County schools. Her office had 26 people, she said, but none with any experience in teaching adults.

Rhee's five-year plan flatly stated: "There is no comprehensive professional development program for teachers."

George Parker, president of the teachers union, said this is especially true for first-year teachers, who sometimes struggle. "Great teachers don't come into the system pretty much as great teachers," he said. "They are developed. It's going to take a teacher around three years to hit a stride."

Under Montgomery's program, operated jointly by the school system and the teachers union, novice instructors are paired with master teachers who visit them in the classroom regularly and monitor their progress. Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.

Saphier said the program fosters teachers' belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.

An independent study in 2004 showed that before taking the course, Montgomery teachers rated students' home life and motivation as the factors that most influenced learning. After the course, home life dropped to 11th on the list, and teacher enthusiasm and perseverance were described as most important.

Rhee's plan calls for introduction of the program, but not before trying to turn over a significant portion of the instructor corps. She had hoped to winnow out poorly performing teachers by weakening tenure protections in exchange for higher salaries. That proposal remains the subject of stalled contract talks.

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