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.
Now she promises to use her authority as chancellor to reach the same goal. An undisclosed number of teachers with poor evaluations have been placed on "90-day plans" of counseling and observation to help improve their performance. Those who don't improve could face termination by the end of the school year.
But an initial cohort of coaches will not begin training as Skillful Teacher program instructors until the fall. The effort will roll out gradually, on a pilot basis, until 2011, when all second-year teachers in the District will start receiving it, officials said.
Teachers and their advocates contend that such programs should precede the 90-day plans and dismissals so that instructors have more opportunity to improve.
"Here we are, 15 months into the tenure of this administration, and the plan calls for teachers to start getting support in the craft of teaching in 2010-2011," said Mark Simon, a former Montgomery teacher and now national coordinator at the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, who spoke at a D.C. Council hearing last month.
Krehbiel defended the timetable. "Putting in Skillful Teacher is not such an easy thing," she said. "We don't want to start something we can't continue."
Budget issues are clouding the picture. Rhee said in a recent interview that improvements in professional development will depend heavily on support from private foundations, which she said have committed $200 million to improve D.C. schools. The money, which Rhee is also counting on to fund large teacher salary increases, is contingent on union approval of her contract proposal.
But contract talks remain stalled over the tenure issue. The District teachers union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, are expected to submit a counterproposal to the District this month.
Saphier said that he is excited about working with District schools but that partnership with the union is essential for success. "I know in the long term you don't get sustainable results with an oppositional union," he said.
Programs for growth and self-improvement have been part of primary and secondary public education for years. Despite budget uncertainties, more than 150 literacy and math coaches have been hired and placed in schools this year to advise teachers and address specific problems in delivering lessons or managing student behavior.
Although school officials are emphasizing professional development, Rhee has ended the practice of providing time and technical support to teachers seeking certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Created 20 years ago to provide the kind of specialized credentials awarded to surgeons and lawyers, the program requires 200 to 400 hours of rigorous study and self-appraisal.
Nearly 74,000 teachers nationwide have won board certification since the program's inception. Among the cities with the highest concentration is Chicago, where Arne Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama's education secretary-designate, has presided over an increase in the number of nationally certified teachers, from 11 to 1,200, since 2000. D.C. public schools have 39, fewer than 1 percent of its 4,000 teachers.
Wil Parker, the Arlington-based board's regional outreach director, said Rhee told him that the program had merit but that it was "not an immediate priority." Krehbiel, herself board-certified, said that she admires the program but that its link to improved student achievement is weak.