washingtonpost.com
The Toughest Job

By Michelle Rhee
Monday, February 9, 2009

Much has been said and written about education in our city recently, and I want to set the record straight with students, parents and, especially, teachers. My thoughts about teachers have not always come through accurately. Much has been lost that they should know.

I often speak of our district's performance data with sadness and outrage. The situation for our city's children is dire. Yet while I acknowledge the seriousness of the work we face, I want to be clear about something: I do not blame teachers for the low achievement levels.

I have talked with too many teachers to believe this is their fault. I have watched them pour their energy into engaging every student. I know they are working furiously in a system that for many years has not appreciated them -- sometimes not even paying them on time or providing textbooks. Those who categorically blame teachers for the failures of our system are simply wrong.

Rather, teachers are the solution to the vexing problems facing urban education.

In the coming weeks, we will submit a final proposal for a new teacher contract. Through it and other reforms, we can create, together, the most effective and highly compensated educator force in the country. Our key goals:

· Individual choice. Contrary to the rumors, nobody will be forced to give up tenure. All teachers will get a substantial raise. Some may wish to choose an option that includes pay increases and bonuses based on excellence in the classroom. This would result in many teachers doubling their pay, with some making at least $100,000 by year seven.

· Measuring excellence. We cannot rely on test scores alone. Good evaluations of teaching practices must be well rounded. Only some of our teachers work in grades or subjects in which tests are given, so we must use many assessments to measure student growth.

· A growth model of achievement. Many teachers inherit classes of students who are far behind academically. Yet some teachers, even with minimal support, move their students two to three grade levels ahead in a year. Teachers will not be evaluated on an absolute measure but on how far they take their students.

· Protection from arbitrary firings. Some teachers are concerned a principal may want to fire them for reasons unrelated to performance. While principals who do this risk their own jobs (firing effective teachers is a sure way to lower school achievement), we will ensure protections for teachers. We need a fair and transparent process, free from bias and haste, designed with teachers' input.

· Professional development and support. Teachers have told me that many of their hesitations about the contract -- and about me -- center on the pressures that teachers face: "What if my school does not support me? What if I am working my tail off and I still have weeks when my patience is thin and things beyond my control are causing problems?"

Our proposal will provide a framework to navigate these questions with strong programs to support and develop teachers as professionals. Neither will we forget the small things that can weigh down great teachers. For example, we want to reimburse those who buy supplies for their classrooms or use their cellphones to call students and families. We want to compensate teachers when they cover classes for others. I was a teacher. I know how these things add up.

Finally, we have to talk about ineffective teaching, which is not a popular subject. I am not referring to situations in which teachers are trying hard but are frustrated by their daily challenges. I am talking about teaching -- or the absence of teaching -- that shortchanges kids. Do not misunderstand: I do not believe that most of our teachers are shortchanging their students. But in the worst cases, we have teachers who put their feet on their desks and read the paper while students run around. Or they use corporal punishment. Or they intentionally abuse their current contract, leaving for three months at a time and returning for the one day that will keep their job active. We all agree that these people do not belong in the classroom, and we must be able to remove them expeditiously.

I am often asked to name the most important factor in this district's success. It is teachers. It is their classrooms and what happens there, the expectations they set as they push students to go further. Teaching is the toughest job there is: Doing it well can keep you up at night thinking about your students, their stories and your role in their lives. But as teachers know, this work is also sure to surprise and reward. Teachers deserve recognition and respect for their efforts.

Those who teach well deserve the highest compensation we can offer. All teachers -- especially those in one of this country's most challenging districts -- deserve the best professional development available. My hope is that a new agreement will support teachers to continue to love this hard work, to keep doing it and to become even better.

The writer is chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company