By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee told teachers yesterday that in the drive "to fix everything all at once," she and her staff might have overwhelmed them with new programs and initiatives to turn around the under-performing school system.
Union officials responded by contending that Rhee was playing politics with the union membership rather than responding at the bargaining table to a contract proposal they submitted at the end of January.
Since her appointment by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in June 2007, Rhee has moved with urgency at all levels of the school system. Her most visible changes include closing 23 schools, firing dozens of principals and attempting to introduce a potentially groundbreaking pay-for-performance package in labor negotiations.
Less visible, but just as significant, are a flurry of pilot programs and policy changes that have placed increasing demands on many teachers. They include Saturday programs to prepare students for the DC-CAS standardized tests; a push for inclusion of special education students in regular classes; a new accelerated math program; a cash reward program for students in selected middle schools that requires new paperwork and record-keeping; and new guidelines for bilingual, arts and health education.
In a letter to the District's 4,000 teachers and specialists yesterday, Rhee acknowledged that she might have tried to take on too much too soon.
"In our exuberance to fix everything all at once, we've thrown so many different programs at you," Rhee said. "Please know that this comes from a desire to support you, not inundate you.
"But now I see that we may have pushed on too many different fronts all at the same time," she wrote. Rhee did not specify which programs or initiatives might be slowed or delayed.
The letter is part of an effort by the chancellor to improve her standing with D.C. teachers as she negotiates a labor contract with the Washington Teachers' Union. Some instructors were alarmed last summer when Rhee introduced her pay proposal tying compensation and job security to student achievement. They were also dismayed by what they perceived as the chancellor's disdain for veteran educators.
In a series of meetings with teachers over the past two months, Rhee has tried to defuse those tensions. The letter, which includes five pages of answers to frequently asked questions, makes an impassioned appeal for teachers to persevere in working with students despite the economic and emotional issues they often bring to the classroom.
"You are the agents of social justice in our nation's capital," she wrote. "You're far more powerful than the Senators or Congressmen who work just blocks away from our schools."
She also spelled out a series of guiding principles in her pursuit of a contract.
She promised fully equipped and technologically up-to-date classrooms, a vastly upgraded program of professional development and strengthened student disciplinary measures. She also pledged that job evaluation would be focused on student growth, not standardized test scores, and pay would be based on what teachers achieve both individually and collectively.
In a joint statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker said Rhee has appropriated some of the ideas they raised in their proposed contract and is attempting to make them her own.
"It is disappointing that Chancellor Rhee, who considers herself to be a new type of leader, is employing the usual old-school, failed collective bargaining tactics," the union leaders said. Rather than responding to the teachers' proposal, they said, "she seems to echo its substance in the new promises she's making to teachers."
"Perhaps, instead of choosing to publicly negotiate directly with teachers, she should take the time she's set aside for 'Q&A sessions' and spend it at the bargaining table."
Rhee had no immediate response. Her letter is posted at http://www.k12.dc.us/