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Dismissals for D.C. Schools
Ms. Rhee's systemwide layoffs, while painful, are a step toward improving the city's classrooms.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

NEW YORK CITY schools are notorious for their rubber rooms, holding tanks for incompetent teachers who are paid full salaries to do nothing. D.C schools don't have rubber rooms but an even worse situation: Bad teachers stay in the classroom. It's a problem too long tolerated by school officials. So, as painful as Friday's layoffs are, D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was right to shake up her instructional force.

Dismissal notices were delivered to 388 employees, including 229 of the city's 4,436 teachers. Budget pressures -- a reduction in some local funds as well as the need to downsize operations after last year's school closings -- mandated the layoffs. School officials placed this fiscal year's shortfall at $43.9 million. Ms. Rhee sought to minimize the impact: Sixty percent of schools will lose one or zero teachers, and 80 percent will lose two or fewer.

What's most significant about the layoffs is the system used to determine which teachers should go. In contrast to previous years, when seniority played an outsize role in force reductions, Ms. Rhee placed a premium on the needs of individual schools and the interests of children. Instead of seniority accounting for 25 percent of a decision, it now accounts for 5 percent. That means it was easier to dismiss teachers who habitually can't control their classes, fail to plan lessons, are late for school, waste instructional time and, most troubling of all, have no expectations for their students.

No doubt the dismissals will be challenged in court. Already, Ms. Rhee is being criticized by D.C. Council members who say she should have used stimulus funds to avert the layoffs. It's too bad personnel rules prevent the system from detailing specific rationales for termination decisions. But information from principals provides disquieting insights. Take, for example, the elementary school teacher who, when asked why she showed a movie to students instead of teaching math, said it was what the students wanted. Or the elementary school teacher who told students they were stupid and useless. Or the art teacher who didn't really know what she was supposed to teach. Or the special-education teacher who screamed at his colleagues that he didn't want to be teaching anyway.

Of course, these examples are not the norm for D.C. teachers. Every day, smart, caring teachers do unimaginably hard work; they, too, are helped when teachers who don't belong in a classroom are made to leave. We wish that Ms. Rhee could have timed the layoffs to lessen the disruption for students and made it easier for dismissed workers to make other plans. And we hope she provides as much information as personnel rules allow to show who exactly lost their jobs and why.

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