Rhee has asked how to regain teachers' trust, principals say

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, facing a showdown Thursday with the D.C. Council over layoffs and budget cuts, has asked principals what she can do to "regain the trust" of the school system's teachers, some principals say.

Rhee posed the question last week during the monthly meeting of her school leadership at Gallaudet University's Kellogg Conference Center, according to two participants and a third source who was briefed later by others who attended. The two principals, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal deliberations, said Rhee expressed concern that even her best teachers have been shaken by the turmoil surrounding the Oct. 2 layoffs of 266 educators and the introduction of a rigorous evaluation system.

"What can I do to regain the trust of my teachers?" Rhee asked, according to one participant. "I don't understand why everyone is so afraid."

Rhee said in an interview that she never asked such a question.

"What I said was that we needed to do a better job of making sure we were communicating effectively with our educators," she said. "There are a lot of distractions, and we have to remain focused on the task at hand."

Asked what prompted a discussion of better communication with teachers, Rhee said, "There was nothing in particular that led to it."

Rhee is going through the most turbulent and polarizing period of a 28-month tenure marked by broad upheaval over personnel and policy decisions. Although she drew heated criticism for her decision last year to close 23 underenrolled schools, the effect of the move was mitigated by months of lead time that enabled students, teachers and parents to prepare for it.

On Thursday, she will face council members angry over layoffs that were announced six weeks into the new academic year and peeved about her explanation that the action was triggered by midsummer budget cuts they approved. Council members say there should have been adequate funding to sustain school operations without disruption.

The teacher dismissals alarmed students, some of whom took to the streets in protest after seeing educators abruptly removed from their jobs, and angered union leaders, who have sued to block the action.

Groups that back Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty also are mobilizing. D.C. School Reform Now, a nonprofit organization that works to develop grass-roots support for school improvement, has placed fliers in schools calling for a rally Thursday morning on the steps of the Wilson Building to coincide with Rhee's council appearance.

Rhee invested significant time over the winter trying to improve relations with the District's 4,000-member teacher corps. Many educators said they were offended by a Time magazine cover photo that showed Rhee holding a broom, an image that confirmed their belief that she held District teachers in low esteem.

Rhee initiated a series of after-hours chats with small groups of teachers to answer questions and allay concerns. In a February op-ed piece in The Washington Post, she said she did not blame teachers for the low achievement levels of D.C. students. A month later, she wrote a contrite letter to instructors acknowledging that she might have pressed for too many changes 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 Rhee continues to face deep internal skepticism over IMPACT, a new teacher evaluation system that, for the first time, will assess some District educators on the growth of their students' scores on annual standardized tests. Principals, aided by a cadre of impartial "master educators" from outside the schools, also will judge teachers against an elaborate new framework of requirements and strategies.

In a series of five classroom observations, teachers will be rated in nine categories that involve nearly two dozen criteria, such as clarity in defining a lesson's objective and instilling in students a belief that hard work leads to success. Teachers who score poorly will be subject to dismissal.

Rhee said she took pains to solicit broad teacher input on the new assessment system. But one of the principals who met with her last week said teachers don't trust the evaluation system because they think it is designed to remove them, not help them improve.

"As they see it, Rhee is all show, has already made all the decisions, and sharing feedback with her is pretty pointless," the principal said. "My teachers basically said it was too little too late. They don't ever see her regaining their trust."

The school leader said her instructors, "especially the experienced ones, see this new regime as a type of cult of the true believers. Don't question what they do since they have all the answers."

One Northwest elementary school teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid problems with colleagues and administrators, said recently that the tensions have prompted most instructors who support Rhee to keep a low profile. "Those two or three of us in the system who may support her certainly keep it to ourselves," she said.

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