D.C. teachers likely to ratify contract

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; B01

Voting on the proposed contract between the District and its 4,000 public school teachers concludes Wednesday, and even educators opposed to the pact, which will trigger major changes in how they are managed and paid, expect it to be ratified.

"A lot of people say they like it. They like the money," said Tom O'Rourke, a veteran history teacher and union activist at Roosevelt High School who voted no because, he said, the pact has too many vague, open-ended promises.

The contract offer, which requires the approval of the D.C. Council, would give teachers a 21.6 percent salary increase through 2012. About half the money would come in a single retroactive payment covering the nearly three years they worked without a raise while the pact was negotiated. The package would boost the average salary for a D.C. educator from $67,000 to about $81,000, elevating it to near the top of the pay scale for public school teachers in the Washington region, according to a union survey.

The accord also provides for improved professional development opportunities and a voluntary pay-for-performance system that officials say could add $20,000 to $30,000 to the salaries of teachers who show better-than-expected growth in student test scores and hit other benchmarks.

With many states planning deep cuts in school staff because of falling tax revenue, the deal may be too rich to turn down, some educators said.

"If you look across the country and see what's going on . . . this union better take the money and run," said Bill Rope, who teaches third grade at Phoebe Hearst Elementary and voted for the contract.

"It is probably the best we are going to get," said Judy Leak-Bowers, a third-grade teacher at Watkins Elementary. "I'm pretty confident that most teachers I know are going to go along with it."

George Parker, Washington Teachers' Union president, said he is "optimistic" about ratification. But he said he is also concerned that some teachers will use the contract vote as a referendum on Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who remains an unpopular figure with some educators.

"Some people see this as an opportunity to smack the chancellor," Parker said.

Some teachers say they are skeptical of the performance pay plan, which will be financed in its first three years by private foundations. Much of the mistrust is rooted in Rhee's decision to lay off 266 instructors in October because of what she described as a budget crunch. The union is challenging the job reductions in court.

"I voted no for many reasons, one of which was the amusing budget swings back and forth," Anacostia High School English teacher Sarah Otto said in an e-mail. "There is no way I can trust anything anyone says about available budget resources when it was such a farce from the beginning. I'm also still bitter about the [layoffs] in the fall."

But, Otto added, "the promise of higher pay is convincing many to vote YES, especially the younger, newer teachers who haven't yet recognized the need for union protection."

Union leaders say there is also widespread concern about the teacher evaluation system launched this year by Rhee. Under the program, known as IMPACT, reading and math teachers in grades four through eight will have half of their evaluations based on growth in scores on the annual DC-CAS standardized tests. Most of the other half of the evaluation -- and the bulk of the assessments for teachers in grades and subject areas in which the DC-CAS is not administered -- will be based on an elaborate new "teaching and learning framework." Principals and outside "master educators" score teachers across nine categories over the course of five classroom observations. Performance will be converted to a 100-to-400-point scale, with those falling below 175 subject to dismissal.

Although IMPACT was not subject to collective bargaining -- the law allowed Rhee to establish it unilaterally -- it looms large in the new contract. One provision, for example, says schools that must cut teaching jobs because of declining enrollment or program changes will do so based on performance as documented by IMPACT, not seniority.

Some teachers say IMPACT is too subjective, evaluating them on matters such as whether they strike a "dynamic presence" in the classroom. Another section says that a highly skilled teacher should never have more than five instances of "inappropriate or off-task behavior" by students within a half-hour of class time. Parker said special-education teachers have told him that they are being evaluated by administrators unfamiliar with students' learning or behavior issues.

Leak-Bowers said she understands the need for a serious evaluation system but says IMPACT is "rigid and robotic." She also said teachers receiving low scores are not getting the help they need.

"Every school I go to, there is concern about IMPACT," Parker said.

One "side letter" to the proposed contract calls for a joint union and District working group to review teacher complaints about the system. Another calls for an independent study of IMPACT.

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