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D.C. contract is just the tool to let creative, renegade teachers soar

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

The new contract ratified by D.C. teachers has inspired speculation about who is going to get the most out of it. Will Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee be able to impose her test-driven evaluation system with no more teacher resistance? Will the American Federation of Teachers, and its president, Randi Weingarten, garner new prestige and influence for endorsing reform?

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Nope. That's not it. This is not about District or union leaders. It is about teachers, particularly the innovative ones who have been taking jobs in city schools and joining Weingarten's union in large numbers in the past several years. The new contract in the District and related developments in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Houston and elsewhere give this new bunch an opportunity to prove that their creative and aggressive teaching will help inner-city children realize their untapped potential.

The District is a hot spot for the movement because the city has large numbers of top college graduates recruited by Teach for America and similar organizations. They now serve as teachers, principals and, in Rhee's case, chancellor. Like Houston, New York and Boston, the District also has many of the most effective public charter schools and several traditional public schools that are innovative.

In Los Angeles, teachers with similar intentions are pushing the change even further. In the summer issue of the journal Education Next, Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, reveals how renegade teacher groups outbid even the best charter organizations to run underperforming L.A. schools their way.

If this doesn't work, it will be leaders like Rhee who get the blame. Test scores will deliver the final verdict, as far as the public is concerned. Tests are flawed measures, but they are pretty much all we have. That is why the new breed of teachers takes them seriously and why Weingarten agreed to test-driven teacher evaluations. The fastest-growing part of her membership demanded them. If scores don't continue to improve, the headlines will say Rhee failed. But the teachers driving schools in these new directions will blame themselves and try something different, a useful habit if we want urban schools to work.

One crucial element in all this can't be easily measured: attitude, both in teachers and students. Leaders like Rhee have insisted on hiring only teachers who believe that they can make big gains despite the drag on learning that comes from poverty. This is evident in what happens in their classrooms. Students who fail to pay attention, taunt others or do anything to distract the class get a quick teacher response -- a warning, a whisper in the ear, a lost privilege, something to underline the importance of what they are doing.

The way some of the new principals instill this emphasis in teachers is interesting. Susan Schaeffler, who created the most effective charter school network in the city, KIPP DC, told me what she said privately to a teacher who was five minutes late for a meeting: "Is there a problem? Should we rewrite your contract to let you come late? We can't demand that kids stick with the rules if we don't follow them ourselves."

No matter how much salaries rise under the new contract, the teachers who make a difference will not dwell on that. They know that how much their students grow in knowledge and character will decide everything.

For more Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.


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