Correction to This Article
Some earlier versions of this article contained discrepancies in the number of D.C. teachers who were fired for performance. The correct number is 165. Another 76 were fired for licensure problems. This version has been corrected.

Rhee dismisses 241 D.C. teachers; union vows to contest firings

Her image is of a tough-talking schools chief who's out to sack every last veteran teacher in D.C.'s failing system. The reality is not so simple.
By Bill Turque
Saturday, July 24, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced Friday that she has fired 241 teachers, including 165 who received poor appraisals under a new evaluation system that for the first time holds some educators accountable for students' standardized test scores.

"Every child in a District of Columbia public school has a right to a highly effective teacher -- in every classroom, of every school, of every neighborhood, of every ward, in this City," Rhee said in a statement, announcing the first year of results from the revamped evaluation, known as IMPACT. "That is our commitment. Today . . . we take another step toward making that commitment a reality."

Dismissals for performance are exceedingly rare in D.C. schools -- and in school systems nationwide. Friday's firings mark the beginning of Rhee's bid to make student achievement a high-stakes proposition for teachers, establishing job loss as a possible consequence of poor classroom results.

The Washington Teachers' Union said Friday that it will contest the terminations.

The firings also are likely to spark a new round of debate about Rhee's treatment of teachers. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who is challenging Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, has not committed to retaining Rhee if elected and has made her hard-edged management style part of his critique of Fenty's education policy. Gray said Friday that he "wanted to look further at the basis for the dismissals" before drawing conclusions and added that there is "still controversy" regarding IMPACT.

Said Fenty, in a statement: "As Mayor, I will not sit still, and I will not be satisfied until a highly effective teacher is in every classroom. Today's action puts us one step closer to that goal."

Although the teachers dismissed for poor performance represent only about 4 percent of the city's 4,000-member corps, Rhee also announced Friday that 737 other instructors were rated "minimally effective." Under IMPACT, they have one year to improve their performance or face dismissal. Rhee declined to speculate on how many might be sacked next year. But she said that over the next two years, "a not-insignificant number of folks will be moved out of the system for poor performance."

'Too far, too fast'

The dismissals also represent the second game-changing development this year in Rhee's efforts to assert more control over how D.C. teachers are managed, compensated and removed from their jobs. They also place the school system at the head of a national movement -- fostered in part by the Obama administration's $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" grant competition -- to more rigorously assess teachers' effectiveness.

Last month, union members and the D.C. Council approved a contract that raises educators' salaries by 21.6 percent but diminishes traditional seniority protections in favor of personnel decisions based on results in the classroom. The accord also provides for a "performance pay" system with bonuses of $20,000 to $30,000 annually for teachers who meet certain benchmarks, including growth in test scores. IMPACT is the major instrument officials will use each year to determine teachers' effectiveness. Rhee has invested $4 million, some of it from private foundations, to increase the rigor of the system.

The Washington Teachers' Union has bitterly objected to IMPACT, which was devised in collaboration with a private consultant, Mathematica Policy Research. Although school officials convened teacher focus groups to discuss the plan, it was not subject to collective bargaining. Some teachers call it overly complex and dependent on an unreliable statistical methodology for linking test scores to individual teachers. WTU President George Parker said the program is designed to weed out teachers rather than help them improve.

"It's punishment-heavy and support-light," he said, adding that it should have first been tried on a small pilot basis. "They've gone too far, too fast."

Parker said the union will pursue the two appeals processes legally available: One will involve directly petitioning Rhee; the other will result in a hearing before an independent arbitrator. Parker also said that the union probably will collectively file an unfair labor practice complaint with the District.

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