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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

By Bill Turque
Saturday, July 24, 2010; A01

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.

But poor evaluations are generally not subject to appeal unless the union can demonstrate some procedural error in the appraisal process.

Grading the teachers

Summer months always bring turnover in D.C schools -- and other school systems -- through retirements, resignations and dismissals of teachers who did not survive their probationary period. Seventy-six of the teachers fired Friday were dismissed for not having proper licensing, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But few tenured educators have faced dismissal for poor performance. Rhee said that according to her staff's research, no teachers were fired for lack of effectiveness in 2006, the year before she was named chancellor. Officials said the previous evaluation process was cumbersome and time-consuming, with responsibility for assessments falling to school principals already stretched by other responsibilities.

The great majority of teachers routinely received evaluations showing that they met or exceeded expectations. At the same time, the District compiled one of the weakest academic records of any urban school system in the United States.

Rhee, and like-minded leaders in other school districts, contends that the best way to overhaul schools is to intensively monitor the performance of every adult, including janitors, and measure it by multiple yardsticks. For teachers, that includes evidence that their students meet or exceed predicted rates of growth on standardized tests, a metric known as "value-added." School districts have experimented with value-added for many years but generally employ it as a diagnostic tool to assess weaknesses or determine bonuses. Rhee's use of the method to make high-stakes personnel decisions breaks new ground, and other school systems are expected to look at the system as a possible model. She has announced plans to significantly expand the use of standardized tests so that value-added data will be available in some form at all grade levels.

This year, only about 20 percent of the District's classroom teachers -- reading and math instructors in grades 4 through 8 -- were evaluated on test-score growth. That's because those were the only grades and subjects for which there is annual test-score data from the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC CAS. Value-added constitutes 50 percent of their evaluation. Twenty-six of the 165 dismissed teachers fell into this category.

'Caught up in this web'

Under IMPACT, teachers were supposed to receive five 30-minute classroom observations during the school year, three by a school administrator and two by an outside "master educator" with a background in the instructor's subject.

The instructors were scored against an elaborate "teaching and learning framework" with 22 measures in nine categories. Among the criteria are classroom presence, time management, clarity in presenting the objectives of a lesson and ensuring that students across all levels of learning ability understand the material.

At the end of the school year, the teachers' overall performance was converted to a 100-to-400-point scale. Teachers with scores below 175 are subject to dismissal. Teachers scoring between 175 and 249 are judged under the system to be "minimally effective." Scores between 250 and 400 are considered "effective" or "highly effective."

Some teachers said Friday that the system has not worked as planned.

Elizabeth Davis, a computer concepts teacher at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast, said teachers were at a disadvantage because they were being evaluated on a new set of criteria -- the teaching framework -- that they were still trying to learn.

"A lot of good teachers have been caught up in this web," said Davis, a veteran teacher and a candidate for president of the Washington Teachers' Union. She said she received a "highly effective" rating, although she did not meet with her master educator until the final week of classes.

Other teachers said IMPACT brings a badly needed clarity to what is expected of teachers in the District. Mathew Nagy, a second-year special education teacher at Ron Brown Middle School in Northeast, said the system provides "a very consistent language for what good teaching looks like." Although he said the new teaching expectations were initially confusing, "once I dug deep, I found it to be very manageable. I felt I had a lot of control over what I was going to be evaluated on."

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