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The D.C. teacher firings

Sunday, July 25, 2010; A18

ALOT OF LIP service is given to not tolerating bad teachers. Educators, politicians and even union leaders say that there is no place in the classroom for a teacher who can't produce results. But actually doing something about the situation is an entirely different matter. That's why D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee should be supported for taking the difficult but necessary steps to rid the system of ineffective teachers.

In a move seen as unprecedented in the nation, Ms. Rhee announced Friday that 241 teachers -- roughly 6 percent of the teaching force -- are being terminated because of poor performance and licensing issues. An additional 737 have been rated minimally effective, will not be eligible for step increases and have one year to improve their performance or face dismissal. That means that the system could see nearly a quarter of its teachers dismissed within two years, a prospect Ms. Rhee called "daunting." Nonetheless, she is right to argue that "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 . . . ."

No joy can be taken in knowing the hardship caused to individuals who likely are nice people and good neighbors. But if there is outrage to be felt, it should be directed at a system that has enabled, even rewarded, poor teachers. Consider that in the year Ms. Rhee took over leadership of the schools, only 8 percent of eighth-graders performed on grade level in math, but 95 percent of the teachers were rated as excellent. Ms. Rhee said that her staff's research showed that no teachers were fired for lack of effectiveness in 2006, the year before she became chancellor.

It's important to stress that termination decisions were made after each teacher underwent a thorough review based on the district's new teacher evaluation system, known as IMPACT, that combined observations of teachers with student test score data. IMPACT replaced a completely subjective system, so it is hard to accept arguments about the new system -- with precise standards, multiple observations by experts and clear expectations -- being unfair.

It's also hard to swallow the argument by some that Ms. Rhee is moving too fast. Whose children do they propose sit in the classrooms of ineffective teachers? It's worrisome enough to think about the children who will be taught this fall by teachers who have been judged "minimally ineffective." Union leaders have signaled plans to file grievances over all the dismissals. That's their right; but a better use of their time might be to work with Ms. Rhee to improve the performance of the 737 teachers in danger of losing their jobs next year.

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