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Teacher firings will test Gray

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; B02

Deal with it, folks: Mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray isn't going to say what he's going to do about D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee if he's elected.

Her ongoing tenure might be the most scalding of hot-button issues in Gray's race against Adrian M. Fenty, but the council chairman seems perfectly content to maintain his careful straddle on the issue.

After all, why should he say anything? Rhee has made it clear that she has no intention of sticking around for a Gray administration.

But while Gray may not feel much pressure to say what he'd do about Rhee, he will be pressed to say more about what Rhee has done -- in particular, her move last week to fire dozens of schoolteachers for poor performance.

The firings, as many as 165 of them, are almost unheard of in a large urban school system, despite the lip service that gets paid to holding teachers accountable. And Gray has duly paid: His education plan promises to "remove low-performing teachers from the system."

Now Rhee has done just that.

So far, Gray has punted. Nearly a week after the firings, Gray said little more than he wanted to "look further at the basis for the dismissals."

Gray has navigated his Good Ship Consensus through similar narrows. Last fall's reduction-in-force involved teacher performance, but it was triggered by a budget shortfall, and Gray seized on the questionable basis for that shortfall to challenge the layoffs.

Now he must address the difficult question of rooting out underperforming teachers head on. The usual pro-worker pieties expressed by Democratic politicians don't hold so well when it comes to teachers. Even the most true-blue parents tend to want assurances that their kids won't be taught by incompetents.

Rhee, who has made improving teacher quality the sine qua non of her reform effort, has moved quickly to guarantee that. The IMPACT evaluation system developed by her administration takes into account observations from fellow educators inside and outside a teacher's school, in addition to growth in student test scores.

If he wants to duck the difficult question, Gray's education plan offers several hints on how he'll do it. He wants to hold "teachers accountable, while giving them the resources and respect they deserve" -- so he might argue that teachers haven't been given the requisite support. And the plan promises to "swiftly . . . implement the independent evaluation of the current IMPACT evaluation system as required in the new teachers' contract" -- meaning Gray could say the firings should be held up pending that evaluation.

Either way, if Gray questions the firings, he will be directly defending teachers found to be ineffective. And although Gray's supporters include some of Rhee's fiercest critics, he also has to please backers like Lisa Raymond, the Ward 6 representative to the D.C. State Board of Education and a high-profile Gray supporter.

Raymond has vouched for Gray's reformer bona fides, issuing a statement earlier this year calling the choice between Gray and Rhee a false one.

From what she has seen so far, Raymond likes IMPACT. She got a sit-down with Jason Kamras, the top Rhee deputy charged with developing and implementing the system. Based on the briefing, she said, it "seemed to be a fair system."

"From what I saw," she said, "if you're at the point where the score is as low as it is, there are some real problems going on in your classroom."

One young teacher who went through the program said she not only found the system fair, but also that it helped her become a better teacher.

Lauren McAlee, who was a second-year kindergarten teacher at Montgomery Elementary, said that after her first observation her score was in the "minimally effective" range -- meaning she'd be at risk for firing. But after DCPS-mandated training, her scores improved; she said she's now at the high end of the "effective" range. And it's not just about scores: "I felt like my practice was improving," she said.

If IMPACT is sound and teachers were fired based on it, Raymond said, "I would expect Gray to support that decision, and I think he would."

Gray campaign spokeswoman Traci Hughes expanded slightly on the candidate's no-comment on Thursday, raising questions about whether IMPACT uses "objective evaluators." She added that Gray has "requested more information" from DCPS.

But Rhee hasn't exactly been hiding under a rock: In addition to more than 150 sessions with teachers, DCPS held a public town-hall meeting on IMPACT in February, plus a special briefing for D.C. council members and staff.

Gray's need for information may have more to do with his need not to alienate interest groups.

But sooner or later Gray will have to explain: How exactly are you supposed to fire a bad teacher?

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