D.C. teachers union accuses Rhee of 'playing loose' with numbers on 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
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee garnered big local headlines and national attention July 23 when she announced that she had fired 241 teachers, including 165 who received poor evaluations under a tough new assessment system that for the first time held some educators accountable for student test scores.

It turns out that the story is a bit more complicated, and Rhee is facing accusations from the Washington Teachers' Union that she inflated the figures to burnish her image as a take-no-prisoners schools leader.

The number of teachers fired for scores in the "ineffective" range on the IMPACT evaluation system is 76, or fewer than half of the 165 originally cited, according to data presented by the District to the union last week. The rest of the 165, school officials acknowledge, were educators judged "minimally effective" who had lost their positions in the school system because of enrollment declines or program changes at their schools mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Those teachers, subject to a personnel process called "excessing," are still eligible to work in the school system for at least another year under the terms of the new labor contract, if they can find a principal willing to take them on.

Although such a system might be seen as merely shuffling marginal teachers from one school to another, it is a significant change from the terms of the old collective bargaining agreement, which guaranteed excessed teachers jobs in the system. Rhee said Wednesday that she expects the vast majority of excessed teachers to be dismissed later this month. Or they could choose to resign.

Still, it makes the numbers presented last month approximations, at best.

"We will not know the total number who have found other jobs in the system or resigned until Aug. 13," Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said.

The discrepancy resulted from the District's failure to differentiate between teachers who were fired and those who were excessed. It is also the result of most reporters not picking up on the fine print in the original July 23 announcement, which said the 241 teachers were "subject to termination." Neither Rhee nor her spokespeople, however, contested what was reported, which was that 241 teachers had been fired, including 75 for licensing issues.

Calloway said there was no attempt to mislead the public.

"Had we not released the entire number, critics would have said we were seeking to downplay the number of teachers we were removing by releasing the number in dribs and drabs," Calloway said. "We came down on the side of greater transparency."

But WTU President George Parker accused Rhee of "playing loose with the facts." He said the misleading dismissal numbers were only the latest example of inequity and confusion generated by IMPACT, launched by Rhee last fall.

"I'm not sure what the motives here were, except a big splurge of news to show that this chancellor was the big hero cleaning up the D.C. schools," Parker said. He said the union would take multiple actions to contest the dismissals, including arbitration and the filing of an unfair labor practice complaint with the District.

Rhee rejected Parker's claim that she was trying to boost her national reputation. "The bottom line is that I take very seriously the process that is going to result in an individual's termination," she said. "These are people, many of them, who are good, hardworking people and this is their livelihood. So to imply that somehow we did something [to seek publicity], I think is disingenuous."

If anything, Rhee added, she was trying to avoid the acrimony generated by last fall's layoffs of 266 teachers, executed after the school year began. She also said that although "some of the nuances" may have gotten overlooked, she was satisfied that the District was forthcoming in last month's announcement. Rhee said that although "two or three" of the excessed teachers had been picked up by other schools, there had been "no movement" in the last six weeks to hire the others.

School officials actually urged principals to give serious consideration to teachers with marginal evaluation scores. In a July 21 memo, Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Regina Youngblood, human resources director, said it had come to their attention that principals were interviewing excessed employees only "if they meet a certain IMPACT score threshold."

"This is an inappropriate way to screen and consider candidates for your school," they wrote, adding that the excessed teachers "deserve a fair chance to interview and present their strengths. As a DCPS principal, you're obligated to consider these employees fairly."

Parker said the status of the excessed teachers is also complicated by the transition to the new labor contract. Teachers were required to be informed of excessing decisions before the end of the school year in mid-June, while the old contract was still in force. Under that pact, instructors were excessed on the basis of seniority. The new contract calls for excessing based largely on performance.

Parker said it makes no sense to put teachers in the excess pool under one contract and then place them under the terms of another.

Rhee said Parker's objection has no merit. "There's no legal basis for what he is saying. You always have a point at which a contract turns on."

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