With D.C. teacher firings, the students finally come first

By Kristin Ehrgood
Sunday, August 8, 2010

The recent dismissals of 241 ineffective and improperly licensed D.C. Public Schools teachers are doubtless upsetting to the friends, colleagues and family of those who have been fired. But it is important to recognize the fortitude of Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her staff as they grapple with a tenure system that has rewarded mediocrity while allowing the country's neediest children to drop out, fail out or graduate without enrolling in college.

These students did not fail us. We failed them by providing weak standards, erratic guidance and few incentives to educators. In the year before Rhee's arrival, 8 percent of students were on grade level, but 95 percent of teachers "met expectations," and none was fired. Our students fell further and further behind.

We can close the achievement gap between middle class and low-income children within four years -- but we must ensure that every student has an exceptional teacher. Under Rhee, the public school system is beginning to do just that.

Recently, the school system fired ineffective teachers and gave minimally effective teachers notice that they need to seek additional support and training, which the school system is eager to provide, in order to improve within one year. These actions are perfectly in line with the new tenure rules agreed upon in the recently passed teachers contract. Nevertheless, the Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) has already vowed to contest the firings in court. By doing so, the union demonstrates that when hard decisions have to be made, it will continue to put adults' interests ahead of children's.

The WTU has found many allies in the media. Some journalists and bloggers reflexively protect the failed status quo and offer ridiculous warnings of a conspiracy to destroy public education. By complaining that teachers are being victimized and inaccurately representing the D.C. Public Schools' evaluation system, these people weaken the institution they claim to protect. They turn their backs on eager and ambitious students -- all to preserve the job security of a handful of adults.

We cannot let these interests derail the progress that our schools and our students are making. We must contest the misleading information being spread about the firings, the IMPACT evaluation system, and the new Teaching and Learning Framework.

Whatever some bloggers might believe, the IMPACT system is clearly neither unfairly weighted nor inscrutable. Sixteen percent of teachers were rated "highly effective" under IMPACT, while approximately 60 percent scored "effective." The vast majority of educators have performed admirably despite the new and unfamiliar rubric, with many educators going above and beyond IMPACT's requirements.

No evaluation system can ever be perfectly designed or executed. But IMPACT ensures that teachers have many opportunities to show their best work. IMPACT requires five full classroom observations followed by extensive feedback, so teachers have ample time to learn from mistakes. Furthermore, the Teaching and Learning Framework suggests tools for engaging students. It does not mandate a laundry list of actions for every lesson plan. Complaints that teachers may lose their jobs because they aren't able to fit in all the elements of good teaching into one 30-minute session are either misguided or willfully inaccurate.

The D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) portion of IMPACT compares student scores to show how much each student has learned. It measures whether eighth-graders improved their performance from the fourth grade. It does not compare year-to-year scores from the same grade. And education experts such as Rick Hess, director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, are vigorously disputing unfounded and duplicitous concerns about IMPACT's grade-by-grade scaling. Furthermore, DC-CAS measures take free and reduced-price meals, special needs and English learning populations into account to predict scores for each teacher's classroom. Systems such as IMPACT carefully consider how low-income populations can challenge teachers.

By using rigorous evaluations that recognize teachers' challenges and offering them multiple opportunities to prove their skills, the D.C. Public Schools system can continue to professionalize teaching, reward excellent educators and help every child reach his or her potential. Unfortunately, there must be consequences for those who do not have the skills, motivation or professionalism needed to effectively educate children. We should applaud Chancellor Rhee and the IMPACT team for recognizing that improving public education requires painful choices.

The writer is president of the Flamboyan Foundation.

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