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Education reformers must give clear explanation if teachers need to go

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 9:44 PM

Education reformers, beware. If you're a mayor or schools superintendent who decides to fire teachers in large numbers, you'd better be able to justify to the public exactly why it was necessary. Otherwise, you risk losing your job - even when your constituents think the schools are improving overall.

That's an important lesson to draw from the experience of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Fenty is on his way out, and Rhee might well be following him, in large part because they botched the discharge of more than 200 teachers nearly a year ago.

Fenty and Rhee failed to convince the city that the dismissals were necessary for budget reasons or that all the discharged teachers were doing a poor job, according to parents whom I interviewed this week who otherwise were happy with the schools. Several said they knew of good teachers who were ousted without adequate explanations, and feelings about it are still raw.

"I'm quite certain that there were teachers that were released during the RIF [reduction in force] who deserved to be released. But there were quite a few excellent teachers who were caught up in it as well at McKinley," said Thomas Wright, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast.

"Reform doesn't mean changing things just because you feel like it," he said.

To keep education reform moving forward, either Rhee or her successor will need to do a better job of providing a strong, plausible rationale for ousting ineffective teachers. That's especially important given the prestige that the job of teaching enjoys in the African American community, according to D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray, who defeated Fenty in last week's Democratic primary.

Gray was scheduled to discuss Rhee's future with her Thursday at their first meeting since he won the primary and became the presumptive mayor-elect.

The mishandling of the teacher firings by Fenty and Rhee goes a long way to account for a seemingly bizarre contradiction in voters' attitudes over school reform. According to a Washington Post poll published shortly before the primary, twice as many D.C. voters thought the school system had improved rather than declined under Fenty. However, respondents split evenly on whether Rhee's performance was a reason to vote for the mayor or against him.

The crucial impact of the teachers' dismissals was made clear to me in interviews this week at Noyes Elementary School in Northeast. It's a blue-ribbon school where test scores are higher than in 2007, and parents there were unanimous in telling me they were happy with the school.

But they also told me that they didn't like Rhee, mainly because of how she got rid of teachers elsewhere in the city. Ward 5, the predominantly middle-class African American district where Noyes is located, voted overwhelmingly for Gray.

"I'm satisfied with the school, but I'm not satisfied with cutting teachers and all that," said Harold Franklin, 39, a general contractor whose son is in the third grade. He said teachers should have been given a chance to take classes and improve their performance before being sacked.

"It was hard times, but they could have done it in a more professional way," he said.

Roberta Speight, 33, a hospital pharmacy worker, said she initially supported Rhee strongly and was happy with both Noyes, where her son goes, and Dunbar High School, which her daughter attends. But the teachers' dismissals changed her mind.

"Before the firing of the teachers, I thought she was doing really well with the school system," Speight said of Rhee. Now, she said, "my worry is kids aren't going to have enough instructors to learn properly."

To fully understand these comments, it's necessary to recall how much confusion surrounded the dismissals of 229 teachers and 159 other staff workers in October.

Rhee said the cause was an unexpected budget shortfall, but she'd hired more than 900 new teachers over the summer.

The chancellor also said principals picked which teachers to fire, based on which ones "added less value" to their schools. But she admitted that some good teachers were lost in the process.

The affair left many voters disillusioned and added to skepticism over the city's administration. Gray, who hadn't yet declared whether he'd challenge Fenty, was greeted at a teachers union rally with chants of "Run for mayor!"

I'm still not convinced that those layoffs were warranted. As I wrote at the time, there were signs that Rhee's primary motive was to intimidate the union so it would grant concessions in contract talks. Regardless of the merits, though, there's no question that she bungled the politics.

The layoffs were "a very non-transparent process, and that was really the only issue that many people had. You see somebody work for 20 years and then be ousted in what seemed like an arbitrary process," said Lauren Buckner, 33, an attorney for the city who has two children at Noyes and voted for Fenty.

I've urged Gray to try to keep Rhee because it's important to preserve stability in the schools' leadership, to give her a chance to complete some of the reforms she's begun and to reach out to Fenty supporters. I think she's determined to leave, but if she stays, she'll have to accept that good communications skills are a vital part of the job.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM)

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