BEING A teacher is hard. Being a teacher in an urban school district that must contend with the social issues of poverty is even harder. Nothing, though, is more critical to student learning than who is in front of the class. And that is why it is important that attention be paid to the success of the D.C. school system over the past decade in transforming its teaching staff with strategies that emphasize and reward effectiveness.
How school officials built on the early reforms of the city’s controversial first schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, and redesigned what it means to be a teacher was powerfully catalogued in an article in Washington Monthly. Thomas Toch, director of an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, described the change of teaching from a “low-status occupation marked by weak standards and factory-like work rules” to a “performance-based profession that provides recognition, responsibility, collegiality, support, and significant compensation.” Under the leadership of second chancellor Kaya Henderson, the District pioneered comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, performance-based promotions and compensation, and more muscular methods of teacher training, support and collaboration. No school district, Mr. Toch concluded, has ever succeeded quite like this.
Featured in the article is Eric Bethel, principal at Turner Elementary School in Ward 8, who recounted his hiring as a teacher before mayoral control after just a 10-minute interview. “Back then, if you had a pulse, you got a job,” he said and remembered that on his first day, his colleagues walked out on a staff meeting, with the principal in mid-sentence, because it was 3:30 p.m. and the end of the union-negotiated workday. That criminally lackadaisical approach has been replaced with a rigorous hiring process that includes multiple rounds of interviews, videos of candidates teaching and a written test on teaching strategies.
While more is now demanded of teachers, the payoffs are more career opportunities and better pay. The top salary for D.C. teachers now tops $130,000, compared with about $87,000 in the old system. The District, its talent once regularly poached by charter schools and districts from neighboring suburbs, has largely been able to hold on to its teachers, particularly those rated as “highly effective.”
The school system still has a long way to go. Too many students are not proficient, and the achievement gap, in which minority students lag behind their white peers, persists. But, as Mr. Toch concluded, “By overhauling its teaching corps and teachers’ daily lives in schools, DCPS has given its students a far better chance than they had before.” Leaders of other districts would do well to take note.
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