The independent news organization of Duke University

Rhee's attitude stalls reform (unabridged)

The following is the unabridged version of the guest commentary that ran in today's print edition:

As you may have heard, District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is out to make it easier to fire teachers who are ineffective. It’s not currently impossible, but it involves putting the offending teacher on a cumbersome “90-day plan” with numerous loop holes. Having an effective teacher is the single best indicator of a child’s success in school. The Chancellor wants D.C. teachers to sign a new contract that rewards effective teachers with drastically higher salaries and makes it easier to fire ineffective teachers. Sounds simple, right?

Wrong. Contract negotiations have stalled, and the Chancellor has turned to “Plan B,” a series of unpopular and possibly unworkable ways around the collective bargaining agreement. If Rhee’s extremely generous contract doesn’t make it, it will be a major blow for reform efforts everywhere. Many blame the contract’s failure on the Washington Teachers Union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

But the union can’t even hold its own meeting without its various factions creating chaos. The Chancellor has unprecedented political will and power behind her. She should have walked away with this contract—it’s a good deal for good teachers and it makes the drastic changes the district needs possible. Contract negotiations have failed (so far) in part because the Chancellor did two things wrong: she kept her evaluation system behind closed doors and she propagated the belief that she was out to fire veterans of the system regardless of their effectiveness.

There are smart, good teachers working hard inside the DCPS system. So why haven’t more of them risen up to defy the union and rally behind the generous new contract? Because not one teacher in DCPS knows for sure whether Rhee thinks they’re “bad” or “good.” The bonuses for effective teachers cheered in policy-land are based on an evaluation system that we haven’t seen. Rank and file teachers don’t know whether their livelihoods would be based on standardized test scores or an elaborate evaluation system including scores and observations. They don’t know whether value-added measures (that track how much a student’s scores have improved with a teacher instead of just whether or not they score above a specific “cut score”) would be used. They don’t know how various exceptions, like the special education student on their roster who spends 90 percent of the day out of the classroom or the child who’s missed 20 days of school because of disciplinary suspensions, would count in their rating. When schools in DCPS become so dysfunctional that they garner negative press, like Hart Middle School did last week, the Chancellor likes to fire the principal. But teachers in D.C. schools with bad leadership and negative climates that drag down students and teachers don’t know whether or not that would be considered in their evaluation. Policy people like to label these concerns as “nuts and bolts” and ignore them. They applaud the Chancellor for her relentless focus on supporting children and dismiss teacher opposition. But they’re supporting a foreign war. It’s not their job or credentials that might be unjustly sacrificed along the way. It’s completely unfair (and borderline insulting) to ask teachers to sign on to a contract based on an evaluation system they haven’t seen. Not everyone shares the policy community’s blind faith that Rhee will come up with a fair evaluation system (nor should they).

The Chancellor also failed miserably at selling her plan to teachers and diffusing the mistrust that teachers in the system have after decades of “superintendent shuffle” and failed reforms. Last year, the Chancellor created a package of incentives for older teachers to retire early. The message was “go now, before I kick you out.” It wasn’t targeted at bad teachers. It was targeted at veteran teachers. The moral of that story for D.C.P.S. teachers good and bad was that the Chancellor places a premium on young teachers with elite educations, regardless of student achievement. “You don’t have anything to worry about,” veteran teachers would say to me. “You’re the kind she wants.” These were good teachers, convinced that the Chancellor wanted them out because of their age or race. They weren’t sure whether or not they would be considered “effective” under a new system. As a result, they weren’t sure about the new contract. That’s a communication failure, but it’s also a failure of leadership.

Relentless drive and unshakeable confidence are among the qualities that make Rhee a powerful reformer. But the climate of combativeness and appearance of disdain that come with it are damaging the negotiation process and risking the success of the new contract, which would be a critical step forward for system. The Chancellor is right that teachers should be accountable for student success. So too should she be accountable for effective leadership at this pivotal moment.

Catherine Cullen, Trinity ’06, is a former D.C. Public Schools teacher.


Share and discuss “Rhee's attitude stalls reform (unabridged)” on social media.