School & District Management

D.C. Set to Impose Teacher-Firing Initiative

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 10, 2008 3 min read
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Unable to overcome a stalemate with the teachers’ union over a controversial pay proposal, District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is moving to strengthen principals’ ability to dismiss teachers deemed ineffective.

“We cannot waste any more time in our quest to ensure superior educators in every classroom,” Ms. Rhee said while unveiling her plans earlier this month.

Neither the school district nor the Washington Teachers’ Union has formally declared an impasse in the contract negotiations—an event that would trigger third-party arbitration—but both parties are examining the option.

“We cannot waste any more time in our quest to ensure superior educators in every classroom,” Michelle A. Rhee says.

The announcement, for now, scuttles Ms. Rhee’s plan to use private foundation funding as the basis for pay bonuses that would have put Washington teachers among the nation’s highest-paid.

Under her outline, principals will implement a little-known procedure allowing them to place ineffective teachers on a 90-day improvement plan. Those who did not improve would face dismissal.

Ms. Rhee will also move to launch a performance-based teacher-evaluation process that would be based primarily on teachers’ contributions to student learning.

She also plans to dismiss teachers who fail to meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s “highly qualified” standard and to encourage principals to use the district’s rules permitting them to consider factors beyond teachers’ seniority when cutting staff positions.

Since the announcement of Ms. Rhee’s teacher-pay proposal in July, the plan has attracted attention from policymakers across the country. (“Pay-for-Tenure Swap for D.C. Teachers Under Debate,” Aug. 27, 2008.)

No Compromise

Teachers choosing the plan’s “red” tier would receive generous boosts according to a traditional salary schedule based on teachers’ experience and credentials. Under the “green” tier, base pay would be supplemented by up to $20,000 annually in performance bonuses based on improved student achievement. But teachers would have to give up tenure protections for a year—and risk dismissal—to participate.

The proposal proved internally divisive among WTU members and prompted union President George Parker to seek an appeals process for teachers who opted for the green tier and were not granted tenure. But Ms. Rhee and Mr. Parker were unable to compromise on language for the process.

Now, Mr. Parker argues that the performance-pay element should be decoupled from the issue of tenure.

“The concept of wanting to give teachers higher pay is a great concept, but when you link it to things that have nothing to do with education, I think we have to oppose that,” he said last week.

Ms. Rhee has long said she would put in place a “Plan B” for teacher-quality improvements if she could not secure a timely contract. But Mr. Parker criticized the fallback proposals for their emphasis on dismissals, and he suggested the union would resist them.

“You cannot fire your way into an outstanding school system; you have to develop and build great teachers,” he said.

Earlier this year, Ms. Rhee fired 70 teachers who were not able to meet the “highly qualified” standard, an action that prompted a lawsuit from the WTU. To be deemed highly qualified, teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree, be fully certified, and demonstrate subject-matter competency.

Although a poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers showed a majority of Washington teachers opposed the two-tiered pay plan, supporters of the proposed contract expressed frustration at the thought of more accountability without the opportunity for bonuses.

“I wish we would have had more time and information, and I wish [the proposal] had been brought to a vote,” said Zakia Haight, 30, an eight-year early-childhood teacher. “Before, it was just [green-tier participants] on probation. Now, everybody’s going to be on probation.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as D.C. Set to Impose Teacher-Firing Initiative

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