D.C. Schools Chief's Plan Faces Opposition
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., is fast becoming the country's best-known urban school reformer. D.C. schools are among the worst in the nation. To make them better, Rhee wants to do away with teacher tenure and pay teachers for good performance. It's a method that could become a blueprint for struggling school systems across the country. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, Rhee's plan won't succeed unless she can win the support of the teachers union.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Michelle Rhee says there are lots of ineffective teachers in the D.C. public schools, and the sooner she can force them out, the better off students will be.
Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, Washington, D.C. Public Schools): I'm not willing to go in front of a group of parents and say that it is worth throwing away a year of that child's life, especially knowing that for poor minority kids in this country, teacher quality is the number one determinant of student success.
SANCHEZ: But Rhee says removing a bad teacher from the classroom under the current contract takes too long. So what Rhee's negotiating with the Washington teachers union is a new contract that will entice teachers to earn more money, lots more, up to a $122,000 a year, on two conditions - that they give up tenure and agree to yearly evaluations that includes students' test scores to determine whether a teacher is doing a good job.
Ms. RHEE: What we're going to finally do is recognize and reward our most highly effective educators in the system. And we need to make sure that we are not putting any child in a position where they are being taught by an ineffective teacher.
SANCHEZ: But the teachers union says Rhee's proposal is part of a larger, more hostile strategy.
Mr. GEORGE PARKER (President, Washington Teachers Union): Fear is what most teachers see as her main mode of operating - fear for your job.
SANCHEZ: George Parker is president of the Washington Teachers Union.
Mr. PARKER: Let's get rid of those bad teachers. And everybody, yeah, let's fire the bad teachers. The union isn't sitting here saying, oh, my God, let's keep bad teachers in the classroom.
SANCHEZ: Parker says Rhee has used what he calls her status as a media darling to attack teachers and turn her negotiations with the union into a national referendum on tenure.
Mr. PARKER: Anyone who believes you can hire and fire your way to an outstanding school system is dreaming. It's not going to happen.
Ms. RHEE: First of all, I would wholeheartedly disagree with some of his assertions.
SANCHEZ: Again, Michelle Rhee.
Mr. RHEE: I think the union is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now because the general public is seeing this. They're saying, wait a second, this is all about tenure. But tenure isn't going to help children learn more.
SANCHEZ: Tenure is about protecting adult jobs, says Rhee. That's why there's an impasse. To resolve it, the union and Rhee are going to have to come to some middle ground. The current contract, for example, allows 90 days for teachers to appeal if they're fired for incompetence. So what should change? The union won't say, while Rhee chooses her words carefully.
Ms. RHEE: We have, on the table, we believe, a very, very fair process. What would be our motivation to set up a system where great teachers could be fired arbitrarily? I would never do that.
SANCHEZ: Besides, says Rhee, many teachers support her proposal. That has split the union along generational and racial lines. Most teachers in D.C. are older, female, African-American, and suspicious of Rhee. The newest hires are white, in their mid to late 20s, and they tend to think of themselves as reformers. Then, there are those teachers who are on the fence. They consider themselves reformers, too, but they're still not sure about Michelle Rhee.
Mr. FRAZIER O'LEARY (English Teacher, Cardozo High School): Let me have your papers please. Get your papers out that you owe me today.
SANCHEZ: At Cardozo High School, one of the city's struggling schools, Frazier O'Leary is about to start his afternoon English class. After 37 years in the classroom, O'Leary says he still loves coming in every morning. His classroom is tidy. His students are well behaved. O'Leary demands and expects a lot of them. When he started teaching, O'Leary earned $7,800 a year. This year, he says, he'll make 87,000, thanks to his union. And if you're getting paid that much, O'Leary says, you better be doing a good job.
Mr. O'LEARY: I wouldn't want my children in someone's classroom who's skating through, who's drawing a paycheck. And if you're not doing what you're supposed to do, then you should be let go.
SANCHEZ: But O'Leary says he's worried about Rhee's plan.
Mr. O'LEARY: Because I don't know what the definition of performance is.
SANCHEZ: If it means evaluating teachers based on their students' test scores, O'Leary says that's not fair. Last year, for example, almost half of the faculty at Cardozo was let go because 10th graders did so poorly on standardized tests. Some teachers who were dismissed didn't even teach 10th grade. O'Leary says the tenure versus more pay question is a little trickier for good teachers because it's so enticing.
Mr. O'LEARY: I have enough confidence in myself that I could say, OK, you can judge me on what I do for a year. And if I do what I'm supposed to do for a year, then pay me a lot of money. But I'm looking at that through 64-year-old eyes and 40 years of teaching experience.
SANCHEZ: O'Leary says teachers should think twice about giving up their tenure rights for more money.
Mr. O'LEARY: What is the old saying about, you know, be careful of what you wish for?
SANCHEZ: Chancellor Rhee and the union, meanwhile, know that as they seek common ground in their negotiations, the stakes couldn't be higher.
Mr. JOE WILLIAMS (Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform): All eyes are on this district right now.
SANCHEZ: Joe Williams is head of a partisan national group called Democrats for School Reform. He says an agreement on pay for performance and tenure could have a far-reaching impact on public education.
Mr. WILLIAMS: This is instantly something that people start proposing around the country. I think, though, this ratchets up the pressure on management for public schools to prove that they're up to the task and that they can be trusted to pull this thing off.
SANCHEZ: Rhee and the union won't return to the negotiations until later this month. Both agree they may need a mediator to reach an accord. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.