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Posted at 9:29 AM ET, 04/ 7/2010

The lesson in Rhee’s deal with the WTU

By Valerie Strauss

It’s up to the D.C. Council and the city’s unionized teachers to vote whether they support a tentative deal that Chancellor Michelle Rhee has struck with the Washington Teachers Union for a new contract, but there is a great lesson in the fact that one was reached at all after two years of contentious negotiations.

And no, the lesson is not that people will take desperate measures to shore up their positions before an election--even though this does give union President George Parker a deal on which to campaign to keep his position in next month’s elections. In addition, Rhee’s big booster, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, faces reelection this year against at least one opponent who does not share his affection for the chancellor.

Rather, the lesson, apparently learned by Rhee and others in D.C.’s education world, is that reform in the best sense of the word takes time and it takes cooperation from people who don’t have the same world view.

Rhee came to town several years with a broom, intent on sweeping away all that she didn’t like and starting fresh.

That was an approach doomed to fail. Aside from the fact that the city’s teachers have had too much experience digging in and waiting out one crusading superintendent after another, the best organizations work better through cooperation. You don’t have to have a degree in organizational behavior to know that.

As my colleague Bill Turque reported today, the proposed pact is a long way from the vision Rhee had for a new contract two years ago. She wanted to end teacher tenure; this pact won't. It does include a voluntary pay-for-performance program that will allow teachers to earn annual bonuses for student growth on standardized tests and other measures of academic success. And it would give her and school principals more power to get rid of teachers in certain situations. It also includes provisions teachers had sought: expanded professional development opportunities, mentoring programs and more.

Certainly there will be debates over the details of the proposed pact.

Should private foundations ordinarily anti-union be subsidizing teachers' pay? Should teachers ever agree to accept pay based on student test scores? Should Rhee give away her stated goal of eliminating teacher tenure?

Whatever the arguments are for those and other issues, the lesson at the moment is that cooperation was possible, and that things take time.

Perhaps it is a sign that Rhee is gaining a new understanding that it is better to talk things out with stakeholders before making arbitrary decisions and wading into fights she doesn’t really need to be waging.

If so, that would be good news. What the city does not need is another schools reform effort that is over before it gains real traction.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 7, 2010; 9:29 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  Chancellor Michelle Rhee, D.C. schools, D.C. teachers, D.C. teachers union, Rhee makes deal, teachers and Rhee  
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You set up Michelle Rhee as anti-teacher, which no observer of DC politics seriously thinks she is, and then say she changed her mind over time. your initial supposition is false, making it a straw man argument. this column is all kinds of Fail.

Posted by: bbcrock | April 7, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I don't think the article implies that Rhee is anti-teacher. The article tells what the union and the District have agreed upon and asks questions about the goals that both sides have had to compromise on. It also suggest that Rhee should not make arbitrary decisions if she wants teacher support. Presumably, both sides are working for the students of D.C. I don't have any affiliation with D.C. but have come to the conclusion after reading many articles and listening to radio programs, etc. that Ms. Rhee came in rather anti-union and anti-tenured teacher. At least that is the image. I can also see that she was hired to do just that. My opinion.
Hopefully, both sides will work together to benefit the kids. Ms. Rhee and administrators should realize that many experienced educators are willing to change if the changes will help the students. New teachers should be helped out by older teachers. Teaching is not an easy job and just getting in new people is not the answer.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 7, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

In many societies around the world, teaching at any level (kindergarten through college) is a very prestigious job. In some countries (Germany, Finland) it has the same level of prestige as being a physician. Because of this, these countries are able to attract the top students to all levels of teaching.

In our country only college teaching enjoys this type of prestige. In contrast to this, teaching children is considered "women's work" and is eschewed by almost half our population (men). Fifty percent of all new teachers leave the profession during the first five years, far more than in any other profession. Research tells us that some of the brightest people are the first to leave. K-12 teaching is also disdained by many middle-class people and those with degrees from top universities. It's almost impossible to get math and science graduates to choose high school teaching over industry or higher education. In my opinion, this inability to attract talent to K-12 education is probably the primary cause of our educational problems. Just by reading some of these posts, a person can easily see the disregard many of our citizens have for teachers and schools.

By her words and actions, Michelle Rhee has shown herself to be a person who would probably "die" if she had to teach for more than a few years. So, yes, I do believe she is anti-teacher. I imagine others think so too.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 7, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Rhee had no choice but to appear to cooperate. The mayor and his handlers wouldn't countenance another brouhaha right before the election. She has completely run out of good will. I think that even if some teachers like certain aspects of this, they will not trust it.

Certainly there needs to be assurance that the deal with all this private money will hold even if/when Rhee and Fenty leave.

Posted by: efavorite | April 7, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

"You set up Michelle Rhee as anti-teacher,"

No, she doesn't.
That's not very EDUCATED.

But for Miss Rhee, who rides the wave of educational "reformers" who pretend teacher unions are the problem with the public school system, she became dependent upon the president of one of those teacher unions (probably the most notorious in the country.)

But this was to be expected. She has been quite willing to tell us things that aren't true (eg, her Baltimore Miracle) and that she has the right answers, answers from which she has retreated.

Posted by: edlharris | April 7, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee came to DC with the idea that the needs of children would be prioritized over the needs/desires of adults. I believe she still maintains that premise and got part way there with this proposed contract.

Ed, I'll have to respectfully disagree with you on your union statements. As a lifetime member of the NEA, unions are clearly one of the primary, if not the primary problem with public education and our efforts to reform. Also, while the AFT has made compromises in NYC and now to a degree in DC they at least acknowledge that the needs of children deserve a place at the education reform table, unlike the narcissistic NEA who cares only about their members and their coffers, and NOTHING for kids.

Posted by: phoss1 | April 7, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I don't see the NEA as being anti-students at all. They are the only ones who speak up for smaller class sizes, which has been totally erased from the discussion about school reforms, obviously because it is too expensive, not because it doesn't work.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 7, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee, 11/13/08: “Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don’t have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too.”

So much for that.

Posted by: efavorite | April 7, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

And phoss1, do you think anyone who says this cares about kids:

[Michelle Rhee, The Atlantic, 10/08]
“Nobody makes a thirty-year or ten-year commitment to a single profession. Name one profession where the assumption is that when you go in, right out of graduating college, that the majority of people are going to stay in that profession. It’s not the reality anymore, maybe with the exception of medicine. But short of that, people don’t go into jobs and stay there forever anymore.”

“…I’d rather have a really effective teacher for two years than a mediocre or ineffective one for twenty years.”

She thinks teachers can be great with just two years in the classroom – just the way she was – in her dreams. Imagine – a job as important as educating our children and it take no mastery time at all.

No what she cares about is teacher turn-over – it keeps teacher recruitment firms like her “New Teachers Project” in business.

Posted by: efavorite | April 7, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Smaller class size equates to more teachers, greater union membership, and ULTIMATELY more money in the NEA coffers. Every additional teachers also equates to one more vote in how the union tells them to vote, locally, statewide, and nationally.

Posted by: phoss1 | April 7, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

So, Phoss1, you bring up smaller class size out of nowhere, as far as I can see.

I seems like you're so worried about increased union membership, that you overlook the benefits to THE CHILDREN of receiving more teacher attention.

Posted by: efavorite | April 7, 2010 8:21 PM | Report abuse

Rhee doesn't care about tenure. She cares about being able to fire bad teachers swiftly and in large numbers. We will find out within the next several months whether she won or lost.

Posted by: jy151310 | April 7, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

I brought up smaller class sizes because then the students would get more attention from the teachers. efavorite, if Rhee really made those comments about teachers and experience then she has a lot to learn. firing a lot of teachers is not going to improve her system, although I guess if she gets in all people who support her then for her it would be easier. Might not help the kids though.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 7, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Linda/Retired Teacher wrote: "In our country only college teaching enjoys this type of prestige. In contrast to this, teaching children is considered "women's work" and is eschewed by almost half our population (men)."

I think this is an important hidden issue. At a time when women supposedly can pursue pretty much any kind of career they wish, there is still a lot of disdain for working women, and teachers constitute perhaps the largest group of working women (maybe excepting nurses). Sometimes I wonder if the rage against teachers has more to do with subverted misogyny (Rhee seems to be a misanthrope). I also wonder if politicians are enraged because a bunch of women are loudly disagreeing with their wrong-headed ideas about teaching and child development. They turn the debate about good education into a witch hunt, diverting attention away from the real issues.

To everyone who says it's a union issue--the very countries that are so often held up as examples of places with superior education systems invariably have much heavier union involvement than the U.S.

Posted by: aed3 | April 7, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for the respectful disagreement.
As a lifetime member of the NEA as well, I haven't seen anything from the NEA with regards to the Maryland suburban school districts that has had a detrimental effect upon the education provided.
Could you please provide some concrete examples?

efavorite, a month ago the Jo-Ann Armao was complaining about the imaginary 20% raises Montgomery County teachers strong-armed the county into giving them.
I wonder if she will complain about the 20% raise for DCPS teachers.

Posted by: edlharris | April 7, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

My brother laughs and says, "teachers need a union, because it is women's work." He is a teacher himself, too.

When I see "reformers" on tv, they are ALWAYS middle aged men with NO education experience. I agree that a lot of this teacher bashing is misogynistic. Regardless, the reformers have made me feel guilty (of course, I am not doing enough) and paranoid.

Posted by: MiddleAgedTeacher | April 8, 2010 12:31 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad others see misogyny in teacher-bashing. I thought I was being paranoid. If it continues perhaps we'll get some national organizations (NOW, AAUW) to help us. Of course women teachers were treated very badly for many years. It took the union to fight for decent salaries, benefits and due process (so teachers wouldn't be fired for "showing" during a pregnancy). Now "reformers" are trying to take away these hard-earned benefits. Well at least we'll have half the American people on our side.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 8, 2010 1:18 AM | Report abuse


I hesitated to use the term "misogyny" because the whole notion seems outdated considering how level the playing field is compared to even 20 years ago. But I kept wondering why the rage against teachers has intensified since NCLB to the point where every newspaper blog is full of postings accusing teachers as a group of being stupid, greedy, lazy, and sometimes child molesters. There are a few of these, as every profession has its bad apples, but the accusations reveal a rage out of proportion to reality.

The NCLB connection, I think, is that this is the first time big business is so involved in taking government money for education. This is something different from any previous financial arrangement between the federal government and local school districts. The government gets to tell schools they must purchase materials from certain companies or else they won't get the money they need to comply with the law.

Blaming teachers for everything wrong diverts attention from the special interest boondoggle that is costing so much money and ruining education in this country. Worse, it diverts attention from better ways to solve the real problems that do exist in education.

"High stakes" testing really means "high financial stakes," and a bunch of noisy women interfering with the wealth transfer need to be put in their place. Just the fact that we hesitate to say out loud that there might be some woman-bashing involved shows that we know we are easy targets, and that the politicians know it better.

One other comment--I worked in public schools in Houston during Rod Paige's entire tenure there. He clearly loathed teachers. He routinely showered praises on administrators in charge of schools with good test scores, but never gave teachers credit for anything.

Posted by: aed3 | April 8, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I first noticed what I dubbed “the Madonna-wh0re syndrome” when I read the comments to the commentary* written several months ago by a young DC charter school teacher who decided to leave because of bad conditions and lack of appreciation for teachers.

I was astounded at the venom aimed at her, in some cases by teachers, who felt that teachers who were unwilling to suffer and be satisfied with low salaries weren’t fit to be teachers.

Then her principal wrote a letter to the editor, with the same sentiments. Here are excerpts:
“The Selflessness of Teaching, Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Sarah Fine suggested in her Aug. 9 Outlook commentary, "Schools Need Teachers Like Me. I Just Can't Stay," that many members of her generation, the so-called millennials, shun teaching because not enough prestige and recognition are associated with the job…. An important lesson that we will teach our students is that the best service is done without regard to reward or remuneration, perquisites that have historically accompanied careers in medicine, law and business….

Got that young ladies?

Posted by: efavorite | April 8, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Yes, this "reform" is really about big business siphoning off tax money from schoolchildren. Teachers (mainly female) stand in the way. The really scary part is that our newspapers, usually the protectors of the truth and civil rights, are supporting this movement.

Isn't it strange that the whole movement started out with the Texas fraud perpetrated by Rod Paige and yet the "reform" continues with lies, manipulations and fraudulent test scores?

Well, I have faith in the American people, so it's only a matter of time before they catch on to what is happening. Also, our young men and women will have the sense to teach in high-scoring school districts until cities like DC treat them with fairness and respect. And our "young ladies" will continue to enter the fields of medicine, law and business. The baby boomer women will soon be gone and so will their daughters.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 8, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

It's election year. She needed to get a contract completed for Fenty's sake and the $100,000.00 image builders surely advised her to do something. Now they have to convice the teachers that this is a great contract. Children are no where in this equation.

Posted by: candycane1 | April 8, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

We are in a downward spiral in which people who would love to teach and would be good at it choose not to because of the bad press. Then people like Rhee publicly state that they don't even think it should be a long term career choice, maybe because it's harder to control experienced people who know what they're doing.

The whole mentality that teachers should live lives of sacrifice and deprivation for the benefit of their charges is positively medieval, and only exists because most teachers are women.

Our education system is constantly being being compared to systems in countries like Japan and Germany in an unflattering light. Yet those same people who denigrate U.S. teachers just don't want to admit that one of the key differences is the better status, salaries, and working conditions for teachers in those same countries. This intentional blindness is truly baffling.

While teachers like Escalante deserve to be praised and emulated, the unintended consequence of his success is that any teacher who does not match his example is demonized. Perhaps any heart surgeon who does not match the skill and inventiveness of DeBakey or Cooley should have his or her license taken away. Any soldier who does not receive the Medal of Honor deserves a dishonorable discharge. (sarcasm for those of you who are very literal)

Besides, there are thousands of teachers flying under the radar, quietly working miracles of the same magnitude who don't get movies made about them.

Posted by: aed3 | April 8, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who needs a $100,000.00 image makeover and fabricates constantly locally and nationally as well as believes that credentials in education aren't valued. Please don't be fooled by the Chancellor's disquise.

Who said, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?" At the end of the day,it isn't about the DCPS educators.

If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck or quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

Colleagues say "NO" to the WTU Tentative Agreement (TA)!!!

It isn't about our DCPS students. Please ask the Hardy MS students and parents.

This WTU Tentative Agreement is about "National Notoriety and Charter Privatization School System."

Posted by: sheilahgill | April 8, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

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