D.C. Can't Fire Its Way to Better Schools
By George Parker
All of us who care about our children, our community and our collective futures want our schools to be the very best; nobody wants this more than D.C.’s public school teachers.
The Washington Teachers Union supported Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s election, and we have supported his avowed efforts to improve education in the District. Two years ago, when the mayor selected Michelle Rhee to be schools chancellor, we expressed a desire to work with her on what we thought were shared goals. Our request then was simple: Teachers want to work as partners with the administration to shape the reform agenda. The response: a series of punitive proposals that have fostered mistrust, brought teacher morale to a new low and done little to improve our schools.
For 22 months, the WTU has been at the bargaining table with the District, painstakingly constructing the details of a contract and education plan that is good for kids and fair to teachers. We have been negotiating on the assumption that we were engaged in open and honest discussion. We thought we were finally beginning to collaborate for better schools, only to discover that good-faith collaboration with the District is more illusion than reality.
The chancellor’s reform agenda lacks essential stakeholder collaboration, research-based school reform models or effective professional development programs for teachers that improve instruction and student achievement. It now appears that the chancellor thinks she can fire her way to better schools. This notion is evident in the recent implementation of a new teacher evaluation system that is overly complex and provides little teacher support; it does, however, offer numerous subjective criteria that principals can use to fire teachers.
But the sudden layoff of some 266 teachers, school social workers, librarians and counselors is by far the most glaring example of this “reform by pink slip” philosophy. Carried out six weeks into the school year, this action is devastating to the instructional programs at D.C. schools and grossly unfair to the teachers and their students.
Ms. Rhee asserts that the layoffs were necessary to close a budget gap. But, according to the D.C. Council, the per-student funding provided to DCPS was greater this year than last. Surely, DCPS was mindful of this when it hired more than 900 teachers this summer, even though the projected number of students was the same as last year. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is to be applauded for calling for an investigation into the latest DCPS action. DCPS should immediately reinstate all laid-off school employees until the council’s review of the layoffs — and their impact — is completed.
As a first-time chancellor, Ms. Rhee had a golden opportunity to forge alliances and real partnerships with teachers, parents, elected officials and community groups, all of whom want great schools for our children. Instead, she has fostered a “my way or the highway” approach, characterized by apparent disregard for the input of teachers, parents and the community.
Public school reform shouldn’t be dictated by one individual with an agenda. Today, D.C. residents, teachers, unions and community activists are gathering at Freedom Plaza at a Rally for Respect. We will demand the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue on what should be happening to improve our schools.
We encourage all who share our vision for a better education for D.C. students to join us in a call to put the “public” back in public education. We will make it clear to Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee that they cannot hire and fire their way to better schools. The energy spent on school staff terminations would be better used implementing programs that improve teaching and learning; developing safety and discipline policies that keep our schools safe; implementing the support and resources teachers need to be better educators; and establishing strong links with parents and community.
Today, the WTU stands with D.C. taxpayers to demand that the mayor and the chancellor show more respect for the citizens they serve. Instead of punishing teachers for the failings of a system, the administration must begin to work actively — and honestly — with the public to create schools that provide children with a great education.
The writer is president of the Washington Teachers Union.
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