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Posted at 1:41 PM ET, 10/ 8/2009

D.C. Can't Fire Its Way to Better Schools

By editors

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.

By editors  | October 8, 2009; 1:41 PM ET
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Until my elected Representatives can fire poor performing teachers, who are protected by their union and tenure, in order to improve the educational system we should stop funding the system with taxpayer dollars. It is taxation without representation.

Posted by: websmith1 | October 8, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

"Overly complex"?? I think you need to review the new evaluation system a bit more carefully. You will find that the criteria describes very BASIC performance standards that all competent educators should practice. Perhaps the union needs to stop protecting ineffective teachers and start to think about the impact these teachers have on children and the community.

Posted by: juve11 | October 8, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Until this city makes it possible for middle class families to move here without fear of being mugged by criminals OR the District government the schools will remain as they are. You could people the schools with Ivy League faculty that still won't change a population full of dysfunction.

Posted by: WoobieRex | October 8, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

DC public schools are among the worst in the country, at least partially due to the the "skills" brought to the table by the teachers that were just fired. Since the schools suck, and the kids aren't learning anything, maybe we do need to hold teachers to actual standards, and let them go when they don't meet them. I also fault much of the population of DC (parents) who don't value education and are seemingly fine with their children following the same life paths of crime and welfare that have plagued the city for generations. Obviously the status quo in the DC education system has badly failed the children, so I think it's great that Fenty and Rhee are taking action to get rid of the dead weight.

Posted by: vespergirl | October 8, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Parker,

I know you have a difficult task ahead of you. I wish you all the luck in the world.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 8, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Why this relentless focus on teachers? It takes BOTH competent administrators AND teachers to run a decent school system. Judging by the haphazard way the recent firings took place, DCPS would benefit from improving the capacity and ability of internal systems and administrative staff. Can anyone really demand high standards from faculty when they work in such a generally unsupportive and dysfunctional system? Rhee is steering the debate on her terms, and homing in on "bad" teachers. But what about the far more boring issues of school security, schedules that don't take the entire semester to sort out, assistant principles that talk to each other? Essentially improving the workflow of a broken bureaucracy. It is perhaps not a coincidence that as Rhee has little experience in this area, we tend to hear very little about it. For example, is any wonder that special education litigation is so backed up when schools attempt to operate on 1 working fax machine? Ah yes, far easier to blame this on the teachers. Wake up DC! We need a leader who can work with with others rather than alienate them, who can win the trust of parents and staff by making visible improvements, rather than just working on their own public persona and dropping "student achievement" into every sentence. Rhee's version of student achievement seems to be based on filling out multi-choice tests. Great. What vision. I feel another Time cover coming on.

Posted by: damccarey | October 8, 2009 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Rhee has parlayed a few years in an "urban" setting into a veritable cash cow. In possession of little to no administrative experience, she's managed to convince Fenty and the Council(and various magazines) that she's an educational savant! Amazing, the Oz would be impressed! Her slash and burn tactics are merely designed to garner headlines. There are structural and systemic issues that have more relevance to student improvement than firing employees in an apparently capricious and arbitrary fashion.

Posted by: Donald8 | October 8, 2009 10:51 PM | Report abuse

If these teachers were half decent they would get a job in one of the suburban counties where they would get paid more and probably have an easier job. The fact that they are so angry is probably indicative of the fact that they know nobody will hire them because they are not good teachers. If this is the case they should change with the times...quite complaining and get training in something they can do competently. I feel bad that it is ultimately the students in DC who have not been given a fair shot at life because of some of these incompetent teachers. Sad.

Posted by: bennta011 | October 9, 2009 5:14 AM | Report abuse

It's easier to attack teachers because they are the ones who often have to put poorly thought out administrative decisions into practice. What appears to be problems with the teachers can in fact originate with the administration.

Sometimes the administration tells the teachers to do things that keep the teachers from teaching effectively, and everyone thinks the teachers are the problem, when in fact the teachers are only doing what they are told to do.

Perhaps instead of just criticizing teachers we should look at the whole system. Teachers are at the bottom of the heap, and are often doing only what they are told to do.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 9, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

To bennta011, had Rhee implemented this so-called necessary lay-off before school started, perhaps these tachers would have had ample time to find other teaching jobs in other counties. The school year has already begun and most of the teaching jobs in better-run districts/counties have been filled. People have families to support and mortgages to pay. Let me ask you, what would you do if you were told today that you would not have a job afer this month? It's real easy to give an opinion when you know you will be getting paycheck every two weeks.

And I do not disagree that there are some poor teachers out there. Frankly, in any workplace, you are going to have some poor performers. However, there is a professional and systematic way to handle any employee in a way that offers them an opportunity to either improve or deal with the consequences if they do not. To me, the way Rhee has mismanaged this situation is extremely disrespectful to people who have chosen, in my opionion, one of the most underpaid yet most valuable professions in the United States.

These teachers were not even granted an explanation for why they were being dismissed. Total and utter disrespect. Some of the teachers that were let go had met or exceeded expectations on their last performance rating. Instead of taking responsibility to these careless acts, Ms. Rhee used her principals as scapegoats to choose which unlucky "subjects" would be fired. Cowardly. And it is total hypocrisy to state that these teachers were evaluated to assess their needs. How could all of these teachers be evaluated effectively and fairly over the course of the first few weeks of a school year? We all know that class schedules may not be fully settled by then. Especially in DCPS.

I am not a teacher. But I have been watching all of this unfold like a bad movie. If I was a teacher for DCPS who was "lucky" enough to keep my job, there is no way, no how, I would want to continue to work for such a broken and dysfuntional system. I would never know what new phantom "standard" or "budget problem" may arise that is strategically set up for teachers to fail. I like paying my mortgage and supporting my family. And I'm sure Ms. Rhee does too.

This is all a big, ugly joke. And I believe Ms. Rhee is the only person who gets the punchline.

This just proves that perhaps Ms. Rhee is not qualified to do this job. She clearly lacks compassion and honesty -- traits you need when dealing with people.

Posted by: elena_johnson | October 9, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

If bad teachers are part of the problem, of course, you can fire your way to better schools. If bad teachers are part of the problem, you must fire teachers to get better schools.

Posted by: jy151310 | October 9, 2009 10:13 PM | Report abuse

jy51310 - What if a bad chancellor is part of the problem? Would firing her lead to better schools?

Posted by: jlp19 | October 10, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Many posting comments seem to believe that it is the so-called bad teachers who have been removed. Nowhere do I see any evidence that Michelle Rhee used anything more scientific than a Ouija board to determine who should stay and who should go.

Posted by: jrsposter | October 10, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

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