Friday, August 13, 2010

It's The Implementation, Stupid: Lessons from the D.C. School District

As I’ve discussed before, I think it’s interesting to check in on the job Michelle Rhee is doing as Schools Chancellor in Washington D.C. Ms Rhee, who succeeded current Newark, NJ Superintendent Clifford Janey, is a darling of the Wall Street Journal and the far right. While Mr. Janey is seen as the type of “careerist” who is ruining public education, Ms. Rhee is seen as a teacher union buster and school choice advocate who is just what public education needs -- a leader who is doing major reform at low cost.

Ms. Rhee has been making national headlines of late. Six or seven weeks ago, she entered into a new agreement with the Washington Teachers Union allowing for:

1. An end to “lock-step” pay for teachers;
2. The implementation of a voluntary performance-based compensation system; and
3. The end of tenure. Teachers can now be fired more easily, and now can be designated “marginally effective” and placed on probation for 2 years.

In exchange for these concessions, the union got an agreement that teachers rated highly would get more money (including a 21.6% pay increase through 2012 and opportunities for merit pay).

What happened next is open to interpretation. Ms. Rhee implemented a new performance review evaluation system which takes student test scores into account for those teaching reading and math in the 4th through 8th grades. Under that system, 241 teachers (6%) were fired, and an additional 17% were put on notice that if they don't improve next year, they could lose their jobs. Of the 241 fired, 165 were let go because of poor performance; the remainder didn't have proper teaching credentials. 16% of teachers received the highest possible ranking.

According to WTU President George Packer, Rhee’s evaluation system is flawed and unfairly assesses teacher performance. Other critics contend that the evaluation system was rushed into implementation before there was evidence to show it to be effective. The WTU is appealing the firings, and may file an unfair labor practice complaint with the District. The fact that Ms. Rhee said she couldn't break down how many teachers were being dismissed due to low student achievement versus those dismissed for poor performance does suggest that the system has some kinks that need to be worked out.

For my money, I don't understand how an evaluation system adopted after school let out for the summer could possible have led to teacher firings before school started up again in the fall. Were the evaluations completed before the agreement was signed? Is that possible?

The teacher evaluation system in question requires classroom observations, as well as evaluations 5 times a year by school administrators and master teachers. Teachers are critiqued on such things as creating coherent lesson plans and engaging students, and also are advised as to perceived weaknesses. Coaching is available to teachers.

It seems doubtful that the teachers fired this summer got the full benefit of the union's bargain. Sure, the 76 let go for improper teaching credentials are hard to defend (without knowing more -- for all we know before the current contract they were considered to be properly credentialed), but it seems that the remaining 165 let go for poor performance never got their coaching sessions or their chance to improve during the year-long evaluation process. Unless I'm missing something, I just don't see how a year long process got done over the summer when school was not in session.

What does this mean for New Jersey? First, it seems that the Governor is intent on creating the same conditions in New Jersey as those which allowed Ms. Rhee to negotiate her new union agreement. Specifically, 38% of D.C. students are in charter schools; there was also a school voucher system in place for a short period. These factors undermined the bargaining position of the union. Simply put, a strike would have been much less debilitating to the district and only further fueled the growth of charter schools.

All of which sheds new light on the Governor’s own interest in charter schools and voucher systems. The primary goal is to weaken the unions. Improving the educational process is a secondary concern. Remember, unions vote Democratic.

Second, the ability to beat a union into submission is different from the ability to manage labor relations. Once Ms. Rhee had won her contract, the smart move would have been to make sure that she had buy-in on her evaluation process. By so quickly dismissing so many teachers and putting twice as many in the doghouse, Ms. Rhee has accomplished at least two things. She has guaranteed that D.C. will be paying a lot of legal bills for a long time (so much for low cost reform), and she has guaranteed that any union faced with a similar proposed contract in future will fight it even harder than they did before.

But I believe the biggest lesson for New Jersey is the reality of government under idealogues. Ms Rhee negotiated safeguards into the teacher evaluation process and then just disregarded them for what I'm sure she believes is the greater good. In all fairness to Ms. Rhee, I'm not sure she is too concerned about the voting power of the teachers' union in D.C., since D.C. does not elect national legislators, but in the hands of someone who does care (like Chris Christie) this idealogical union busting, sold as being in the best interest of children but then administered so as to weaken the unions as much as possible, could go from problematic to dangerous.

If we're not careful, someone following Ms. Rhee's lead will be firing teachers first and asking questions later, hoping that a more Republican state government will be able to clean up the mess. The mess that students will be stuck with in the interim.

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