On their way out the door in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty take credit for making “politically unpopular choices” in the Wall Street Journal.
Forced to lay off excess staff to save money, they “decided to allow principals to make the layoffs based on the quality, value and performance of their staffs” rather than seniority alone. It took 2½ years of bargaining with the union and millions of dollars from foundations to get teachers to approve the new contract.
• It rewards great teachers who accept a higher level of accountability with some of the highest teacher pay in the nation—up to twice as much as they were previously making.
• No longer do educators have a job guarantee for life. Ineffective teachers are immediately dismissed from the system. Minimally effective teachers do not receive a pay step increase and have one year to improve their performance. If that doesn’t happen, they are subject to termination.
• If layoffs are necessary, the decisions about whom to dismiss are based on quality and performance instead of seniority.
• We also instituted a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers, including growth in student achievement as measured by standardized tests (so that teachers who take on the toughest students aren’t unfairly penalized), observation of their classroom practices and assessment of their contributions to the school community.
Every student subgroup in D.C. has improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Rhee and Fenty write. Graduation rates have increased. SAT scores are up too.
So what went wrong?
We did not explain why we were doing what we were doing well enough. We did not do enough to engage the local leaders and neighborhood activists who needed to be at the forefront of the fight.
People who want change were overwhelmed by “special interests—unions, administrators and opportunistic politicians—who are vocal and committed,” Rhee and Fenty argue.