Rhee Turns DC Schools Upside Down – or Upside Right?

What Michelle Rhee has done in Washington, D.C., is not to turn the schools upside down, but to turn them upside right.
by | July 27, 2010 AT 9:35 AM

The facts are straightforward. On July 23, 2010, D.C.'s School Chancelor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers, roughly six percent of the teachers in the District of Columbia public school system.

In the world of public education, or public employment in general, the move is remarkable. Traditionally, while it is theoretically possible to terminate public employees, generally speaking lackluster performance hasn't been seen as a cause for worry among staff.

Michelle Rhee has changed that -- big time.

The firings come in the wake of a new contract that provided hefty raises for teachers, while at the same time granting Rhee the sort of discretionary authority over staff that most school leaders only dream about.

Where did Rhee get the money for raises? Four private foundations contributed some $21 million toward the innovative contract. These private philanthropic organizations wanted to fund what was basically an exchange of money for power. The District would significantly increase teacher pay, and in exchange the contract shifted the power of deciding who stays and who goes from the teacher's union to Rhee.

What is at stake in D.C. is whether or not the new paradigm that was agreed to in the contract is going to have the sort of transformational impact that many hope it will. Rhee's move was a hint that she intends to wield her new authority with vigor. In addition to the fired teachers, another 737 were rated "minimally effective" by the new IMPACT evaluation system -- which means they have one year to improve their performance or they may face dismissal as well.

The reaction has been varied. There were those who applauded the move, noting that teachers in the District of Columbia had been immune from accountability for far too long. The Washington Post editorialized:

But if there is outrage to be felt, it should be directed at a system that has enabled, even rewarded, poor teachers... It's important to stress that termination decisions were made after each teacher underwent a thorough review based on the district's new teacher evaluation system, known as IMPACT, that combined observations of teachers with student test score data. IMPACT replaced a completely subjective system, so it is hard to accept arguments about the new system -- with precise standards, multiple observations by experts and clear expectations -- being unfair.

On the other hand, the unions expressed outrage. The American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten in a statement attacked Rhee for embarking on a "destructive cycle of hire, fire, repeat."

One group we haven't heard from, and probably won't, is the reaction of the many good, hard-working teachers in the District. I imagine that some of that group is silently rejoicing today. After years of seeing their less engaged colleagues not putting forth maximum effort without any consequences, there are some who might be quietly pleased at the thought that some slackers may be gone, hopefully to be replaced by more committed teachers. While no one enjoys seeing someone lose their job, it also isn't easy to try your hardest while those around you drift through their duties.

The truth is, in any organization there are people who are ill suited to the job at hand. Different organizations handle these individuals differently, but eventually those ill suited to a job are eventually moved along, one way or another.

Public education has tended not to handle this issue well. Most districts are familiar with the "dance of the lemons," where poor teachers are shifted from school to school. New York City's schools have long been infamous for their "rubber rooms," where teachers unsuitable to be in a classroom but lacking the needed proof to be fired existed in limbo -- fully paid for with tax dollars -- sometimes for years. At the end of June, these lamentable institutions -- which housed roughly 700 teachers and administrators -- closed their doors for the last time. Unfortunately, New York's leaders lack anything like the flexibility Rhee has in making termination decisions, so the underlying problem will endure.

What Michelle Rhee has done in Washington, D.C., is not to turn the schools upside down, but to turn them upside right. The focus should be on the children and the education that is being delivered -- that is why we have public education in the first place.

The wrenching changes now being wrought are all the more difficult because these hard choices have been avoided for too long. Rhee has brought to her job a relentless focus on efficiency, and the new contract has enabled her to extend that approach to staffing as well. Some like it, some lament it, and some secretly appreciate it but are unwilling to say so.