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Teacher Tenure Breakout

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Reference Page Entry
Teacher Tenure Breakout. (2010, July 1). Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), p. A.18. Retrieved August 4, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 2070344751).

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In the long war between teachers unions and education reformers, the reformers won a big victory this week that could serve as a model for school districts across the U.S. The breakthrough is a new contract between the District of Columbia and 4,000 public school teachers that shatters taboos on teacher tenure, seniority and pay-for-performance.

The contract, which was approved by the D.C. Council on Tuesday, is a triumph for hard-bargaining Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who took on American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten and has lived to tell about it. "Seniority used to drive all kinds of decisions, including who was hired or laid off," said Ms. Rhee during a recent visit to the Journal. "Now that will be determined by performance and quality."

Among other things, the new contract abolishes lock-step pay and implements a voluntary performance-based system that could add $20,000 to $30,000 to the salaries of teachers whose students show above-average improvement in test scores. Tenure rules will no longer compel principals to hire rotten instructors.

Teacher performance will be judged by student achievement and evaluations by administrators and "master educators" appointed by Ms. Rhee's office who can make surprise classroom visits. Bad teachers can be terminated more easily, while teachers rated "minimally effective" will have their pay frozen and can be fired after two years if they don't improve.

These may seem like common sense reforms to anyone outside of public education, but they have been fiercely opposed by the AFT, the National Education Association and their local affiliates. In most states, teachers receive tenure after only two or three years in the classroom, and then it's nearly impossible to fire them. Students are the victims of this system meant to serve adults with lifetime sinecures.

How has Ms. Rhee pulled this off when so many others have failed? One reason is the political support of Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed her in 2007. Another is the awful state of the schools she inherited, where only 8% of eighth graders were performing at grade level in math when she took over, even though D.C. was spending $14,300 per student, or $6,300 more than the national average. Even Ms. Weingarten couldn't defend those results.

Ms. Rhee adds that she had more than the usual bargaining leverage thanks to some earlier reforms that let her decide how teachers are evaluated. The wholesale flight of D.C. children -- some 38% -- from traditional public schools to charter schools increased her negotiating power. Credit also goes to the Washington Post, which has supported Ms. Rhee even as most big city liberal newspapers have backed the status quo.

Ms. Rhee's challenge now is to use the new rules forcefully enough to drive improvements because the unions will assume they can wait her out. Meanwhile, Ms. Weingarten and the national unions are trying to downplay the D.C. contract lest other school chancellors take it up as their reform model. Their greatest fear is that they will have to defend against reformers determined to rewrite teacher tenure rules on multiple fronts.

Unfortunately, most school chancellors are careerists who don't want to upset the unions because they are always looking for their next job. One example: Clifford Janey, whom Ms. Rhee replaced in D.C., went on to become the superintendent in Newark, N.J., whose schools may be worse than D.C.'s. Ms. Rhee, by contrast, came to her job as an outsider willing to endure the considerable abuse that the unions and their political backers threw at her.

School reform can sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, but D.C.'s breakout on teacher tenure shows that the status quo can be broken. Let's hope more big city mayors and chancellors have the courage of Ms. Rhee's and Mayor Fenty's convictions.

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