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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee Has a New Plan to throw Teachers Away

Rhee Bypasses Talks, Imposes Dismissal Plan; Some Teachers Will Go on 90-Day Review
By Bill Turque, Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008; B01

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee (pictured at right) made good yesterday on repeated threats to bypass labor contract negotiations by imposing her own program to fire ineffective teachers, including a measure that gives poorly performing instructors 90 days to improve or face dismissal.

"The goal and responsibility and moral imperative of this administration is to make sure that each child gets an excellent education," said Rhee, who had hinted broadly in recent weeks that she was ready to invoke what she has dubbed "Plan B."

The blueprint includes a new teacher evaluation system based primarily on student test scores and other achievement benchmarks. She has also decided to employ rules that are on the books but seldom used, including one that allows her to deemphasize the importance of seniority in deciding which teachers would lose jobs in the event of declining enrollment or school closures. Seniority would become one of multiple factors taken into account.

Exactly how teachers will be evaluated on the basis of test scores is still under review, Rhee said. The provision allowing a 90-day review of teacher performance, however, could have a more immediate impact.

At a meeting last week, school officials asked principals to produce lists of underperforming teachers who could be placed on the 90-day plan immediately. According to the school system's updated personnel evaluation manual, principals have until early December to initiate actions against teachers they want to remove. School officials did not respond when asked how many teachers might be involved.

Although it has been on the books for years, the provision has been difficult for school officials to administer. Instructors on 90-day status are supposed to be assigned a "helping teacher" and work with the principal to develop a remedial plan. The process also involves classroom observations and conferences, all organized around a series of deadlines that are frequently missed by harried administrators.

Rhee said that additional staff would be available, paid for by private grants, to help principals more efficiently execute the 90-day plans.

Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker denounced Rhee's decision, saying that her focus on how to terminate some of the city's 4,000 teachers has come at the expense of ideas to support and professionally develop them.

"You cannot fire your way to a successful school district. It will not happen," said Parker, who added that the union would take whatever steps necessary to protect its members, including "court proceedings, arbitration and teacher job actions."

Contract negotiations, which started 11 months ago and continued through Monday, have not been suspended. But Parker said he planned to confer with the union's executive board this week about declaring an impasse, which would send at least portions of the dispute to third-party mediation.

The unilateral approach represents a setback for Rhee, who seeks to remake the District's teacher corps by recruiting and retaining more instructors willing to be held directly accountable for student performance on standardized tests.

She had hoped to leverage increased control over hiring and firing by making it part of a financial package that would earn many teachers more than $100,000 a year in pay and performance bonuses within five years. Rhee had asked the union to accept a proposal under which teachers seeking the top pay levels would have to relinquish tenure and go on probation for a year, risking dismissal. Those unwilling to risk tenure could opt for smaller, but still significant, raises and bonuses.

The chancellor drew national attention for the potentially groundbreaking pay proposal, which would be funded for the first five years with $200 million in private foundation grants. She frequently described it as a top priority in her long-term plans for overhauling the city's troubled school system.

But the package -- especially the one-year probation proposal -- has deeply divided the membership. The union and the District also remain at odds over how teachers fired after the year's probation can appeal the decision. Parker has said that he will not bring the package to the membership for a vote without adequate due process protections.

Appearing with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) at an early morning news conference, Rhee said she will be able to reach her goal of eliminating underperforming teachers with the policies. Although she has always had the power to impose these rules, she said, she also wanted to reward the Washington teachers "who do so many heroic things day in and day out." But she said she had no choice but to move forward.

"Where we are now is an incredibly unfortunate place," Rhee said. "We are leaving more than $200 million in external funding on the table."

Teachers who support Rhee's pay proposal expressed deep disappointment at yesterday's announcements.

"I'm sick about it," said Jennifer Miller, a teacher at Janney Elementary. "There are so many of us in favor of this program, and [Parker] is not allowing us to vote on it."

Jerome Brocks, a special education teacher, opposes any plan by Rhee to weaken tenure or seniority. "She hasn't been in my city but a day, and she's going to tell me that my seniority is no longer in effect?"

From Betsy Combier:

The Rhee plan has no basis in 'saving money', as the following article shows:

Teachers Institute Contract Work Might Be Illegal, Audit Finds
By Joe Stephens, Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008; B02

The D.C. school system could have saved as much as $2.25 million by having its teachers conduct reading instruction instead of contracting the work to the nonprofit Teachers Institute, using an arrangement that violated city regulations and might have broken the law, an inspector general's audit has concluded.

District Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby (pictured at right) investigated the operation for a year, uncovering what his report described as overpayments, conflicts of interest and a "serious breakdown of internal controls" in the school system. The audit questioned the effectiveness of the program and suggested the school system might have to repay as much as $2.9 million in federal funding because of contracting irregularities.

Teachers Institute officials improperly solicited funding from D.C. schools while they were still on the school system payroll, the audit found, and school officials paid millions without seeking competition or negotiating a contract. A year later, school officials improperly bypassed the mayor and D.C. Council when approving an additional $1.4 million for the institute, the report said.

The institute, a nonprofit literacy training organization founded by Washington educator Sheila Ford, was funded entirely by D.C. schools. It implemented a training program for local teachers known as the Reading and Writing Project.

Ford did not respond to a request for comment. In a written response to the auditors, she and institute Chairman Richard Spigler said they took "exception" to the investigation's length and because the probe was "based on false allegations" by a former employee. "We are proud of the work done by Teachers Institute and its accomplishments," they wrote.

In December, The Washington Post reported how the institute, which at the time had two employees and operated rent-free in the attic of a school building, had received millions in taxpayer dollars without formal competition. Ford and other district employees had arranged funding for the new group a few weeks before her retirement. In June, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee cut off funding to the organization, effectively halting its operations.

Auditors said that the institute's contract with the school system had authorized paying Ford $112,500 a year but that she received $150,000. It also said the institute improperly paid D.C. teachers and administrators about $200,000 in cash and expenses for attending classes and training sessions, performing after-school assignments and traveling to programs in New York City. School administrators stayed in rooms costing as much as $344 per night, the audit said, although the authorized per diem rate for school employees was $177.

The audit noted that, in some cases, making private payments to or on behalf of public employees can be a federal crime.

The report questioned the institute's payments to private consultants, one of whom received $156,000 in one year without records to document what work was performed. The institute paid a contractor $130,000 to place 124 computers in classrooms, then $253,000 more to maintain them.

Beyond financial concerns, the report noted that the institute's "balanced literacy" instructional philosophy conflicted with the official Houghton Mifflin program mandated by the school system. Preliminary test results from schools that worked with the institute showed no significant increase in reading proficiency scores, during a time in which the district showed an overall 8 percent increase, the report said.

Yesterday, schools spokesman Dena Iverson said officials "are working diligently to ensure that all contracts and agreements that [the D.C. system] enters follow the proper procedures and benefit our students."

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