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Sunday, February 20, 2011

From The Washington Post: Can the Unions And The D.C. School System Keep Poor Teachers Out Of The Classroom?

When Randi Weingarten hired me to  work at the UFT, she asked me to help any member that needed assistance, and she also  asked me to find out why members were in the "rubber room", what was their 'story'. Most, but not all, of the people I spoke with on a daily basis were the teachers labelled "incompetent, sexual perverts, thieves, and rogues of all sorts who were sitting in the 7 (then 8) Temporary Re-Assignment Centers (TRCs) or "rubber rooms" located throughout New York City. These people were targets of principals who were empowered to do whatever they wanted in their schools....including getting rid of 'garbage' like expensive employees with senior status who were paid high salaries. Why pay someone that amount of money ($80,000-100,000) when you could get two young, vulnerable newbies for the same price? This is not new information, and I dont need to repeat why this has nothing whatsoever to do with children, academic achievement, success for all. What I needed to do was find out how each member ended up re-assigned, what event or non-compliance with a rule, regulation, or law, placed X or Y in the re-assigned location.

The point I want to make, and will make in my book on the Rubber Rooms and the 3020-a Arbitration process, is that we all need to look at how the labelling/judgment of people as "poor" or "incompetent" happens, and what changes need to be made relative to the way that false claims against a person's character, career, life, etc. are accepted at face value and become 'fact'. I have spoken to some of my daughters' teachers who, in my opinion, are the best in the classrooms of New York City. One person whose story I will write about shortly was thrown out of my youngest daughter's school, NEST, after years of harassment. He sued Dr. Olga Livanis, the Principal, won his case, and now is back doing the excellent job that he was always doing. When he came to my office  at the UFT he was angry and bitter, which is understandable, and vowed to get his job back, which he did, but underneath all of the words was a speck of self-doubt. He was not able to ignore the fact that the principal found him intolerable, and this ate away at his self-esteem. I was very saddened by this (I'm one of his biggest fans) however I see this all the time - teachers labelled miscreants for any reason end up sometimes believing the lie. They give up, settle, go to  the job market with "Ineligible/No Hire List" on their resume and act as if somehow there was some truth behind it, and never are able to shake the label that they are, indeed, in some way, garbage.

Whether someone is indeed "incompetent" necessitates the application of facts gathered by means of a thorough investigation conducted by a neutral person in good faith. This fact-finding is time-consuming, but the only basis upon which labels of "poor", "incompetent", "pervert" or other label can have any value.

Thus I have a problem with the title of the article in the Washington Post below. Of course no parent or school administrator wants a "poor" teacher. But who defines this word? Why?

Betsy Combier

Can the unions and D.C. school system keep poor teachers out of the classroom?

Editorial, The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2011; 8:14 PM

WE GET IT. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan Saunders really don't like former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. That was apparent in their response to our criticism of an arbitrator's ruling reinstating 75 probationary teachers dismissed from the school system two years ago. But their critique of Ms. Rhee - what they called her "my way or the highway" style - doesn't address the core issue: that these teachers needed to be fired. Nor did it answer the question of why a union that purports to have no tolerance for low-performing teachers would fight to return to the classroom teachers so problematic that even the arbitrator acknowledged that their conduct warranted termination.

D.C. school officials are determining the best way to deal with the Feb. 7 ruling by arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum ordering back pay and reinstatement of teachers who, he determined, were denied due process. At issue was the system's failure to give exact reasons why the teachers were not being recommended by their principals for tenure. Ms. Rhee has said the process was in keeping with city law and guidance from the system's legal team. Interestingly, the local union had had some inkling of how the system planned to proceed when hiring letters were sent to the teachers but, according to testimony provided to the arbitrator, didn't object because the letters were sent to people before they were part of the bargaining unit.

Clearly, in hindsight, the specific reasons should have been spelled out because the thought of reemploying this group - which ran the gamut from teachers chronically AWOL to those neglectful, even abusive, of students - is frightening. We also don't think Ms. Weingarten is wrong when she argues the need for teachers to have information about their performance, although we suspect the teacher who had been repeatedly warned about playing DVDs in class and his use of inappropriate language with students must have had some inkling things weren't going well. Ditto the teacher who received a "Needs Improvement" rating for the year and had a habit of calling in sick on Mondays and Fridays.

The critical question is what happens next. School officials seem leery of an appeal because of what they see as a propensity for the public employee relations board to find in favor of labor. Another avenue being explored is bringing back the teachers and then firing them, this time detailing the reasons. Here's another idea: Why don't Mr. Saunders and Ms. Weingarten - who both say they don't countenance poor teachers - try to work out an agreement with school officials to achieve that goal instead of refighting old battles about the long-gone Ms. Rhee?

Rhee's firing of 75 D.C. teachers in 2008 was improper, arbitrator says

By Bill Turque, Washington Post Staff Writer, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An independent arbitrator says that the District must reinstate 75 new teachers fired by then-D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee during their probationary period in 2008, ruling that the dismissals were improper because they were not told the reasons why.

The ruling, issued Monday by Charles Feigenbaum, was narrowly cast. It said the school system had the right to fire teachers during their two-year probationary period if they had received negative recommendations from school principals. Feigenbaum said the "glaring and fatal flaw" in Rhee's action was that the teachers were not given reasons for their terminations.

"They had no opportunity to provide their side of the story," Feigenbaum wrote.

D.C. schools spokesman Frederick Lewis said that the District was "reviewing its options to appeal or challenge the arbitrator's decision and has not come to any decision about further litigation."

Rhee could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The 75 teachers were part of the approximately 1,000 educators fired during Rhee's 31/2-year tenure, which ended with her resignation in October. Of the total, 266 were laid off in October 2009 for budgetary reasons, about 200 were dismissed because of poor performance, and the rest were on probation or did not have licensing required by the No Child Left Behind law.

Feigenbaum ordered the District to make a 60-day good-faith effort to find the fired teachers and offer them reinstatement in an appropriate job. He also ordered that they be made financially whole. Union officials estimate the back-pay award could amount to $7.5 million - a considerable sum for the cash-strapped District.

Lewis said the cash awards would be offset by any earnings since the day of termination.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said the arbitrator's decision is affirmation that Rhee's aggressive approach to firing teachers was counterproductive and illegal.

"This argument that Michelle Rhee-style terminations en masse improve the quality of education is unfounded and expensive for the government when it acts in this fashion," Saunders said.

Probationary employees generally are considered to have fewer workplace protections than those with permanent status. But the collective bargaining agreement that was in place at the time of the firings made no distinction between the dismissal of probationary and tenured teachers.

Feigenbaum said that the city and the union had "a long unbroken practice" of following the same procedures for dismissing permanent and probationary educators, which required a negative recommendation from a school principal.

Before Rhee's arrival, it was rare for teachers from either group to be fired for performance issues.

Under the labor contract ratified in June, all teachers are subject to the IMPACT evaluation system, which stipulates that teachers receiving a "minimally effective" rating for two consecutive years face dismissal.
New WTU Pres. Nathan Saunders: 'It's been all teacher blood' on the floor

By Bill Turque, Washington Post

Space and time limitations kept me--as they often do--from including as much as I wanted in today's story about new WTU president Nathan Saunders. So here's a bit more.

Saunders, 45, is the son of a bricklayer, born in the Washington Highlands neighborhood of Southeast D.C. His name first surfaced in The Washington Post in the summer of 1981 as a 16-year-old intern for D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8). According to the story, Saunders was trying to organize support for an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Standing near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and Portland Street S.E., he told a group of voting-age adults: "If you don't vote, it's just like you're a slave standing in a cotton field. You don't have any say in what happens."

Saunders attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools before graduating from Morehouse College with a business degree. He worked as an accountant and in real estate and economic development before beginning his education career--first as a volunteer teaching chess at the old Phelps Vocational High School and then as a government teacher at Anacostia High School in the late 1990s. Saunders said his union activism began when a colleague's grievance was ignored by the WTU. Looking at the union financial reports with an accountant's eye, he said it became apparent that the numbers under president Barbara Bullock didn't add up.

Bullock eventually pled guilty to conspiracy and other charges in the theft of $4.6 million in union funds from 1995 to 2002 and served five years in federal prison. Saunders filed a civil suit charging that WTU and the American Federation of Teachers failed to oversee union finances and spending. He was elected general vice president in 2005, part of a reform ticket that included George Parker, the union president he unseated this week.

He holds a masters degree from the National Labor College and completed Harvard Law School's six-week Trade Union Program for labor leaders. His wife, Chandrai Jackson-Saunders, is a school psychologist for DCPS and the daughter of former WTU president Jimmie Jackson. They have a son who is a senior at Roosevelt High School.

Here are more excerpts from our conversation Wednesday afternoon, edited for clarity and length:

BT: When I talked to George Parker last week I asked what he expected if you won. He said gridlock and confrontation.

NS: I've got more skills to solve problems than practically any president that's ever run WTU. I also have formalized training in problem resolution. My masters is in negotiation and management....Part of the Harvard Trade Union Program is conflict management. And so I think I have some unique skills to solve problems.

BT: There is a segment of the DCPS community that sees your election as a setback.

NS: No, absolutely not. My election indicates that WTU will be up and running and fully functioning and contributing to real public school dialogue and success. The fact of the matter is that public school reform to a large extent under the former mayor and the former chancellor did not involve the community and teachers very successfully. I can say to you that I will not sit by idly while policies and practices are instituted that do not involve the teachers and the community. I'm going to be very proactive, not reactive, in involving the community and teachers in public school reform. So in that regard it's positive. Now if you don't want any community input and you don't want any teacher input, then [my election] could be viewed as a negative.

BT: You framed your victory as one for job security and union democracy. What was absent was any mention of the interests of students.

NS: What's good for teachers is often times good, very good, for students. Empowering teachers is also a method of empowering students. I argue that the best teachers are empowered teachers. That's what I tried to do as a classroom teacher. I saw in my students a sense of pride and a sense of personal growth and development when I was dealing with the Bullock scandal and dealing with my union. When they saw me in the newspaper and they saw me speaking publicly about issues of education, they were proud....I taught social justice. Rev. Al Sharpton co-taught my government class with me during [his] presidential campaign. So students are important. But I'm not afraid to talk about teacher empowerment. The union serves three primary functions: compensation, negotiation and working conditions. Members pay to be in the union. Under the law you are required to represent those interests and that's what I do and I'm proud of that. It doesn't mean that I don't represent student interests, though. I believe that often times the best way to get an excellent finished product is to represent the worker who has to complete the finished product.

BT: So it would be a mistake to assume there will be a new period of confrontation and conflict?

NS: Absolutely. Listen, today I begin to build my legacy as president of the WTU. I get nowhere with confrontation. Nowhere at all. But whenever confrontation will lead me to progress for the people I represent, I will engage in confrontation. But confrontation is not the first order business. Getting the job done is the first order of business. At the same time, when your opponent understands that you're not afraid to go to the mat, you don't have to go to the mat quite as often. But what we've experienced in the last three years is a lot of blood on the floor, and it's been all teacher blood.

BT: Tell me as succinctly as you can your biggest issues with IMPACT.

NS: My biggest issue with IMPACT is that it causes teachers to be unnecessarily stressed about a job which requires a tremendous amount of creativity. I think my problem with IMPACT is that it requires teachers' careers to be jeopardized for factors that they have absolutely no control over, which include poverty, health care and dysfunctional homes.

BT: So if you had Harry Potter's wand what would you do to IMPACT? How would you change it to make it fair?

NS: I don't feel responsible to change it to make it fair. What I feel responsible for is to help create a system that yields fair results for the people that it judges....that is not punitive and cannot be easily manipulated by individuals with nefarious intent.

BT: You think the whole thing needs to be re-thought?

NS: It should be in its entirety, absolutely.

BT: In an evaluation instrument [that you consider] fair to teachers, is there any place for value-added methodology? Taking students' previous year's test scores, developing a predictive model for how they should do the next year and then measuring that against how they ultimately perform?

NS: Teachers do that every day. I did in the classroom. It's called pre-test and post-test....I love testing in the European model, which is that they test for determining a baseline, not for purposes of punishing.

BT: So you don't believe that value-added should be used, if it's used at all, for high-stakes decisions like hiring and firing?

NS: Absolutely. Now that's a fact. But I believe it can and should be used, but it is only as one of many evaluation tools.

BT: There's a legal barrier you face in that IMPACT cannot be collectively bargained.

NS: Ever seen a law you couldn't change? All you have to do is have the will. All you have to do is build a movement around an issue and change public opinion. You show merit in your ideas. That to me is very exciting.

BT: Before IMPACT, before Michelle Rhee, the vast majority of teachers got "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations" on their evaluations. Yet the school district had a really abysmal record of academic achievement. There's a disconnect there that people find hard to justify.

NS: I find it hard to justify that in one of the most educated cities, probably the most educated city in America, and one of the most affluent cities, one third of our children live in poverty. I find that more appalling.

BT: Basically the Rhee reality is, "We know there's poverty, that there's family dysfunction and health issues. We can't do anything about that. All we can control is what is in the classroom. And we can't use that as an excuse any more. But you're in a different place.

NS: Absolutely. And let's understand why I'm in a different place. I believe that the Rhee reality you just described helps allow those conditions to exist. Because they take the pressure off society to focus on them...We do a disservice to children whenever we allow the government or others to discount the fact that crime exists in these communities and we say it doesn't matter...It does matter. That's the social justice aspect of education.

Rhee didn't play by the rules

By Randi Weingarten and Nathan A. Saunders, Washington

The Feb. 11 editorial “What does it take to fire a teacher?” was quick to question why arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum would reinstate 75 “bad teachers.” It sadly and predictably missed the most important point of the ruling. Mr. Feigenbaum made clear that former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee never told fired teachers why they were dismissed. She ran a secret black box program when it came to firing the teachers, saying, “Trust me, I know best.” She found it acceptable to dismiss 75 teachers without providing notice, reason, opportunity to demonstrate remediation or opportunity to be heard.

This is yet another glaring example of why her “my way or the highway” management style was not good for students or teachers. The consequences of this style continue to create great injustice within our system — for our community’s children and for those who work to make a difference every day in our children’s lives.

Ms. Rhee often believed she was above the rules. Thankfully, an arbitrator reminded her — and all of us — that no matter who we are, we must play by the rules.

The writers are, respectively, president of the American Federation of Teachers and president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

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