Huffpost Politics
Thomas B. Edsall Headshot

Michelle Rhee Threatens End-Run Around Teachers' Union

Posted: Updated:

Michelle Rhee, education chancellor of the District of Columbia -- in charge of the worst performing public school system in the nation -- has laid down the gauntlet before the Washington Teachers Union (WTU), declaring that she will unilaterally impose a new teacher evaluation system that will result in widespread dismissals of teachers who fail to meet minimum standards.

The District's public school system ranks at, or next to, the bottom on almost every measure of performance used by the U.S. Department of Education.

In 2005, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, more than half of all eighth graders in the District system, 52 percent, had below grade-level reading skills. The District's closest competitor was Mississippi, at 40 percent, while the national average was 27 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Similarly, 66 percent of District eighth graders had below minimum grade-level scores in math, compared to 46 percent in Mississippi and 30 percent nationally.

Rhee, a widely praised if controversial education reformer, has promised to raise student test scores. She told the Huffington Post: "We are going to impose the new evaluation tools regardless" of the outcome of talks with the union. "We are going to be moving people out who are not performing."

Rhee's comments stunned union officials. "I'm dumbfounded," said a top American Federation of Teachers (AFT) official involved in the negotiations, declining to publicly identify himself.

"She is correct to say she has the power to unilaterally impose a teacher evaluation system," the AFT official said, but "all you have to do to get her real agenda is to look at the language she used with you. Words like 'impose,' 'unilaterally,' 'regardless,' and 'power.' They all say the same thing. She wants to do it to teachers, not work with them."

He contended that Rhee's stance disregards the right of the WTU "to bargain the outcomes of the evaluation system. This obviously includes due process rights and compensation, if she wants to attach pay to the results of the evaluation." In a plea to Rhee, the AFT official said, "If the chancellor is willing to collaborate with the union in developing a fair and expedient evaluation system, the Union is willing to use those results for performance pay and possible dismissal."

If Rhee goes ahead with her plan to unilaterally impose a new evaluation system, the union and dismissed teachers are very likely to try to challenge her in court.

Rhee has said that one of the standards used to evaluate teachers will be their success or failure in improving their students' test scores over the year. That standard is likely to be particularly tough in the District where 75 percent of all schools -- the highest percentage in the nation -- were rated by the U.S. Department of Education as "not making adequate yearly progress."

Data compiled by Andrew Rotherham and Margaret Sullivan for Education Sector, a reform group, shows that two new innovative approaches to hiring that do not require traditional teacher training -- Teach For America, which seeks out recent graduates of prestigious colleges; and the D.C. Teaching Fellows Program, that recruits mid-career professionals -- have put teachers with higher SAT scores into the classrooms.

In 2004, a total of 434 new teachers were hired by the District, 49 through Teach for America, 65 as D.C. Teaching Fellows, and 320 through traditional hiring procedures. The Teach for America teachers had average college grade point averages of 3.50, and 63.9 percent came from "highly selective" colleges or universities. The D.C. Teaching Fellows had an average of 3.25 GPAs, and 37.9 percent came from "highly selective" colleges and universities. Those hired through traditional procedures had an average of 3.03 GPAs, and 11.2 percent came from highly selective schools.

Rhee has proposed a two-track, green and red, system for D.C. teachers. Teachers who volunteer for the green track would give up all tenure rights and, in return, would get larger pay hikes and become eligible for performance bonuses that could put their annual income well above $100,000. Red track teachers would not give up tenure; they would receive a smaller pay increase; and would not be eligible for performance bonuses.

In her interview with the Huffington Post, Rhee said that her plan to substantially change the teacher evaluation system means that teachers taking the red track would be subject to an accelerated dismissal process if they do not meet performance standards. Rhee declined to estimate how many of the city's teachers are currently performing far enough below standard to warrant dismissal. "Ineffective teachers will not have any security," she warned.

Rhee has been the beneficiary of a series of key developments. The current D.C. mayor, Adrian Fenty, is solidly in her corner, firmly backing her take-no-prisoners approach. The media, in turn, appears to be generally behind the attack on tenure for D.C. public school teachers, as Rhee has received editorial support from the Washington Post, and has been the subject of a favorable Time magazine cover story.

Barack Obama has also signaled his support for Rhee's challenge to the union and to the D.C. education bureaucracy, pointedly noting in his February 10 press conference that "there are areas like education where some in my party have been too resistant to reform, and have argued only money makes a difference." Earlier, in an October 17, 2008, debate with John McCain, Obama declared, "The D.C. school system is in terrible shape, and it has been for a very long time. And we've got a wonderful new superintendent [Rhee] there who's working very hard with the young mayor there."

The chorus has not, however, been unanimous. School reformer Richard Kahlenberg based at the Century Foundation in New York argues that teachers' unions have been unfairly demonized by both the right and left in the current debate:

"The 'teacher union' vs. 'reformer' divide is catchy for journalists, because it fits into a familiar narrative of 'might' vs. 'right,' but teacher unions were created for a reason -- because teachers were paid less than people who washed cars for a living and were bossed around by autocratic principals. Seeking to obliterate collective bargaining agreements is something out of Wal-Mart's handbook and ought not win you a puff piece from Time."

New York city chancellor Joel Klein, in contrast, is an unabashed critic of tenure:

"Once teachers get tenure -- which typically happens at the end of three years -- they basically have their jobs for life. Last year, only 10 in 55,000 tenured New York City teachers were fired for poor performance. Protecting grownups rather than making sure students can read and do math is how our country has gotten into the educational mess it's in today. It's the reason we have shameful racial achievement gaps separating our white and Asian students from our African-American and Latino students. It's the reason too many of our kids are dropping out of school. It's the reason our kids are lagging further and further behind their international peers."

In practice, although Klein failed to abolish tenure for New York City public school teachers (who won protection via recent NY state legislation prohibiting the use of student standardized test scores in teacher tenure decisions) Klein has overseen substantial improvements in the NY schools without the benefit of tenure reform.

Klein attributes the NYC improvements to a host of initiatives, including the hiring of 2,000 teachers from Teach for America every year; the shift in responsibility for the schools from a school board to the Mayor; a new $70 million, three-year leadership academy for faculty; an expansion in the number of charter schools from 16 to over 100; and the break-up of large, 3,000-student high schools into smaller 500-student units.

From 2002 to 2008, the percentage of 4th graders in New York City meeting the math grade standard rose from 52 to 79.7 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of 4th graders reaching the English standard rose from 45.5 percent to 61.3 percent.

"We've changed the situation on the ground, creating the conditions necessary to transform our schools and classrooms and results for kids," Klein declared when the statistics were released last June. "We've set high standards, created strong academic interventions for struggling students, held schools responsible for results, and given educators the tools they need to assess how well they're doing and how well students are progressing."

The debate over how to improve poor urban school systems remains contentious, with some experts and reformers advocating teacher tenure reform, others arguing that tenure is not as significant an obstacle to student achievement as its critics contend.

Rhee's argument in favor of aggressive weeding out of teachers who fail to achieve performance benchmarks has received strong support from studies conducted for the Consortium for Research on Educational Accountability and Teacher Evaluation (CREATE) of students in Texas and Tennessee.

The CREATE studies showed remarkable differences in student achievement and performance depending on the quality of the teachers. For example, the first graph shows the percentile math ranking of students with 'effective' teachers rising 21 points, from 55 to 76, from the start of the third grade to the end of the fifth grade. In contrast, those with 'poor' or 'ineffective' teachers saw their percentile rankings drop by 20 points, from 57 to 27. A very similar pattern occurs in the case of reading scores in the second graph:

Other studies, according to 8,500 word November 2006 NYT Magazine piece by Paul Tough, have found, however, that -- teacher competence notwithstanding -- it is extremely difficult to improve test scores in schools located in poor, minority neighborhoods, and point to family background as a leading cause of poor student performance:

"[The] data largely confirm that idea [that family background is the leading cause of student performance], demonstrating clearly that the best predictors of a school's achievement scores are the race and wealth of its student body. A public school that enrolls mostly well-off white kids has a 1 in 4 chance of earning consistently high test scores . . . a school with mostly poor minority kids has a 1 in 300 chance," Tough reported in the New York Times after examining a host of studies

Tough suggested that the problems of educating poor minority children lie not only in the family background of the students, but also in the structure of the public school system:

"The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like .... but what is clear is that it is within reach."

A major report issued by the Brookings Institution last month, "The 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?", found that, across the country:

"Big city schools have made significant gains. While all school districts have notched achievement gains, the big city districts made even larger gains than other districts. They are closing the gap with suburban and rural districts, slowly, to be sure, but they are clearly making progress."

The author of the Brookings report, Tom Loveless, declined to specify a "cause" of the gains, but did speculate that the trend toward granting mayors control of school systems, which has happened in New York and in Washington, D.C., could be a factor, along with the testing and funding requirements of the "No Child Left Behind" law enacted during the Bush administration.

All participants in the debate over school reform proposals are at present looking to Washington, D.C. to see whether it is possible to lift the test scores of disadvantaged public school students by breaking the grip of "underperforming" teachers who are using union-backed tenure systems to block efforts to fire them.

Rhee is famous in education circles -- infamous in union circles -- for her outspoken rhetoric.

Last November, she told the New York Times: "Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions, but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don't have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too."

For the November 26, 2008, Time magazine story, Rhee, a 39-year-old Korean American, posed for the cover standing with a broom in hand at the front of a school room in the overwhelmingly black D.C. system, and was quoted saying, "the children of this city receive an education that every single citizen in this country should be embarrassed by."

Rhee's task will be exceptionally difficult, whether or not she wins the teacher tenure fight against organized labor, judging by the results of a survey of data on student achievement in the DC public schools.