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Rhee and Fenty on what worked in D.C. schools

In her final days as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee and outgoing D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty shared their reflections on three years of trying to reform some of the worst schools in the country.

From their piece in the Wall Street Journal, some of the most substantive points:

Michelle Rhee "We bargained with the teachers' union for 2½ years and won significant concessions. How did we do it? By striking the sort of grand bargain that could serve as a model for other troubled school districts. The formula is really quite simple: more money and resources, in exchange for more accountability from teachers.

"The union took some time to accept this trade-off. In 2008, we put a proposal on the table that we considered rather bold. In exchange for giving up tenure and linking pay to performance, teachers would be able to earn up to $130,000 a year. At first, union leadership was dead-set against it and simply refused to allow their members to vote.

"We did not give up that easily. D.C. went for more than two years without a new teachers' contract, but we kept at it. Since the city did not have the money for a significant raise, we implored several foundations to consider providing the resources to enact a groundbreaking contract. The funders, including the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, were clear that they would put up the money, but not if they were only backing a marginal improvement. The contract had to set a new precedent.

"That D.C.'s teachers finally endorsed this revolutionary new contract shows that they, too, are ready for change. When we were negotiating with the union, we heard one thing over and over again from the leadership: "Our members are never going to accept this." In truth, when the union finally allowed them to vote, the teachers passed it overwhelmingly, by 80% to 20%. Given the chance to be treated as professionals and to be rewarded for their achievements, they grabbed it.

"Our contract with the teachers achieved a number of breakthroughs:

• It rewards great teachers who accept a higher level of accountability with some of the highest teacher pay in the nation—up to twice as much as they were previously making.

• No longer do educators have a job guarantee for life. Ineffective teachers are immediately dismissed from the system. Minimally effective teachers do not receive a pay step increase and have one year to improve their performance. If that doesn't happen, they are subject to termination.

• If layoffs are necessary, the decisions about whom to dismiss are based on quality and performance instead of seniority.

• We also instituted a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers, including growth in student achievement as measured by standardized tests (so that teachers who take on the toughest students aren't unfairly penalized), observation of their classroom practices and assessment of their contributions to the school community."

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, it's been 11 years since the last teachers contract was successfully negotiated, and six years since it expired. Phil Rumore, president of the teachers union, says he expects negotiations to begin in earnest by the end of 2010.

Stay tuned.

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

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Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |