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:
"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.
- Mary Pasciak