Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Swimming Up-Stream: The DC Schools System

There is some very good news out of what has long been the worst public school system in America - the DC public schools. Michelle Rhee was brought in to work changes - and she appears to be working miracles against fierce opposition from the teacher's union. This from the WSJ:

The Washington, D.C., public school system, with its high dropout rates and low test scores, has long been a national embarrassment. But things seem to be improving under maverick Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. So it's curious that the White House hasn't done more to support her reform efforts, especially since they track so closely with the Obama Administration's own stated education goals.

New student test scores released by the U.S. Department of Education last week showed that Washington's fourth-graders made the largest gains in math among big city school systems in the past two years. D.C.'s eighth-graders increased their math proficiency at a faster rate than all other big cities save San Diego. Washington still has a long way to go, but it's no longer the city with the lowest marks, a distinction that now belongs to Detroit.

Before Ms. Rhee's arrival, the nation's capital went through six superintendents in 10 years. Since taking over as Chancellor in 2007, Ms. Rhee has replaced ineffective principals, laid off instructors based on "quality, not by seniority" and shuttered failing schools. These actions have angered teacher unions to the point of bringing (unsuccessful) lawsuits, yet academic outcomes are clearly improving.

Ms. Rhee is currently in contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers Union that have dragged on for more than two years. Among other things she's proposed changes to the tenure system that would offer six-figure salaries to teachers willing to link their paychecks to student performance. Those who choose instead to be paid solely on seniority would retain their job security but receive much smaller pay increases.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly expressed support for merit pay and using student data to evaluate teachers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan insists he'll look favorably on states that enact such reforms when dispensing federal Race to the Top education grants next year. But Mr. Duncan loses his voice when it comes to backing Ms. Rhee in contract negotiations. "We generally don't weigh in on local labor disputes," he told the Journal last month.

The problem with this passivity is that union-negotiated collective-bargaining agreements are often the biggest barrier to enacting these education reforms. By not using their bully pulpit to back state and local reformers like Michelle Rhee, Mr. Duncan and President Obama are sending mixed messages, emboldening the opposition and jeopardizing their own education objectives.

One, hats off to Ms. Rhee for succeeding where all others have failed. Two, why is there "tenure" for grade school teachers? It is one thing to allow tenure in universities where the professors are encouraged to publish and take stands on controversial issues. It is another matter entirely to extend that concept down to grade school teachers whom, we hope, are simply teaching basic skills. If and when they no longer do that, they need to be booted immediately. Three, why do we allow unions for public employees anyway? It seems more than a bit ludicrous to allow people who ostensibly work on the public dole to unionize. It certainly brings no benefit to the children, and that should be the sole concern.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a veteran teacher, here's why I'm against merit pay. School districts are hotbeds of politics and favoritism - it's their dirty, little secret. Any teacher with good ideas that don't fit the PC rule of the administrators has it hard enough now -- under merit pay, we'd have to sit helplessly and watch the cliques' of political favorites get the big raises.