9.02.2008

The Battle to Fix D.C.'s Schools: Rhee vs. the Teachers

by Molly Kenney*

With students in the classroom for only a few days, tensions are running high in the Washington, D.C. public school system. But it’s not the students who are acting up. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who heads the school system, is taking on teachers’ unions, and the unions are ready to throw down.

A year after D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty took over D.C. schools and appointed Chancellor Rhee, she has followed in Fenty’s reformist footsteps in the financial vacuum that is the district’s historically underperforming school system. Now, she has proposed that the current teacher pay system based on tenure and seniority be replaced by merit-based pay, measured by student achievement. According to The Washington Post, Rhee’s plan also includes a year-long probation period for teachers moving into the merit-based system, regardless of their years of experience. However, there is also the opportunity for teachers to earn almost $20,000 in yearly bonuses.


Rhee has already experienced pushback against her aggressive managerial style, but the situation in D.C. public schools calls for a strong arm. In 2007, TIME reported that D.C. ranked lowest on “The Nation’s Report Card,” an evaluation of public schools and student performance conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That year, 51 percent of D.C.’s 4th graders and 66 percent of its 8th graders performed below a basic level in math and 61% of 4th graders below a basic level in reading. D.C. teachers should understand that something drastic is wrong and should be prepared to make sacrifices for their students. Job security and seniority pay should not reward fixtures in a failing system.

However, Rhee maintains an unwavering focus on data, true to her Teach For America (TFA) roots (shared by much of her administration and 20 percent of D.C. school principals, says TFA). Her administration’s love of numbers has led many to believe that she does not look at the bigger picture, and the dialogue surrounding these labor negotiations reflects that feeling. Rhee would be better served by publicly acknowledging and aggressively addressing the fact that D.C. schools are blighted by many factors, of which poor teaching is only one. While holding teachers accountable to their taxpayer-funded tasks is essential in fixing D.C. schools and their labor structure, a multi-faceted problem calls for a multi-faceted solution — and an open dialogue about all the issues.

As students return to class, Chancellor Rhee and D.C. teachers remain at a heated impasse. While they fight about wages, D.C.’s students are waiting for a decent education.

*Molly Kenney worked in the communication office of Teach For America during the summer of 2008 in Philadelphia, but she is no longer affiliated with the organization.

(For more background on the D.C. schools, please see: "Privatization & Gentrification: Milton Friedman's Shock Troops.")

(The photo of D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee is by angela n. of Washington, D.C. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)










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