Last Chance for School Reform

D.C. schools are the worst in the nation, but they may also be ripe for big changes.

American public school teachers don’t get fired. They just don’t. In New York City, hundreds of teachers spend all day in “rubber rooms” because they’re deemed too dangerous or stupid to supervise children but can’t be booted because they have union-protected tenure. In crisis-ridden California, the mildest of threats from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut back on teaching staffs led to an immediate rebuke from the White House.

So when 266 teachers were unceremoniously canned in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2009, the educators of America collectively slid their glasses down their noses and glared at the District of Columbia. Although 266 firings might not seem like a lot in a country that has lost 8.4 million jobs since December 2007, they could turn out to be more important to the nation’s long-term health than the $150 billion “jobs bill” legislators were debating on Capitol Hill.

D.C. is a divided town. In the heart of the capital, the federal government hums along, churning out paperwork and disillusioned interns at a steady clip. But the rest of the city is in pretty miserable shape. The District of Columbia Public Schools rank below all 50 states in national math and reading tests, squatting at the bottom of the list for years at a time. More than 40 percent of D.C. students drop out altogether. Only 9 percent of the District’s high schoolers will finish college within five years of graduation. And all this failure doesn’t come cheap: The city spends $14,699 per pupil, more than all but two states and about $5,000 more than the national average. Yet as unlikely as it seems, D.C. may prove to be the last best hope for school reform in the United States.

The District’s school system is sitting at the center of a remarkable convergence. A driven, reform-minded chancellor, endowed with extraordinary powers by the city council and mayor, arrived on the scene in 2007 just as the teachers union’s contract was about to be renegotiated. Charter schools are blossoming, with nearly a third of the city’s public school students now enrolled in nontraditional institutions. And a new presidential administration, which has been retrograde in other policy areas ripe for reform, has flirted with some of the more advanced ideas on the education front. Add an education secretary who has respectable reform credentials and a president who has two school-age children, and it’s hard to imagine a sweeter set-up.

One further advantage, paradoxically, is the city’s utter hopelessness. “D.C. schools have long been the poster child for paralyzing education dysfunction,” says Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “It seems like they have a complete inability to educate anyone. Educationally, if you could save this patient, you could save anyone.”

But there’s a flip side to all these advantages: If D.C. can’t fix its schools in this context, probably no one can. And the first indications from the Obama administration have been ominous: As part of an omnibus spending bill in March 2009, union-backed Democratic legislators gratuitously killed a promising pilot program for school vouchers in the District. Meanwhile, the fate of reform hangs in the balance of a long, increasingly tense standoff between superintendent Michelle Rhee and the all-powerful teachers unions over the fundamental question of hiring and firing instructors. Depending on which side blinks first, education reform in America could be a long-lost dream come true or simply a lost cause.

‘You Don’t Want Me for This Job’

Michelle Rhee was an unlikely candidate to take over the D.C. school system, let alone wind up on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. “I was like the least obvious choice,” says Rhee, whose verbal mannerisms are those of a recent college grad. The person who suggested Rhee to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty did so with a few caveats: “She’s 37 years old, she’s Korean, and she’s never run a school district.”

In fact, Rhee’s only in-school experience was two years in Baltimore as a recruit for Teach for America, a nonprofit that places new college grads in troubled inner-city and rural schools for two-year teaching stints. In 1997 she founded The New Teacher Project, another nonprofit, which brings highly qualified teachers—people who are credentialed in the subjects they teach—to public schools. She was busy running that project when Fenty called.

Rhee immediately told the D.C. mayor, “You don’t want me for this job.” With a bluntness for which she would later become famous, she explained, “If I were to take over the school district, the kinds of things that I would have to do to transform the district”—closing schools, firing teachers—“would just cause you headaches, political headaches. And that’s not what politicians want. Politicians don’t want the dirt to get kicked up. They want everyone to be happy.” Fenty swore indifference to the political ruckus, and, much to Rhee’s surprise, he has so far remained true to his word. Rhee enjoys near dictatorial powers within the system, thanks to the absence of a school board, and she has used them to the fullest possible extent. “The man has not blinked once,” she says.

Rhee has become the Great Korean Hope for school reform advocates around the nation and a lightning rod for criticism locally. D.C. publications follow her every move. Blogs are devoted exclusively to hating everything from her policy proposals to her hairstyle. Almost every move she makes draws headlines. And no wonder: Rhee’s approach goes right to the heart of a decades-long political debate about what schools really need, more money or fewer lousy teachers. On that question her position is clear: No real change is possible unless good teachers are hired and bad teachers fired.

Within months of taking office, Rhee foreshadowed the bloodbath that lay ahead by firing 30 percent of the school’s central bureaucracy. She commissioned an outside audit of school records. (Her staff is still finding rooms filled with unmarked file boxes and cabinets with no keys.) As her first year ticked away, Rhee staffed the human resources department with her own people, installed modern payroll systems, and generally tidied up the back office. Before her first school year started, she found 68 people on the books with no discernible duties, 55 teachers, three aides, and 10 assistant principals, costing a total of $5.4 million a year. She closed 25 underperforming schools (in a district that has 129) and replaced half of the system’s principals with candidates hand-selected by her personal staff and interviewed by Rhee herself.

In July 2008, Rhee revealed her opening gambit with the teachers union: She offered the teachers a whole lot of money. Under her proposal, educators would have two choices. With the first option, teachers would get a $10,000 bonus—a bribe, really—and a 20 percent raise. Nothing else would change. Benefits, rights, and privileges would remain as they were. Under the second option, teachers would receive a $10,000 bonus, a 45 percent increase in base salary, and the possibility of total earnings up to $131,000 a year through bonuses tied to student performance. In exchange, they would have to forfeit their tenure protections. To make good on her financial promises, Rhee lined up money from private donors; she has been close-mouthed about their identities, but The Washington Post has reported that likely contributors include Bill and Melinda Gates and Michael and Susan Dell.

Says Rhee: “I thought, this is brilliant. Everybody talks about how teachers don’t get paid enough; I’m going to pay teachers six-figure salaries! I’m going to pay the best teachers twice as much as they are currently making. Who could not be in favor of that? But people went ballistic.” Getting incentive pay required giving up near-absolute job security. “That,” she says, “is when the crap hit the fan.”

If Rhee has a model, it is Chicago, one of the only places in America where bad teachers can (eventually) get the heave-ho. In the Second City, failing schools can be dissolved and reconstituted. Teachers who worked at those institutions must reapply for their jobs, without seniority rights. Those who fail to get their old posts back are free to apply elsewhere in the city. If they haven’t found a placement in a year, they’re off the books. Just plain old laid off. There’s even a small merit pay program. The man who instituted this plan is Arne Duncan, who is now Obama’s secretary of education.

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  • ||

    Sage, RC Dean, Warty...friends of Tall Dave and other apologist for blowing up makeshift ambulances. Lets take all your excuses and say they are legit. Is it now cool for the Pentagon to use taxpayer dolalrs and 4th amendment nullification methods approved for getting "terrorist" to wiretap/stalk/harass the people who work at wikileaks?

    Stasi = Pentagon

    It seems to me that fog of war and all is to be expected...it is silly to expect anything other than this type of violence to come out of war...however the Pentagon is guilty of Stasi like unamerican behavior ...they deserve strong condemnation if not court martial and treason charges.

  • 7||

    I believe you took a wrong turn at Crazyville.

  • ||

    I believe he is confusing the school thread with some other thread from yesterday.

    Let it go, man.

  • DADIODADDY||

    must have taken a left at Asshole Junction and gone north on the Hershey Highway...

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    Me too.

  • ||

    however the Pentagon is guilty of Stasi like unamerican behavior

    But but but...

    Obama is in charge now!

  • ||

    WTF?

  • ||

    Oh no!... you took a red pill instead of the blue one.

  • Rob Paxon||

    Why don't you keep your trolling limited to where is relevant, such as the actual thread on this matter. Whichever side of the fence someone may fall in regarding the action (and it's a pretty damn grey area), this is a piss in the pot of what has happened to Iraqis as a result of this war and its resultant occupational conflict. The issue is the war, not some singular murky incident.

    People like you are completely insufferable, narrowing in on specific, grey, ultimately inconsequential issues just for the sake of creating disagreement with those whom (mostly all) agree with you on the IMPORTANT over-arching matter. And then tying in this wikileaks thing, as if this place is littered with wiretap-loving police statists. And as if it has bearing on support for against the war... or one's thoughts on the specific incident. Just take a fucking hike.

  • Steve Nash Equilibrium||

    Non sequitur much?

  • mr simple||

    Anyway, Nice article. It amazes me, when I talk to teachers, how quickly burnt out they get about trying to reach kids and switch into more of a survival mode. They all claim the problem is too little pay and funding, like they would actually teach better if they got paid more. Then I present them with the figures on educational spending, national and local, and they just look at me confused and say "I hadn't heard that before."

  • dakotian||

    I was surprised a while back when I looked at the numbers. In some instances there seems to be a direct correlation between quality of schools and money spent. Southern states spend less on schools and have poorer results. But if you look at the numbers, the District of Columbia is high on the list of spending per student. So by "throw money at the problem logic" D.C. should have great schools.

  • Kroneborge||

    Apparently my post was marked as spam, let me type a bit more.

    Great article !

  • Jordan||

    Great work, Katherine!

  • ||

    In California the Teachers Union spends $20 million a year to maintain the status quo, and their power. Some 50% of all education jobs in the state are held by non-teachers -- the state is being crushed under the weight if useless educrats and paper pushers who don't ever set foot inside a classroom.

  • A is Awesome||

    I like it, let's institute that system everywhere.

  • ||

    88, are the custodians (janitors), grounds and maintenance people and bus drivers included in your 50% count?

    Not quibbling with you about the true "useless educrats and paper pushers" but

  • ||

    ...there are a lot of school system employees who are neither teachers nor administrators.

  • A is Awesome||

    Paying teachers MORE for Performing better and firing the bad ones? HETHEN!

  • ||

    A IS awesome, but apparently he doesn't show up to work sometimes.

  • ||

    There's evidence that merit based pay doesn't work in education: http://www.overcomingbias.com/.....ching.html

    However, I haven't seen all the data. One problem with the results, I suspect, is that it's being tested in the monopolized public schools, which would likely lead to massive grade inflation.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    "...reflecting the District’s 83 percent black student population."

    Is there any correlation between the above figure and the fact that students from the DC area are the worst performing in the nation? Is this question the most non-politically correct on this website?

    Is this racism, or is this just a fact? Does the "African American' culture produce the worst students in the nation, or is there someone or something else this can be blamed on? The liberals like Tony and Chad will of course always blame someone other than the community itself, but will we look at the harder questions here?

  • ||

    Its probably not politically correct but I think its a valid question. Sensitive types might respond negatively.

    I think culture certainly has something to do with it. Its not that they're less smart, but I think the black culture de-emphasizes education.

  • ||

    I doubt that the 'African American' culture is the 'foundaton' for these results but I do think that the culture of 'entitlements' might well exert a significant influence because where entitlements prevail the quality of accomplishment is usually lacking.

    If you were entitled to food, shelter, clothing, phone service, transportation, health care, etc., and then someone came along and told you you had to *work* for your education you'd certainly rebel - and thus we have the situation in the Big City schools - DC included.

  • A lurker||

    Just want to say I think this is a great article. Writing like this makes the print subscription more than worth it.

  • A lurker||

    Just want to say I think this is a great article. Writing like this makes the print subscription more than worth it.

  • A lurker||

    Apparently its so good I had to post that twice...

  • ||

    The government at all levels is the problem, not the source of reform. Who decided that teachers ought to have degrees in "education" instead of their subject? Who decided that children ought to be encouraged to wonder if they are boys or are girls, despite the evidence of anatomy? Who decided that American History was to be taught with only the bad things in the course, not including any of the good? Who decided to take the hard parts out of the cirruculum, generally? It wasn't the parents. You know that the movers and shakers in this country don't send their kids to those schools; don't you? What does that tell you? Why should your kids got there?

    Get government out of it. Start your own schools, your own textbooks, your own teachers. Teach your own kids, if nothing else. Stop thinking that the people who have been making kids stupid and murderous for the last 30 + years are going to do anything different, just because you give them more power and more money. Parents, take control and kick the politicians, the education establishment and the unions out of the business of pretending to teach your kids.

  • ||

    I hate to say it, but I don't trust Michelle Rhee. Giving someone that level of unlimited power is still a recipe for disaster. I said a year ago, before the Rhee minor-controversies. I say it again today.

  • ||

    also my no-longer-libertarian ex-girlfriend seems to get her panties all wet over Rhee. I think it's beacuse like Rhee, she did the whole silly teach for america thing.

  • ||

    I disagree, one of the biggest problems with education is bureaucracy. There are too many people involved.

    I don't think she's trying to consolidate power, rather to reduce bureaucracy and give the people in direct contact with children more power over the classroom.

  • Chad||

    I can't fathom why it costs over $14k per kid to education them.

    I could cover my salary and benefits AND have 40k left over for overhead, simply by teaching ten kids all day than I make as a PhD chemist. wtf?

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    Here is Chad again, gratuitously mentioning his PhD...

  • Some Guy||

    In his January State of the Union address, he said, “The idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success.”

    Now just think of how awesome it would be if he wasn't lying out his ass. Not only for schools, but banks, tyrants that we put into power in various countries, etc.

  • Imp||

    The problem with tying teacher pay to merit is that merit often means "how well students do on standarized tests." But those tests are bullshit and are designed by governmental, idiotic-educationcrats. They serve to distract kids from any meaningful learning. So, paying teachers based on who has a greater percentage of kids passing these tests, means that teachers who spend more time teaching to a test that measures nothing meaningful will be higher paid than teachers who are actually attending to developmental knowledge and skills as well as individual needs.

  • ||

    +1

  • Wegie||

    More money will be thrown...nothing good will happen.

  • ||

    Maybe they can come to Florida and help our clueless lawmakers with their idea of education reform. They think alienating educators is their best tactic. Hmmm, a GOOD plan for getting rid of bad teachers..how novel is that!

  • ||

    The article says: "In D.C. today, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student outcomes. In any other industry, this standard would be absurdly low, like basing only 50 percent of a salesman’s performance review on how many units he sells."

    But in what other industry does the "employee" only have control of the "product" for about 20% of the time? (8 hours a day for 180 days in the school year, versus 24 hours a day 365 days a year) And then the remaining 80% of the time the "product" may be struggling with poverty, abuse, learning disability, or simply indifference. The largest indicator of student success is parental involvement.

    By all means, get rid of poor teachers--and I've seen many poor teachers continue to "work" year in and year out. But rating teacher performance on student outcomes is misguided at best--especially since the "best" teachers in the "best" schools (ones that are perceptive enough to actually recognize and adapt to the diverse needs of their students) tend to get assigned the most difficult students. This article does nothing to address the very complex issue of what makes the best environment for student success. No, money won't help that much. Yes, getting rid of poor teachers will help some. But the biggest success will only come from the home. Everything else is just a band-aid on a bullet hole.

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  • Tom||

    As you say, Washington's case is extreme, but in general we greatly undervalue our teachers.

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