Why you should care about education reform in D.C.

    Washington, D.C. school district superintendent, Michelle Rhee. Photo by angela n. on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Originally published on February 9, 2009

    It’s weird enough that our capital is built on a drained malarial swamp. Due to this unfortunate product of 18th century geographic compromise, the horrible muggy summers have a serious effect on our national security (basically, if anything bad happens between June and August, interns will have to deal with it). The other weird thing about D.C. is the disproportionate attention it receives in the national media for a city with 580,000 people. So, while a debate over urban or social policy in Nashville or Seattle probably wouldn’t garner much national scrutiny, the current fight in D.C. over teacher salaries could turn into a model for skirmishes that may erupt in districts all over America.

    Leading the reform charge is Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of D.C.’s public schools since June 2007. A veteran of Teach for America, this energetic and ambitious administrator has gotten national attention for her bold education reform agenda. She started out by firing a bunch of her subordinates, restructuring or closing 49 schools and firing 250 teachers. Her most aggressive move, however, has been her proposal for a new contract for teachers.

    Rhee proposed that there be two tracks for teachers. One, the “green” track, would get rid of tenure but also allow for teachers to be paid upward of $130,000 in exchange for good performance. The other track — the “red” one — would allow teachers to attain tenure, but also be stuck with the old pay system based on seniority. Because Washington, D.C. is not China in the thralls of the Cultural Revolution, it’s clear which track Rhee favored.

    But Rhee needs the support of the teachers’ union before her proposal can be put into effect. Her idea for a two-track tenure system was part of a negotiation with the Washington’s Teachers Union (WTU), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the two large national teachers unions. To reformers, the teachers’ unions — by advocating primarily on behalf of teachers, as opposed to students — constitute one of the biggest obstacles to reform.

    The WTU, after months of stalling, finally released an outline of a counter proposal (PDF). Although they also requested increased investments for special education, teacher training and school saftey, the part that most contrasted with Rhee’s goals was the assertion that there should be “school wide financial incentives.” This means that instead of individual teachers getting rewarded for their class’ performance, all teachers at a given school would be rewarded if the entire school’s performance went up. This view, while obviously sensible for an organization that advocates on behalf of teachers, makes just about no sense in light of the importance of teacher quality.

    In a piece for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell detailed research showing that having a good teacher was one of the most important inputs to a child’s education. Gladwell cited research done by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek showing that the difference in material learned by an average student in a class with a very bad teacher and a student in a class taught by a very good teacher “amounts to a year’s worth of learning.” Hanushek also found that having a good teacher in a bad school could be better than having a bad teacher in a good school. The same went for class size: “You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile,” Gladwell wrote.

    A big problem for those who focus on teacher quality, and this is the problem Gladwell goes on to document at great length, is that it’s just hard to find good teachers. But this is the problem Rhee’s proposal is intended to solve. The old union approach, of rewarding teachers based on their seniority and how many certifications they pick up, is a demonstrable failure, so it makes sense to at least start by offering more attractive rewards to those who might otherwise not enter the teaching profession.

    In light of research showing the importance of teacher quality, the unoriginal proposals of the WTU and AFT are simply not up to the task of reforming public education. So here’s hoping that not only will Rhee win her fight but that other districts will follow in her footsteps.


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