Trying to Win the Hearts and Minds of DC Teachers

The fight over the future of Washington, DC’s public schools continues.  For more than a year now, DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee has worked to secure buy-in for a new plan to incentivize teachers, all but eliminating the traditional tenure system that has long dominated our K-12 systems and replace it with a new meritocracy that increases teachers pay, but has been tagged with taking away their job security and current collective bargaining protections.

The battle has reached the stage when AFT President Randi Weingarten (she being the president of the NATIONAL American Federation of Teachers, not the DC chapter) has stepped in to serve as the primary spokesperson for DC teachers in this debate.
In this morning’s pages of The Washington Post, Rhee issues the latest volley in the ongoing tennis match regarding the future of DCPS teachers.  The op-ed is most cogent and compelling explanation of Rhee’s plans yet, and can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/08/AR2009020801711.html  
In her piece, Rhee seeks, rhetorically, to do two things.  First, she clearly aligns her long-term goals with DCPS to the long-term education goals of the Obama Administration.  She breaks her teacher plan down into five key areas — individual choice (teacher empowerment), measuring excellence (multiple measures of school performance), growth model for achievement (teachers aren’t expected to do everything and show success in one academic year), protection from arbitrary firings (saving teachers from principal firings), and professional development and support.  Essentially, if you like the President’s plans for education spending on the campaign trail and in the economic stimulus package, you should love what Rhee is attempting.
Second, Rhee is trying to portray herself as the true protector of the DC teacher.  Month after month, we have heard how DCPS is arbitrarily firing principals and teachers as part of its long-term plan (such stories may be unfair, but they are now a regular part of the dialogue).  She boldly proclaims that her plan is designed to protect teachers from such firings, stating that too many DC teachers are living in fear of being fired by their principals for non-performance reasons.  This was a new concern for me.
The piece is well written and chock full of informational nuggets.  But it begs one large question for Eduflack — who is the intended audience?  Clearly, this was not written for the DCPS teacher.  The content and tone is written as if Rhee is trying to explain the deeply rooted beliefs of DCPS educators to others.  So who is it for?  Is this truly a volley over to Weingarten, awaiting her return?  If so, this volley is likely to be returned with a decisive forehand, speaking on behalf of the “real” DCPS teacher.  Is it intended for the national education blob, carving out a new view on a stalled staffing plan?  Or is it a reminder to the DC policy community that Rhee is indeed relevant in this new administration, even with a new “top superintendent” at the helm over on Maryland Avenue?
Time will tell about the effectiveness of this latest missive.  Rhee still has miles to go if she is going to win over the hearts and minds of her teachers.  Focusing on teacher empowerment, professional development, and the need for longitudinal measures of teacher effectiveness is a good way to start.  Trying to position the elimination of tenure as a way to prevent arbitrary firings by principals, though is a head-scratcher.  At this point, I have to believe DC’s teachers trust their principals more than their central office.
But Rhee has laid out new parameters by which to measure and reward teacher performance.  This is more than just a score on the annual high-stakes test.  She’s planning on multiple uses for good data, including teacher achievement and educator needs.  That may be just what urban school districts need, particularly as the feds look to new data systems and multiple evaluation measures.
The ball is now in AFT’s court.  Weingarten can gently return the volley, seeking to build a dialogue on what beliefs she and Rhee hold in common, or she can return the ball down DCPS’ throat, putting teachers and their protection first and foremost.  Game on!

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