So, You Say It’s Not a Revolution

It is now official.  Yesterday afternoon, the Washington (DC) Teachers Union revealed the vote on DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s ambitious plan to move toward merit pay for all teachers in the nation’s capital.  While some suspected the vote would be close (with new teachers voting yes and the many veteran teachers having doubts), it wasn’t close at all.  The new contract was ratified 1,412 to 425, giving the Rhee agenda a nearly 4:1 win.

The Washington Post’s Bill Turque offers us the full story here.

We’ve come a long way from when Rhee first offered up the plan back in 2007.  When the DCPS Chancellor first arrived in Washington nearly three years ago, she was brimming with ideas and innovations.  One of them was merit pay, offering huge incentives to teachers who could boost student achievement (as Rhee says she did as a Teach for America teacher in Baltimore two decades ago).  At the time, few school districts had been able to truly do merit pay well.  In fact, Denver’s ProComp program probably stood as the only true exemplar in the field.

Rhee was offering five-figure bonuses to teachers in a district that was already perceived as paying its teachers, particularly its veterans, extremely well.  To get to her end game, Rhee enlisted the help of the philanthropic community, which pledged tens of millions of dollars to make this all happen.

Along the way, there were missteps.  A Time magazine cover story with a broom.  Significant teacher layoffs in the name of budget, then under the banner of misconduct.  Concerns of the financial stability of the promise of such incentives.  And, of course, the worry of what happens to all of that outside support should Rhee (or the mayor) move on.  (And Eduflack is thinking, perhaps, of Rhee going to the Gates Foundation to do nationally what she has just done in the District of Columbia, but that’s just me thinking it fits nicely with Gates’ human capital push and the work currently being done at Gates by John Deasy.)

What was particularly telling about the ratification was the sentiment offered up by Kurt Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor and the consigliere brought in to make peace between Rhee and WTU.  As reported by Turque, in regard to merit pay, Schmoke said, “The ideas have gained currency at the national level … What was seen as bold is now reform, not revolution.”

It is a very interesting thought, and one the entire education community should reflect on.  Just a few years ago, what Rhee proposed was seen as true revolution by most, and a breaking of an urban teachers union by quite a few.  Since then, we’ve seen Houston beat DC to the punch on such a plan (though Houston doesn’t have to deal with unions the way DC does).  We’ve seen threats of massive teacher layoffs and a growing feeling that last hired, first fired is no way to run school systems looking to boost student achievement.  And we’ve now seen 40 or so states pledge to adopt ambitous teacher quality efforts in pursuit of the $4 billion Race to the Top grail.  One can now argue that the DC teacher deal is no longer revolution, and may no longer even be reform.  It is just keeping up with the Joneses.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  Take a look at the public statements offered yesterday.  Rhee, who should be declaring victory from every rooftop in the District, offered a very muted statement here. (And based on past experience, this was the right approach.  Rhee should let others declare her victory for her.)    AFT President Randi Weingarten, as to be expected, praised DC teachers here for putting their students first.  And, interestingly, WTU still does not have a statement posted on its website, with interested readers being directed to last month’s missives on the “tentative” contract.  This was far from a bold pronouncement of revolutionizing the education sector.  In many ways, it read like DCPS has changed its chalk provider.

The real celebration (or protestation) will come next year, as teachers start feeling the 21 percent pay increases and start anticipating those $20,000 to $30,000 performance pay bonuses.  The real fun is now in seeing if other urban school districts (particularly those in AFT cities) decide to “borrow” from the DC model and enact similar plans, or if we wait a few years to see if the DC approach works.

Looking at the history of real reform and improvement in the education sector, DC is likely to be extremely lonely in this pool for a bit. 

One thought on “So, You Say It’s Not a Revolution

  1. The evidence you cite says it is NOT a revolution. D.C. is the only district prohibitted by Congress from negotiating their evaluation process. Are the billionaires going to continue to pass the hat forever for five figure bonuses? How many districts already have more money than god and still get a 21% raise. You previously linked to the telling quote about it all being about the money.Yeah, Houston says its going ahead with VAMs. NCLB was supposed to bring everyone to proficiency in 12 years. How did that work out? Its possible that Houston or any other district will use VAMs as they promise. More likely they’ll try to use them like Rhee was able to do in her unique situation. They’ll fire one round of teachers, and the get checked in court, and then wrap up their gains, and VAMs, that could have been valuable for other purposes for which they are valid, will get discredited.Or most districts will apply a lot of caveats to VAMs turning a seemingly simple concept into another complex piece of the culture of compliance.The systems who are most likely to use VAMs well will probably follow the lines of The Grand Bargain.But the biggest legacy, probably, will be more test prep, more educational malpractice, a bigger bubble on tests for accountability, and more stagnation on NAEP.We’ve seen most of the components in previous reforms and how sustainable were they? We’d be better off seeking incremental change as described by Diane Ravitch or demonstrated in Boston and Atlanta.And that gets to the big question. Could it possibly be a revolution that improves urban eduation? Surely your not holding your breath on that one.

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