Thursday, July 24, 2008

DC's Rhee Setting the Bar For Innovation

Continuing on a path of tearing up the old way of thinking in DC public schools, Chancellor Michelle Rhee is looking at a really changing the teacher pay structure in the city, at the expense of time-honored traditions, like tenure and seniority.
D.C. teachers interested in the huge salary increases proposed by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee would not only have to relinquish their seniority but also risk dismissal by spending a year on probation, according to details of the plan released yesterday.

The tradeoff, part of one of two salary scenarios under discussion, could earn an instructor with five years of experience as much as $100,000 in base pay and bonuses. The structure would put the city's teachers in an elite class in a profession in which the national average salary is $47,600, according to the most recent survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers.

D.C. school officials said the leaps in pay would be subsidized partly by private foundations.

The plan is the centerpiece of Rhee's attempt to make the Washington school system a national model for linking teacher pay to improved student achievement. She says increased teacher accountability is key to any effort to overhaul schools, and she has targeted a seniority system that she thinks protects ineffective instructors.
Now the proposals are still being negotiated, but essentially, there are two options for teachers to see significant pay increases.

Option 1 would see a 28 percent increase in pay over five years and a $10,000 reform bonus (for dealing with the stress) paid over two years. In exchange, teachers would give up the seniority right of "bumping" a
less-tenured teachers if a school closes. A teacher could land a job at another school only with the consent of the principal. Teachers unable to find a principal to hire them could opt for early retirement, a $25,000 buyout or a year's grace period -- with salary and benefits -- to continue searching. If that was unsuccessful, the teacher would be fired.
Of course, the problem that teachers and some union officials see is that the principals are hired and fired (no tenure for them) by Rhee, which union conspiracy theorists see as just a way for Rhee to rid herself of undesireable teachers in a roundabout way since she has not been able to get direct firing authority.

The second option would see base pay increase by 20 percent over five years, the $10,000 bonus and annual performance bonuses of up to $20,000. Now this kind of bonus structure is real bonuses, not these mealy three or four thousand dollar bonuses. Of course, this comes with a couple of trade-offs. In addition to the anti-bumping provisions, the teacher would be on a one year probation where they could be fired without any other notice. The teacher would need a recommendation from teh principal to keep a permanent job and all new hires into the DC system would be on probation for four years. Of course, the manner in which bonuses would be determined was left unsaid as it is still be negotiated.

Of course, there are some union officials and teachers who think that Rhee is trying to take away "rights" of teachers with this plan. My short answer is that a job as a teacher is not a "right" and poor performance should not be rewarded with a protected status, no matter what.

I have never heard of anything like this anywhere and it does lead to some interesting dynamics which makes me think Rhee and her team are ten times smarter than any school administration that this town or union has ever seen.

Rhee appeared with union President George Parker and presented the ideas, which are still being negotiated. Rhee's last job was looking at how school systems could improve their relationships with unions and reform union contracts, attempting to at least level the balance of power between the system and the unions. So Rhee has directly engaged Parker and as the story seemed to note, a schism is developing in the union. The divide pits the Parker faction, which is at least open to change, against the "union rights" faction. The division will become public and the union will have to finally determine, in a public fashion, whether the teacher's union will be on the side of making the schools better in DC or maintaining a status quo that is not doing the school sytem any favors.

I think Parker probably understands what is being done, but I am not sure anyone else in the union leadership understands. Rhee will either make the union a partner in improving the schools or will marginalize the union, breaking its power in the arena.

Second, Rhee clearly will get a victory at elminating the power of bumping. Bumping creates a lot of tension among the teachers themselves and puts principals on the defensive every summer, particularly principles at new schools or schools that have a lot of new hires. Such a principal never knows if some other teacher is going to come in and bump a teacher from a school. This makes planning and developing a proper mix of knowledge and experience at a school very, very difficult. Given the school closures that will be happening this year and in the coming years, it is clear that this is real problem. It is not eliminating seniority, but it is curtailing one of the key perks of seniority and allows a principal at the more popular schools to have a bit more security in their staff from year to year.

Third, by stabilizing the school staffing, Rhee gets rid of the gaming that routinely happens each summer, when school principals know that a teacher is retiring or leaving, but get the teacher to hold off announcing until the last possible minute. The reason for holding off is to avoid the "bumping problem." By eliminating that problem, the principal can work with Rhee and central HR to start hiring the kind of teacher he needs rather than simply taking the next senior teacher looking for a job, regardless of qualification.

Fourth and finally, Rhee's move at this time, sets up a fight with the school board and City Council. I thought this little tidbit interesting:
The information packet distributed yesterday included a copy of a little-used 2000 law on the District books that allows principals to diminish the importance of seniority by using other factors, including job evaluations, in deciding whether to retain teachers.

What Rhee intended by distributing copies of the law was not clear. She did not respond to a request for an interview.
People may wonder why include it, but this is smart politics. It shows that Rhee has done her homework on the law in DC. I have no doubt that this law, had Rhee not made it public, would have been quietly repealed, taking away Rhee's key weapon in her "principal input" teacher staffing plan. By putting it into the packet Rhee telegraphs to the union and to the City Council that she is on to the game and they can be assured that if they try to repeal it now, she will call them out publicly. This is absolutely brilliant politics. What it does is gives teachers and administrators clear legal authority for what she proposes by having principal input and/or veto over bumping teachers until such time as these pay plans are finalized--thereby preventing the last minute bumping at schools this summer. It also tells the City Council that they need to stick by their word to let Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty get on with the business of making the schools better. It dares the City Council to repeal the law and if they do Rhee and Fenty will jump all over them as being anti-school improvement and in favor of the old way of doing things that does not help DC school kids.

Rhee and her team are smart cookies and DC should finally be on full notice that they are not dealing with the same old school superintendent here that will bow to old political power.

1 comment:

eiela said...

I'm curious about where the money is coming from to fund these bonuses and pay increases. What if the funding dries up? Would teachers then get some of their other old perks, like seniority bumping, back? Will there be any sort of procedure in place to keep the district from balancing the budget by firing the more expensive experienced teachers and replacing them with just-graduated cheaper new ones? I do VERY MUCH agree that principals should have more control over hiring. I was able to transfer in to my new job without ever even meeting my principal. He's great, and we work together well, but I felt odd about that. He's my boss, and if I was a pain in the rear, he'd be stuck with me anyway unless he wanted to start all the paperwork to fire a tenured teacher, or try to make me miserable enough to transfer again. Since it's his name that's going to be on the chopping block about anything wrong at our school, he should have more control over hiring than that. I know I'd want to if I were in charge.