D.C. Education Reform, from Janey to Rhee

Colbert I. King published an Op-Ed in Saturday’s Washington Post entitled “Rhee’s and Gray’s critics fail in D.C. history”. Check it out here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/15/AR2010101505195.html Mr. King does not focus solely on education, but he makes some interesting points that merit further discussion here.

“Rhee’s supporters have hailed her firing of 200 teachers as a profile in courage and a first strike in school reform. But her predecessor, Clifford Janey, got there first. He dismissed 370 uncertified teachers in June 2006. … Ironically, the person who talked Janey out of dismissing an additional 730 teachers was Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy chancellor and now interim schools chancellor. Henderson, who was working with Janey under contract on teacher hiring and recruitment, argued that the system couldn’t replace so many teachers at once. She persuaded him to keep teachers who were within one year of obtaining their certificates.”

I do give credit to Mr. King for educating readers about this – admittedly, I know very little about education reform in D.C. prior to Michelle Rhee; I’ve mostly just heard that the system was the worst kind of mess. I think it’s also important to recognize that no prior superintendent is single-handedly responsible for the steady decline of D.C. schools.

That being said, I think Mr. King makes some pretty serious equivocation in this particular argument.

First: Rhee didn’t just get rid of uncertified teachers. Plenty of superintendents do that; it’s a matter of law. Bravo to Janey for doing it, but Michelle Rhee got rid of certified, tenured teachers. “Waiting For Superman” includes some pretty telling statistics about how difficult that is. In the state of Illinois, one in 57 doctors loses his medical license and one in 97 lawyers loses his law license, but only one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials. All three of those professionals have equally important jobs (in my opinion), but teachers are far less likely to lose their right to teach children.

Certification is a tricky issue; like testing, each state has its own requirements. (For instance, there’s a higher bar for teaching Spanish in Maryland than there is in the District of Columbia; Maryland requires a higher minimum Praxis II score.) And especially nowadays when there are a multitude of alternative certification programs, it’s hard for the average person to know if a teacher is certified or not. (Many such programs place teachers in classrooms with provisional certification or something short of full certification until they have completed certain coursework and/or time as a teacher.)

Mr. King also seems to suggest that Kaya Henderson, far from being a champion of dismissing bad teachers, was in fact partially responsible for keeping such teachers in the classroom. (This is assuming, of course, that all uncertified teachers are bad teachers, which is not the case.) At the time, Henderson was working with Rhee at the New Teacher Project (Rhee’s creation), an organization whose sole purpose is to recruit and place new, quality teachers in schools. Like most other things in the education realm, this is easier said than done. Teaching is neither sexy nor lucrative. A plan to dismiss large quantities of underperforming teachers must go hand in hand with a plan to recruit an equal number of excellent teachers to fill their places, and that’s what makes the IMPACT system in DCPS so unique and important. At the same time that Rhee was preparing to dismiss teachers this summer, recruiters in the central office were interviewing hundreds of applicants who were drawn to the District by talk of reform or higher salaries for highly effective teachers under the recently passed teacher contract, which will remain in place until 2012. There would be little point to dismissing the 730 teachers Mr. King mentions if there were not others to replace them, something that would be challenging to do for that many people even now, and certainly not several years ago when the reputation of DCPS was even worse.

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About educationescritora

I'm a former high school Spanish teacher and central office employee. I believe that excellent public education will be a catalyst for positive social change in our country and that we cannot wait any longer to deliver the teachers, knowledge, and skills that our students need.
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