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In Washington, D.C., Public School Teachers Put to New Test

August 31, 2010 at 7:07 PM EDT
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Teachers in the District of Columbia are being reevaluated. Special correspondent John Merrow looks at a new test for teachers in the Washington, D.C. school district as part of his ongoing reporting on education.

JIM LEHRER: Next: reforming the Washington, D.C., public schools, a story John Merrow, our special correspondent for education, has been telling over the last three years. Here is his final report, which is about the D.C. teachers and how their work is being evaluated.

JOHN MERROW: Cynthia Rivers and 42 other professional evaluators are putting Washington, D.C.’s teachers to the test.

CYNTHIA ROBINSON RIVERS, master educator: Teachers are worried. So, there’s a general feeling of anxiety about being evaluated. I write down everything that I hear and see the teacher doing.

JOHN MERROW: Rivers and her colleagues, called master educators, are observing classrooms as part of Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s new way of evaluating teacher performance. She calls it IMPACT.

There’s nothing quite like IMPACT in public education anywhere in the United States. Nowhere else can a teacher, even one who has tenure, lose his job immediately after receiving an ineffective rating.


ADRIAN FENTY (D), Mayor of Washington, D.C.: The wheels are in motion for action, and the time for dramatic change begins today.


JOHN MERROW: From the moment newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Michelle Rhee chancellor in June 2007, she began making controversial changes to a system that’s been failing for years.

When she arrived, just 12 percent of the district’s eighth-graders were reading at a proficient level. Math scores were even worse, only 8 percent proficient. Families were leaving the public schools in droves, with enrollment down by nearly one-third over 10 years. Mayor Fenty vowed to fix the schools and counted on Rhee, a former nonprofit leader and classroom teacher, to get the job done.

MICHELLE RHEE, chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools: I am going to run this district in a way that is constantly looking out for the best interests of the children and of the school.


JOHN MERROW: Though Rhee had no experience running a school district, she promised to bring business-style accountability to Washington schools.

MICHELLE RHEE: In any other sector, employees are expected to meet certain outcomes or deliverables. And everybody knows that, if you don’t meet those numbers, you go.

JOHN MERROW: In her first year alone, Rhee fired more than 15 percent of her central office staff and replaced nearly one-quarter of the city’s principals.

MICHELLE RHEE: No, I’m — I’m terminating your principalship now.

JOHN MERROW: And, in a move that angered many in the community, Rhee shuttered 23 under-enrolled schools for good.

MAN: I’m telling you that you are not being serious about taking parent and community input into account.

MICHELLE RHEE: My commitment to the children of the city was, regardless of all that noise that might come up, I’m going to continue to forge ahead.

JOHN MERROW: Rhee then set her sights on a new teachers contract, stressing the need to remove ineffective teachers. Her bold stance earned praise and attention from the national media, but, at home, Rhee’s image suffered.

This cover of “TIME” magazine left many of her teachers upset and angered D.C. teacher union leader George Parker.

GEORGE PARKER, president, Washington Teachers Union: This one shot gave the picture of, look, just sweep them all out. Get rid of them all. And that’s not the solution. You can’t fire your way to a great school system.

JOHN MERROW: Parker and Rhee spent almost three years negotiating the new contract. They finally reached a deal in spring 2010. Teachers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the contract, which guaranteed a 20 percent raise in salary that was retroactive, with three years of back pay.

Another perk: Teachers rated highly effective would be eligible for bonuses of up to $20,000.

WOMAN: What would you like to do with it?

JOHN MERROW: What teachers gave up was traditional job security, based on tenure and seniority. Now, if school budgets are cut, the teachers hired last won’t necessarily be the first to lose their jobs.

MICHELLE RHEE: It doesn’t matter whether you have tenure or not. It doesn’t matter if you taught here for 30 years or not. If you are not serving children well, then we’re going to let you go from the system.

JOHN MERROW: But it’s something that Michelle Rhee didn’t have to negotiate with the union that is affecting teachers the most: her new evaluation system, IMPACT. In most places, unions and school boards negotiate how teachers will be assessed, but not in Washington, D.C. In 1997, the City Council gave the chancellor full control over evaluations, with no oversight from the union.

GEORGE PARKER: This evaluation instrument has created the highest level of fear I have ever seen among teachers anywhere.


GEORGE PARKER: Fear of being targeted for elimination, unjustly.

JOHN MERROW: Across the country, most public school teachers are observed by their principal or assistant principal once or twice a year. Nearly every teacher receives at least a satisfactory rating.

But, in Rhee’s system, every teacher is observed five times a year, three times by an administrator, twice by a master educator. Those evaluations, combined with student test scores, result in a final rating.

MICHELLE RHEE: We have added more objectivity to this process not only than we — we had before, but, I would argue, that exists anywhere across the country.

JOHN MERROW: Special education teacher Matt Nagy (ph) says that IMPACT’s unannounced observations have improved his classroom performance.

MAN: So, every day, I had to make sure that my objective was clear, that my kids knew it, not just the days I got observed. And I think that made my classroom a little bit more consistent, and they learned a little bit more this year than last year. My only issue is that it’s marketed as a growth tool for teachers. And there wasn’t as much resources to help that growth as I would have liked to see.

JOHN MERROW: Although Rhee says IMPACT is designed to protect teachers from school politics, Ben Bergfalk claims it hasn’t.

BEN BERGFALK, District of Columbia Public Schools: A principal at the middle school that I was working at this last year came up with a fictitious evaluation date, a fictitious conference date, and entered in fraudulent scores for me.

JOHN MERROW: The phantom evaluation?

BEN BERGFALK: A phantom evaluation. He petitioned Rhee’s office.

JOHN MERROW: Bergfalk petitioned Rhee’s office. And, eventually, the phony evaluation was removed.

MICHELLE RHEE: There’s never going to be a perfect tool. And, so, if the bar is that, if it has bugs in it, we can’t implement it, then you will literally never implement.

JOHN MERROW: In late July, final evaluation scores were released. Rhee fired 75 teachers for poor performance — 671 more were deemed minimally effective and given one year to improve, or lose their jobs. That’s nearly 20 percent of Rhee’s teaching force that could be out of work one year from now.

Does it surprise you that those numbers are so high?

MICHELLE RHEE: I didn’t — I didn’t sort of proffer any guesses at the front end to say, well, it’s going to be this percentage or that percentage.

But when we took control of this school district in 2007, 8 percent of the eighth-graders were operating on grade level in mathematics, 8 percent. And if you would have looked at the performance evaluations of the adults in the system at the same time, you would have seen that 95 percent of them were being rated as doing a good job.

How can you possibly have a system where the vast majority of adults are running around thinking, “I’m doing an excellent job,” when what we’re producing for kids is 8 percent success?

JOHN MERROW: Success is still a long way off. Today, just 12 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in math. Improvement in reading has also been slow in coming, from 12 percent to 14 percent.

However, enrollment has stabilized, thanks largely to increases in pre-K and kindergarten classes. Rhee is banking on her teacher evaluation system to produce larger gains. She also hopes that IMPACT will become a national model.

MICHELLE RHEE: Assuming that our success continues, then I think that people can put pressure on their state legislatures to say, maybe you need to move teacher evaluation off the bargaining table.

JOHN MERROW: Rhee recently earned a national stamp of approval when D.C. became one of 12 winners of the federal education grant Race to the Top. But national teachers union president Randi Weingarten warns against following Rhee’s lead.

RANDI WEINGARTEN, president, American Federation of Teachers: Chancellor Rhee’s leadership style is, “My way or the highway.” But I have never actually seen a school succeed over a long term or a school system succeed over a long term with that approach. It gets a lot of ink, but the approach that actually succeeds is one where people work together.

JOHN MERROW: Rhee has made concerted effort to improve her relationship with D.C.’s teachers. But mistrust and fear linger.

BEN BERGFALK: You know, she really gives the perception that she cares, but there’s a disconnect between what she’s saying to us locally or individually and to what she’s saying, you know, nationally and then to the media.

JOHN MERROW: Some say it’s not a culture of accountability; it’s a culture of fear.

MICHELLE RHEE: I think that, if there is fear, it’s amongst the people who are saying, “Oh, gosh, I have gotten away with not doing such a good job for a long time, and now I can’t do that anymore.” And those people should be feeling that way.

JOHN MERROW: Ben Bergfalk earned IMPACT’s highest rating.

BEN BERGFALK: I’m the kind of person Michelle Rhee wants working in DCPS, yet, the reality is, I was fearful because principals, I think, are working in a culture of fear. And that translates into a very hostile work environment for the majority of teachers in DCPS.

JOHN MERROW: It’s too early to tell whether Michelle Rhee’s new evaluation system will result in better schools. In fact, she might not be around long enough to find out. Her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, is facing a tough primary challenge in September. If Fenty loses, Rhee may be out of a job. A new mayor and a new chancellor could alter or even abandon many of her initiatives, including IMPACT.