Sunday, August 17, 2008

Michelle Rhee's Plan for Teacher Pay and Tenure

There was a great program on The Sound of Ideas a couple weeks ago that highlighted educational reform initiatives underway outside Ohio. Click here to listen to the complete podcast of the program.

Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington DC Public Schools, spoke about her plan for reforming the teacher pay and tenure systems. According to her plan current teachers will have the choice to either a) continue under the current pay scale system and retain their tenured positions, or b) forfeit their tenure in exchange for significant pay increases and potential bonuses. Those who choose the second option would be reviewed annually based on several factors, including student performance. Based on this evaluation teachers could earn a bonus based on their performance, or, could lose their position.

This is a gutsy, exciting move and I can't wait to see how it works out. It's often said that the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the greatest predictor of student achievement, yet districts often have little flexibility to fire ineffective teachers. The pay increases would also help attract teachers to the district, increase the prestige of the profession, and keep effective teachers in the district.

Of course, such a dramatic change is inevitably controversial... and rightly so. One concern is whether the funding for this program will be sustainable. The initial funding for the pay increases is coming from private donations; for long-term funding the district is planning to free up funding by reducing inefficiencies in district operations. If this does not free up enough funding it could jeopardize the whole intent of the program to keep excellent teachers in the district. For example, according to the new plan a high-performing teacher in the district can earn up to $130,000/year. Since that teacher does not have tenure even though she is an excellent teacher a cash-strapped district may be tempted to replace her with a less qualified and less expensive teacher. On the other hand, if the district is able to free up that much funding by increasing efficiency of district operations it could provide an excellent model for other districts to adapt.

Another major concern pertains to how the district will evaluate teachers. I've read that it will be according to a variety of factors, but haven't found much detail yet on what those factors would be. If we are evaluating teacher performance based on student performance on standardized tests, we need to be mindful of the quality of those assessments and the extent that they are measuring what we want to know.

Negotiations between the district and the Teachers' Union are still underway, but they hope to get an agreement in place before the school year begins.

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