Sudden Impact: Washington boots out hundreds of poorest performers

6th August 2010 at 01:00
British unions look askance as DC school boss's tough new regime claims jobs

Stressed school staff living in fear of looming budget cuts and redundancies in England should spare a thought for their counterparts in Washington DC, where the mass sacking of 241 teachers has left colleagues quaking at their whiteboards.

Controversial schools superintendent Michelle Rhee announced that 165 teachers will lose their jobs after a draconian new assessment scheme revealed they did not measure up. A further 76 were fired for not being properly qualified. Ms Rhee has control over the professional lives of 4,000 teachers in DC.

The new Impact scheme, which involves lesson observations and links the performance of some maths and English teachers to their pupils' test scores, has revealed a further 737 teachers who are "minimally effective". These have one year to improve their teaching or face dismissal. Ms Rhee has warned that in the next two years "a not insignificant number of folks will be moved out of the system for poor performance".

The Washington Teachers' Union has vowed to contest the firings, criticising the new system for going "too far, too fast" and failing to support teachers.

Union president George Parker said it was unclear who would replace the sacked staff in September. "As education professionals, teachers deserve better than to be informed less than one month before the school year begins that they don't have a job," he said in a statement.

Ms Rhee was appointed to oversee Washington's public schools in 2007, promising to turn around the fortunes of a district languishing at the bottom of the US urban schools league.

She appeared on the front cover of Time magazine in 2008, pictured in a classroom holding a broom. Before she started, performance-related sackings were rare. But in her first year she sacked 79 teachers for poor performance, and a further 96 went last year.

After hiring 500 new staff at the beginning of this academic year, she axed 266 teachers, citing budget cuts, although unions say this was a cover to get rid of older teachers. And the reasons for the "slash and burn" tactics may serve as a warning to England.

Miss Rhee is under pressure to improve Washington's schools in a bid to stem the flight of pupils to the district's many charter schools, where a third are now educated.

Critics of England's new state-funded independent "free schools" project have taken note as it is based on the American system.

The US unions have approved a new contract which raises teachers' salaries by 21.6 per cent, but means pay is more strongly based on performance in the classroom, and include bonuses of #163;20,000 to #163;30,000 for teachers meeting certain benchmarks.

School's authorities in the states are starting to introduce performance-related pay schemes so they can apply for grants under President Obama's Race to the Top initiative.

The developments in Washington DC come shortly after the coalition Government in Britain has said it will lift restrictions on heads' observation of lessons.

In January, the then shadow education secretary Michael Gove said he would make it easier for managers to sack poor teachers.

Unions here will be watching developments in America closely, as the English education system is often influenced by events across the pond.

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said he would be wary of copying the US. "Michael Gove is the most internationally minded education secretary, and will be acutely aware of what is going on over there in terms of reforming performance management and performance-related pay.

"But this slash and burn type approach is ultimately destructive as it means really good teachers are put off working in those schools."

Decline and Falls

Washington DC is not the first state to employ draconian techniques to improve schools.

The state of Rhode Island's local education board sacked all 93 staff, including 77 teachers at Central Falls School recently, after the school district and the local teachers' union failed to agree on plans to improve results.

Under federal law, a school district is capable of employing a "turnaround model" that includes sacking teachers if a "transformational model" cannot be undertaken.

It is one of six underperforming schools in the small, deprived city of Central Falls. Fewer than half its students graduated and 7 per cent of 11th graders (15 to 16-year-olds) were proficient in maths in 2009.

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