- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2010

Before the fall of 2009, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee followed the common practice of using a seniority-based method to lay off teachers. Her hands, like those of her counterparts across America, were tied by last-hired-first-fired rules. Now D.C., along with New York, Colorado and other states, are revamping those rules.

Having already raised the bar on students, localities and states have begun to do the same on teachers. Supporters of school reform have long complained that tenure-based hiring and firing decisions hamstring superintendents from getting rid of unfit and ineffective teachers.

Arizona abolished its teacher-seniority rules last year.

The new general rule of thumb is to keep the best teachers, regardless of seniority or tenure.

Part of the impetus for this change is the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which promises billions in federal funds to school systems that institute a wide range of reforms, including improved classroom instruction and tougher teacher evaluations.

While some states have said they aren’t interested in the federal program, elected officials with large urban districts that historically have not fared well on standardized tests are considering using those test scores to evaluate the very teachers who prepare students to take them.

In Connecticut, state lawmakers passed legislation to measure teacher performance by tracking student achievement and tying it to teacher evaluations. In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. has indicated he will sign a bipartisan bill that requires 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation be based on student performance.

In New York, state education officials and teachers unions have agreed to a plan that would rate teachers on state and local exams — which unions have long opposed. The plan calls for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance on state tests and another 20 percent to be based on student achievement on local exams.

The proposal, which awaits approval by the state legislature, is supported by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

New York City schools are among 18 urban districts that participate in National Assessment of Education Progress’ Trial Urban District Assessment. NAEP’s voluntary program began with six districts in 2002, and 12 others have since opted in. On May 20, participating districts announced their standings: Fourth-graders in Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., Los Angeles and New York all made strides in math and reading.

D.C. Public Schools is a long-troubled system, and in recent weeks, Ms. Rhee has announced student gains on math, science and reading standardized tests.

She also is trying to turn around the culture of the system itself.

Last fall, she implemented a non-seniority evaluation system and laid off hundreds of school workers, including more than 260 teachers. This year, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be judged according to students’ performance on fourth- through eighth-grade math and reading standardized tests.

Unlike their New York counterparts, the Washington Teachers Union doesn’t like strings tied to student performance and has refused to sign on to the D.C. application. Its opposition could hinder the city’s push to get a share of the Race to the Top funds.

In the first round of funding, Tennessee and Delaware and were the only states among 16 to make the cut. The District placed dead last.

Tennessee won a half-billion dollars by getting 93 percent of its unionized teacher force to agree to tougher teacher evaluations tied to student improvement; Delaware won about $100 million by citing the fact that all Delaware teachers unions supported the state evaluation plan.

States are racing to meet the June 1 application deadline for the $3 billion still up for grabs in the federal contest.

But the D.C. teachers union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has yet to sign a new contract for members, who have not had a raise since 2007, when its last contract expired. The new contract, which includes a much-discussed merit-pay plan, is part of Ms. Rhee’s reform efforts to raise the bar on teachers and students.

D.C. schools used to be situated at the bottom of the academic ladder. But the seeds of reform are evident in rising test scores, Ms. Rhee said last week.

“While we still have a long way to go,” she said. “We are encouraged by the strides we’ve made with focusing on instruction.”

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