In late September, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee presented the Washington Teachers' Union with a contract that, if put into practice, would be the most radical overhaul of teachers' work rules attempted since the rise of the teachers' union movement in the 1960s. The contract created two employment ladders for teachers. The "green" track would require teachers to give up tenure in exchange for the possibility of large merit-pay bonuses financed by philanthropies. Under the "green" plan, teacher salaries could reach $130,000. Alternatively, teachers could choose to retain their tenure privileges and stick to a traditional, seniority-based salary ladder with a lower ceiling. That would have been the "red" track. The symbolism was clear. Tenure was "stop;" the slow, reactionary, path. Merit pay was the "go" option.
Ever since American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten appeared at the National Press Club in November to announce that she was ready to negotiate with union-skeptic education reformers, and that "no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers," the eyes of edu-wonks nationwide have been trained on D.C., curious to see whether the union will make major concessions. Today the Washington Teachers' Union, the AFT's local affiliate, finally released their counter-proposal. But by the look of the public one-page summary document, it will remain difficult to reach common ground. The WTU's focus is on improving professional training and evaluation processes for teachers, and on making the school environment safer. In an interview last week, WTU president George Parker said D.C. teachers need training on "differentiated instruction," a method of tailoring the same lesson to the varying aptitude levels of students in one classroom. Parker also said D.C. needs to pull special education students and students with severe behavioral problems out of regular classrooms. But Rhee has frequently advocated for mainstreaming, and often publicly rails against special education lawyers and their attempts to procure privileges for their clients.
Significantly, there is no mention in the WTU document of the most controversial aspect of Rhee's contract: the merit pay provisions. But in an interview with me two weeks ago, for an article that will appear in the Prospect's April print issue, Weingarten signaled that the union could accept some differentiated pay, but ideally only under a system that assessed the improvement of entire schools, instead of attempting to correlate individual students' achievement to the performance of their particular teachers.
Rhee has appointed a working group of veteran teachers to create a new evaluation system, in an effort to reassure teachers that more than standardized test scores will be used to assess their performance under her plan. "The vast majority of teachers don't teach tested grades or tested subject areas," Rhee told me. "So clearly we have to put together an evaluation process that takes into account some measure of student achievement. But there are multiple ways to measure the academic progress of kids. We obviously want to look very carefully at the observation of classroom practice, and to do that in a much more robust and meaningful way."
For Parker and Weingarten however, evaluation can only come after a serious look at D.C.'s instructional priorities — what is taught and how. As long as Rhee believes staffing issues — including the firing of ineffective teachers — should precede an examination of D.C.'s classroom policies in areas such as curriculum and behaivor, negotiations may be tense.
cross-posted at TAPPED