D.C. Schools Chief Michelle Rhee Fights Union Over Teacher Pay

The chancellor's efforts to enact a merit pay system could ripple across the nation.

By + More

In her quest to revive Washington's public school system, Chancellor Michelle Rhee is pushing innovative but con­tentious ideas, one of which has garnered her national at­tention: whether teacher pay can be tied directly to stu­dent performance.

"So far, nobody has really been able to do it on a large scale," says Jay Greene, senior fellow at the Man­hattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation. "She is a pathbreaker in pushing it as far as she has."

The repercussions of Rhee's succeeding, even in an incremental fashion, are far-reaching. If she is able to pay District of Columbia teachers based on the aca­demic achievements of their students, she could revolutionize the way public school systems are run across the country.

The idea is simple. Teachers are evaluated based on a combination of their students' test scores, aca­demic gains, and classroom observations from third-party evaluators. The system rewards successful teachers with a higher salary while flushing out in­effective ones and weakening tenure.

Rhee's original proposal for Washington's schools would have allowed educators to choose between two pay models. In exchange for giving up tenure and sur­viving a one-year trial period, teachers could make up to $130,000 in merit pay based on their effec­tiveness. Alternately, they could keep tenure and ac­cept a smaller raise. All new teachers would be placed on the tenure-free track.

The Washington Teachers' Union has scoffed at the idea, and a year later, Rhee and the union are still grappling over a middle ground. From the union's perspective, there is no fair way to evaluate teach­ers based on student performance, and it would never place tenure in jeopardy.

Tenure—an old-school job security benefit based on years of service and meeting certain require­ments—is a thorny issue. Rhee cannot hire gifted teachers without firing others, but she cannot fire teachers because tenure protects them. "She wants to get rid of tenure in ex­change for more generous compensation, which I think is exactly the right strategy," says Greene. "We don't want a lot of mediocre teachers who are all paid a mediocre salary. We want to have some really excellent teach­ers [whom] we reward with excellent pay." But Rhee needs cooperation from the union, and Greene, for one, doesn't ex­pect her to get it. "They need her not to succeed," he says. "I think even the national union will pour in money . . . to pre­vent tenure from ending in D.C."

Gains in achievement. Rhee may not get the sweeping reform she prefers, but the idea has influential supporters, includ­ing the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who announced this summer a $297 million Teacher Incentive Fund to reward teachers and principals nationwide for increases in student achievement.

Rhee, however, is quick to point out that linking teacher pay to student performance is not the cornerstone of her reform agenda. That title goes to finding a way to accurate­ly evaluate teachers' performance. "You have to be able to evaluate teachers based on their effectiveness in obtaining gains in student achievement and then make the determi­nation about whether they should continue to be employed by the district based on whether or not they are producing results for kids," she explains.

When Rhee took control of the school system in 2007, D.C. was widely regarded as the lowest-performing and most dys­functional school district in the nation despite receiving the most funding per pupil. At that time, only 8 percent of eighth graders were at grade level in mathematics. And district data showed that only 9 percent of ninth graders could be expected to finish high school and then graduate from a four-year col­lege in five years or less. "We were the only school district at the time that was on a high-risk status with the U.S. De­partment of Education," says Rhee. "School reform is hard anywhere, but this was not a situation in which we could afford to have a 10-year plan for incremental change."