Breaking the Teacher Unions' Monopoly

As a result of a revolutionary new contract, teachers in Washington DC who are rated incompetent can be fired immediately—a practice common in industry but unheard of in American public schools.

While the contract, closely watched by reform advocates and school officials across the country, has gotten considerable media attention as it was ratified this week, the extent of the reforms detailed in its 120 pages have clearly been underestimated. Tenure and seniority have been largely obliterated, and student test scores will have a bigger impact on a teacher's evaluation than in any other school district in the country. Meanwhile, the contract allows for highly effective teachers working in the city's toughest schools in the hardest-to-staff jobs to earn pay and bonuses that will top $140,000 a year. The result could be a district undergoing the biggest shakeup ever.

The hope, says DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhee, is that the incentives offered by the new contract will help her retain and recruit the best teachers available to some of the toughest schools in the city, even as most districts around the country are laying off teachers based strictly on seniority. At the same time, the contract will provide the district with much freer rein to clear out teachers who are judged to be ineffective based on student test data and the multiple observations of their principals and outside evaluators.

It's now clear that DC was able to press the union so hard for change because the district was given free rein by Congress in the mid 90s to create a comprehensive teacher evaluation system of their own design—something unheard of in most states, and something Rhee has taken full advantage of. Union leaders acknowledged that their negotiations faced unique challenges, but stressed that the final deal gave their members a big pay increase and more teacher training and resources aimed at helping them improve. The five-year 21.6 percent pay raise (which boosts average teacher pay from $67,000 to about $81,000, the level of area suburban teachers at a time when other districts are cutting pay and staff.

"DC pulled off what other school districts only dream about," said Kate Walsh of the for Teacher Quality. "But what it did wasn't magic nor was it something that could only occur in the District. More than anything, it was the result of unbeatable grit and determination on the part of all the players."

Among the most radical provisions:

  • Much bigger bonuses for highly effective teachers than have ever been seen before. "Some districts are offering $3000 or $4000 here or there, but that is just not enough to really impact the kind of people a school district needs to recruit and retain," says Rhee.
  • Bonuses are tied to performance more tightly than ever before. While many urban districts offer bonuses to teachers who take hard to fill jobs like math and science instructors, or give a pay boost to those teaching in the highest poverty schools, DC will match that, but only for teachers who first show measurable effectiveness as the district defines it. "We're not paying extra for bad math teachers willing to teach in tough schools," Rhee said. "When I came here, we had 8 percent of 8th graders at grade level in mathematics, but 95 percent of the teachers were getting an excellent rating. A teacher may be a nice person who is trying hard, but we can't have an effective system if everyone thinks they are doing a good job while the students are failing."
  • Those judged "minimally effective" will face a pay freeze and be given a year to improve their rating. If they don't, they will be fired at the end of the year.
  • While they will be entitled to due process, teachers cannot appeal the rating they received if all evaluation procedures are followed correctly.
  • Even the word "tenure" has been redefined in the contract to stress its connection to due process protection against unfair dismissal and not as a guarantee of a lifetime job.
  • Seniority as protection against job loss is essentially gone. If budget cuts require a smaller staff, principals can keep their most effective teachers rather than be forced to keep their most senior regardless of how ineffective they are.
  • Under a new "mutual consent'' provision" , teachers displaced by shrinking enrollments or program changes can't bump other teachers based on seniority. Instead, those who are not hired by another principal and have an ineffective or minimally effective rating, can be fired.
  • If the district decides to overhaul a failing school, they can make every teacher reapply for their job and fire low-performers who the new principal does not want to hire.