D.C. Plans to Lay Off 300 Underperforming Teachers

NEWSWEEK did a cover story a few months ago asking why we can't fire bad teachers. Today Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee proved that you can, announcing plans to fire 300 of the district's 4,000 teachers based on poor performance or licensing issues.

Another 729 teachers will be notified that they have been identified as "minimally effective," according to a new evaluation system Rhee put into effect, meaning that they will not get their scheduled step raise and will have only one year to take advantage of professional-development resources to pull up their performance score or face firing next year. If most of those teachers fail to significantly bump up their performance, the D.C. system could see as many as a quarter of its teachers fired within two years, a prospect Rhee described as "daunting."

In 2006, the year before Rhee arrived to take over what was arguably the worst school district in the country, no teachers were fired for poor performance and more than 95 percent got glowing ratings. Since then, she has worked to completely overhaul the teacher evaluation system, motivated by mounting research that indicates that teacher effectiveness is the single most important indicator for improving student achievement.

The new evaluation system, implemented last spring, was designed by Rhee's staff with input from 500 district teachers, and could become a national model. It grades teacher performance based on a combination of three observations done by their principal, two observations done by outside master teachers, and standardized test scores designed to measure the academic growth of individual students over the school year. Such "value added" test scores—worth 50 percent of a D.C. teacher's rating—do not penalize teachers whose students were behind when they came into their classrooms and rewards those whose effectiveness results in more than a year's improvement in two semesters.

Similar models are now being developed around the country, partly because of incentives offered by the federal government through the Department of Education's Race to the Top competition.