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Weed ‘Em and Rheep

DC schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee took to the pages of the Washington Post on Monday to sell her proposal for a new teacher contract to the public—and maybe to a few teachers too. Her primary message: Teachers are the solution, not the problem. They’re not to blame for the low achievement levels in DC schools. Heck, she was a teacher herself. So she knows the challenges and rewards of teaching.

Of course, there’s the pesky case of ineffective teaching, Chancellor Rhee’s version of the Ronald Reagan “welfare queen” rhetorical ploy. “I do not believe that most of our teachers are shortchanging their students,” she writes. “But in the worst cases, we have teachers who put their feet on their desks and read the paper while students run around. Or they use corporal punishment. Or they intentionally abuse their current contract, leaving for three months at a time and returning for the one day that will keep their job active.” Powerful words, but I’m left to wonder how many teachers we’re talking about, and why the current contractual provisions can’t address such problem cases. (Since we’re only talking about the “worst cases,” after all.) Does the Chancellor mean to suggest that the District has no mechanism to remove a teacher who is using corporal punishment in the classroom?

And it would be rude, I suppose, for me to wonder how Ms. Rhee’s comments jibe with the DCPS draft five-year action plan she made public in October, which states: “But we also must face an uncomfortable reality: too many of our teachers are not up to the demanding job of educating our youth effectively. We therefore plan to identify and transition out a significant share of the teaching corps in the next two years.” Is a “significant share” more or less than the “worst cases”? Maybe it depends on the audience.

There’s a bigger issue here, however, and that is the Chancellor’s slippery conflation of teachers and teaching. Maybe it’s inevitable that an op-ed piece about a teacher contract would emphasize good teachers over good teaching. But I think that Chancellor Rhee would be more accurate in claiming that good teaching is the solution, rather than good teachers. Teaching practices facilitate student learning, and the key policy goal should be assisting teachers in developing a repertoire of effective teaching practices. Teacher professional development comes off as a poor stepchild in Rhee’s strategic plan, especially in relation to a robust strategy to replace ineffective senior teachers with new young recruits. More talk about good teaching, less talk about good teachers: that’s what I want to hear.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.