How DC Schools Are Revolutionizing Teaching

When most people think of school reform in the Dis­trict of Columbia, they probably remember the Time maga­zine cover photo of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee with a broom in her hand and a hard look on her face. In leading the school system from 2007 to 2010, she was the polar­izing public image of a controversial national strategy to improve public education by cracking down on bad teach­ers.

But in the seven years since Rhee left Washington-and with the national press having turned its attention elsewhere-Rhee’s successors have quietly but persistent­ly continued to pursue change.

With support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Joyce Foundation, FutureEd Director Thomas Toch has examined the transformation of the teaching profession in Washington, D.C., over the past decade. He turned his research into a compelling story in the Washington Monthly magazine that confounds the traditional battle lines in public education and points to the D.C. reforms as a model for the nation.

Toch found that teaching in D.C., and in public education generally, had long been a low-status oc­cupation marked by weak standards and factory-like work rules. Building on Rhee’s early work, and learning from her mistakes, her successors have effectively transformed it into a performance-based profession that provides rec­ognition, responsibility, collegiality, support, and signifi­cant compensation-features that policy experts, includ­ing many of Rhee’s harshest critics, have long sought but never fully achieved.

Ironically, Rhee’s successors at DCPS have rede­signed teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and perfor­mance-based promotions and compensation. They com­bined these with other changes, like more collaboration among teachers, that these same critics had backed, creating an important blueprint for the future of the teaching profession.

Just as notably, the transformation is taking place not at charter schools but in the traditional public school system, an institution that many reformers have written off as too hidebound to innovate.

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For an Infographic depicting some of the key innovations in DC Public Schools, see: