Districts getting tough

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It's one thing for President Obama to suggest it might be okay to fire a teacher. It's another thing to actually find superintendents willing to do so.

After reviewing a report on the district's teacher evaluations for the year, Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was clearly appalled. Only 13 teachers out of a workforce of 10,700 were rated unsatisfactory. And, of those 13, only five were removed from their jobs.

Ackerman then delivered a directive to her principals to raise standards for teacher observations. A group of about 30 principals have already received notice that they will be transferred to a new position or out of work entirely in September for not taking the job seriously enough. She then pledged that more teachers will receive unsatisfactory ratings during the 2009-2010 school year.

Ackerman did say she "expects some unrest" from both the teachers' and administrators' unions in response to her proposals and she's right. There's no bond like a common enemy: both the teachers' union and the principals' association are banding together against Ackerman, expressing their displeasure at the initiative to fire struggling teachers and principals, instead of offering them more support and remediation. Since support and remediation are generally not provided to teachers who are rated satisfactory, we're not sure of the logic here, but that is the argument they are putting forward.

Also facing the wrath of the local union is Chancellor Michelle Rhee, but that's something she is pretty used to by now. She has already passed out pink slips to 250 teachers in Washington, D.C., for poor performance or lack of a proper license. About a third of them were the tenured teachers she put on the "90-day plan," a seldom-used provision in the teacher contract which effectively gives Rhee power to fire a teacher who is found not to improve after that remediation period.

Not unexpectedly, the Washington Teachers' Union is appealing the terminations, arguing that the support wasn't adequate. The union even intends to appeal some terminations of novice teachers also included in this round of firings.

While the measures taken by Ackerman and Rhee signal that momentum for actually dismissing ineffective teachers may be building, it remains to be seen whether teachers remain fired -- after the inevitable appeals, court decisions, lawsuits, union pressure, and so forth.