A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 20 2009

Heads Will Roll

(The theme song for this post is here. Listen to it.)

At the moment, the DC Public Schools are in trouble.  After a hiring spree that on-boarded over 900 teachers this summer (bringing the number of teachers to about 4,000), DCPS has discovered that it needs to cut up to $40 million out of its budget before the fiscal year begins in October.  A 5.3% budget cut doesn’t sound like much, but when schools are already under-resourced, that type of cut is going to have large repercussions.  Translated: teachers are on the chopping block; I’m liable to get cut; my friends could be axed; pink is in vogue again; heads will roll.

Let’s do a little calculation.  There are approximately 125 schools in the District.  Let’s assume that the central office will bear $2.5 million of the cut.  If that is the case, each school will need to cut, on average, $300K from its operating budget.  Based on a quick look at some school budgets (available here), it appears as though the average full-time staffing salary is about $80K.  On average, then, each school will need to cut 3.75 full-time staff positions.  Of course, this does not take into consideration that schools that are over-enrolled will make fewer cuts, or that under-enrolled schools will have to bear more of the burden.  What is clear, though, is that the impact will be substantial.

I don’t know what to think about what is going on.  Before the announcement was even made, my status was still uncertain.  I had been told that I would be co-teaching at my school until a position opened up somewhere else.  TFA expected that to happen within a few weeks.  Now, with everything in disarray, it is unclear what is going on.  Am I still to expect to move, or will I remain where I am?  Will I be fired instead?  Will I replace a veteran teacher?

I don’t mean to sound crude, but I could understand why a more experienced teacher might get cut.  After all, if the average salary is $80K, and there are a number of teachers out there making half of that (e.g. me), there are clearly some relatively expensive teachers out there.  And given Michelle Rhee’s philosophy on teachers, it is apparent that she thinks that there are teachers in the system that are not performing up to expectation.  The idea is that these teachers are resistant to change–unwilling to consider the new IMPACT evaluation system, which, by the way, is strikingly similar to TFA’s Teaching and Learning framework–and will hide behind the protection of the WTU contract.

Many suspect that Rhee and Co. intentionally over-hired this summer so that she could begin the Reduction in Force (RIF) that essentially gives principals to cut whomever they want, regardless of tenure.  Some critics suspect that this is RIF is Rhee’s ruse.  One observer that is furious about the announcement “wouldn’t bet that the shiny new hires will be first out the door” (in fact, he is skeptical of TFA and “super-caffeinated twenty-two-year-old Yalies”–people like me, in other words).

I can understand his concerns.  One point he makes is that cutting experienced teachers will destroy the institutional knowledge of the DCPS.  After one week in the trenches of my school, I’ve discovered just how true this statement is.  Almost everything runs on institutional memory.  There are no school manuals or guides that enlighten you on school operations.  There is no web tutorial that teaches you how attendance is done, or how you deal with truancy, or how to acquire a bathroom key (this one has been impossible for me.  A fellow English teacher offered to replicate his key so that I don’t have to interrupt his class every time I need to use the bathroom).  You have to know the right people–those that have been in the system for years and can tell you about the nuances of the school.

Yet, I can understand why Michelle Rhee would do what she is doing (or, at least, what she appears to be doing).  The evidence is there that there are teachers in the system that just aren’t doing their jobs.  If tenure and union contracts are big impediments to clearing space for a “new” cohort of teachers, then so be it…

There are many things I wonder now:

  • First of all, I wonder how I am perceived by my school’s teaching community.  The TFA to non-TFA relationship is tense to begin with.  But now that heads are on the chopping block, I cannot help but feel that some of the more experienced teachers don’t like my presence (although this was not in any way evident from the numerous interactions I’ve had with veteran teachers, whom I’ve noticed still exude a passion for teaching–maybe there are no “bad” teachers at my school).
  • Second, I wonder when things will go down.  The final enrollment count is done on October 1st, but apparently the new fiscal year starts then too, so cuts are expected by the end of September.
  • Third, I wonder what will happen if I do get cut.  TFA’s Executive Director has already sent us a massive email talking about contingency plans and how the staff are preparing for doomsday.  The office seems to expect some degree of ugliness in the coming weeks.

For now, there is little  I can do but wait.  No–more precisely, I can show my full commitment to the students at my current school (even if it does end up being a temporary placement).  I can go to school each day, teach whatever I can teach in my co-teacher’s classroom, and help out with other school needs.   For example, at professional development on Friday, our Assistant Principal announced that the long-time coordinator of the school’s robotics team had left and that no teacher had taken his place.  She emphasized that the robotics team was a popular student extracurricular.  I’ve already emailed her to express my willingness to lead the team (of course, I told her I have no experience with robotics competitions).  But, if I’m filling a void and meeting student needs, then I’m carrying out my responsibilities.

I’m doing whatever I can–not much, but more than nothing–in a time of extreme uncertainty.  I am ready to be excessed, but will be heart-broken if that fate befalls me.
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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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