Dallas ISD is Firing More "Bad" Teachers Than It Has In Years, and the Axe is Still Swinging

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With a lingering budget crisis and shrinking enrollment, the Dallas Independent School District has eliminated hundreds of teaching jobs in recent years, and this year will be no different. But in a sharp departure from years past, the district is preparing to part ways with hundreds more teachers for reasons that officials say have nothing to do with the budget.

It's simpler than that, the officials say: The teachers just aren't good enough.

Texas public-school teachers work on one-year contracts. Unless they commit an obviously fireable offense, eliminating them for poor performance means declining to renew their contracts -- an arduous process featuring lots of bureaucracy and billable hours. Two years ago, the board approved just 26 of these "performance-based non-renewals," according to figures provided by the district. Last year trustees approved 52.

This year? It's been a relative bloodbath.

Looking toward the fall, the board has voted not to renew 259 teacher contracts based on poor performance -- five times as many as last year. And that number is expected to grow, as each board meeting brings more votes on removing poor-performing teachers.

"This is a combination of two factors: The board's emphasis on teacher performance and principals hearing the message," DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander told me last week via email.

Changes to board policy have given principals more say over which teachers stay and which go. And the trustees appear more united than previous boards in supporting administrators' decisions.

The board is "giving the principals the power to select who's on their campuses, and sending that message to the system that we're having the best teachers in the classroom," Trustee Edwin Flores said Monday. "Our great teachers? They support this. They want to work with other great teachers. And who benefits at the end of the day are the kids."

That officials speak so freely about firing teachers is a testament to the momentum of the education-reform movement. The rise of charter schools and Teach for America, the existence in our cultural vernacular of Waiting for Superman and The Rubber Room, the space on our power lists for the likes of Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada: It all signals a public that's hungry for a more aggressive approach to hiring, evaluating, retaining and, yes, firing teachers, among many other reforms.

Not everyone shares that appetite for aggression, though. Rena Honea, president of Dallas' American Federation of Teachers Alliance chapter, said Monday that the sudden uptick in unrenewed contracts hasn't gone unnoticed by teachers. "People have blindsided by it," she said, and the culture change is threatening to drive good teachers out of the district.

Honea also argued that the non-renewals are not strictly performance-based: The fired teachers can be replaced by younger, cheaper ones, including troops from Dallas' growing Teach for America corps. "Their motive is to take care of the budget shortfall," she said of the administration and board.

She also said that some DISD principals are simply incapable of evaluating teachers.

"Our understanding is that there are quite of few principals that are going to be released," she said. "Who's to say the principals are doing an adequate job" assessing teacher quality?

And if the district is wrong about who it fires, Honea said, those mistakes will cost it. "These people are fighting for their jobs," she said, referring to the appeals process, during which the union provides dues-paying teachers a vigorous defense. "They feel like they've been wrongfully let go. And they're going to fight with everything they've got."

It's those fights, along with the union's sway come election season, that make removing teachers so precarious for school officials everywhere, including in right-to-work states like Texas. But the district appears to be lacing up its gloves. These aren't budget cuts, officials assured me; those will be handled separately, and those teachers will be invited to an upcoming job fair. These teachers won't. Besides, the officials argued, last year's budget woes were even worse, and the board made few performance-based cuts then.

"I think you're seeing something new in DISD this year, and it is not just a reaction to the budget," Trustee Mike Morath wrote in an email to Unfair Park. "Beyond these non-renewals, about a quarter of the senior leadership team has been removed. I think people are starting to recognize throughout the organization that we only have one chance with our kids, and it's our moral duty to make sure we only employ the most talented, loving adults to guide them through the learning process."

As for Honea's suggestion that firing the teachers will wreak havoc on the district's legal-fees budget, Flores and Morath both said the system is built to withstand the appeals process.

"The central office looks over every single one of these performance-based non-renewals," Flores said. "I won't tell you it's perfect; no system of evaluation is perfect. We are using the imperfect system we have now to its greatest capacity. ... There are all sorts of checks and balances in the system, including the very cumbersome appeals process."

Besides, he said, this still isn't that much turnover. Most quality, performance-driven organizations "eliminate between 5 and 10 percent of their work force" in any given year, Flores said. "This year we got to 2 (percent). It's a good start."

And so far, that's all it is: a start.

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