Classroom Accountability

It’s hard to know what future historians will say of New York City in the first half of the 21st century. But surely they will notice, and chronicle, the return of accountability in the city’s public schools. It has been less than a decade since the old Board of Education, a symbol of bureaucratic inertia and incompetence, was dismantled. Now under mayoral control, city schools are directly accountable to City Hall and, indirectly, to voters and parents. The results have been promising.

Accountability, though, is hardly a New York phenomenon. Urban school districts and administrators are getting the message-test scores matter, and teacher competence matters. Last week, the schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee, fired 241 teachers-out of 4,300 in the system-either because their students performed poorly on standardized test scores or because they lacked proper credentials. It’s hard to know which is more disturbing.

The teachers’ union, predictably, vowed to fight the firings, arguing that the performance-review system was flawed. If this sounds familiar, it should: Teachers’ unions nearly everywhere, especially in New York, have resisted the notion that classroom performance matters. They have fought against merit pay for outstanding teachers, and they generally stand by teachers whose performance borders on the criminal.

Ms. Rhee is a controversial figure in D.C. because she has promised to shake up a very troubled system. She noted that when she became chancellor in 2007, some 95 percent of the district’s teachers were rated “excellent.” Talk about grade inflation. Ms. Rhee has put standards in place and insists on holding teachers accountable for their students’ performance.

New York, under Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, has taken important steps toward greater accountability. The mayor has closed poor-performing schools (when the courts have allowed him), and Chancellor Klein has been in the forefront of tracking teacher performance.

New York has not had to engage in mass firings of incompetent teachers, at least not yet. But the revolution that Ms. Rhee has touched off in Washington surely will have implications for bad teachers everywhere, including New York City.

We simply can’t afford to have well-meaning but incompetent people in our classrooms. City Hall understands that. And clearly so does Michelle Rhee.