What should we do with kids after testing’s over?

Hello, readers! I apologize for the long gap between my posts. In addition to just generally trying to figure out some things in my life prior to moving out of DC and starting law school, I took a trip to Brazil, a country that provides an equally compelling case for education reform.

I’m starting my next string of posts with some thoughts about testing. April is the month of standardized tests for many districts across the country, and my roommates and many other friends teaching in DC recently administered the DC-CAS to their students.

I’m not opposed to testing – or at least, I’m not opposed to the idea of assessing what students have learned over the course of a year. I think that we test both too much and too little; I just learned that the DC CAS covers only math and reading, even at the high school level – surely, we should be looking for student levels of learning in more than just those two subjects given that they take many other classes! At the same time, I deplore the amount of time spent on practice and real testing over the course of the school year and the teaching to the test that inevitable occurs when there’s pressure to perform.

Shaun Johnson’s piece in the Huffington Post brings up a point less often discussed: what happens in classrooms once testing ends?

This is the last week of April. DC-CAS testing ended two weeks ago, and school doesn’t wrap up until mid-June. That means that students have about eight weeks of learning left – not an insignificant amount! – but that their teachers no longer have to worry about a test to prove that they taught something. The situation improves only slightly in Maryland, where I taught and where the state tests are given in May.

Actually, before I get to what happens after testing, let me take a moment and talk about what happens during testing at the high school level. In Maryland, only 10th graders take the High School Assessments (HSAs). There are four tests: English, Algebra, Biology, and Local/State/National Government. Schools dedicate one week to testing and give one subject on each day. Most teachers receive assignments as administrators or proctors; the rest essentially get to be babysitters for the children in other grades who bother coming to school.  (At my school, even the assistant principals encouraged the non-tested students to stay home. The alternative was for them to come to school and spend almost the whole day in the gym, auditorium, or cafeteria with the others in their grade and watch movies.) If you think about it, this means that high school students in Maryland (and probably most districts) will lose three weeks of instructional time over the course of their high school experience just because their teachers were busy testing others. That’s pretty ridiculous.

Now, to get back to the post-testing learning, or lack thereof: Shaun Johnson points out in his piece that the ideal would be for teachers to think “okay, I taught everything I needed to teach before testing; now I should use this opportunity to get my students ahead by starting them on material they’ll see next year.” I think the likelihood of that happening is very, very small. At this point in the year, even the best teachers get lazy – I remember thinking “I just have to make it through HSAs!” Not that I intended to just stop teaching, but there’s no question that in life things just seem easier when you’re in the home stretch. At least in Maryland the home stretch starts about a month away from the end of school; I’m not sure how I would have reacted to testing two months away.

I kept teaching because, aside from the fact that it’s just wrong to stop teaching after testing, Teach For America expected me to give a final exam that proved my students had mastered what I had taught (and that I’d taught more than the minimum number of objectives). I don’t have as much of a grasp on what other teachers in our building were doing with the post-testing time, but I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that some of them definitely taught less than they had before. It’s hard to show movies for an entire month, but it’s also hard to keep going at the same relentless pace (hopefully) as before when you know that you’re not going to be held accountable for it.

Wouldn’t it be great if the time after testing could just be used to do cool, creative things that have nothing to do with the curriculum? I don’t like testing because I think it’s creating a generation of kids who lack critical thinking skills and other skills that don’t necessarily come with memorizing facts for a test. It would be awesome to organize projects that students could do during the last month of school. They could be community service projects, mini internships, or a series of field trips designed to give students some hands-on and/or in-depth experience with a particular topic. I’ve written before about allowing students to choose more of what they learn in high school; this would be an ideal time to let students choose an option that really interested them. For example, as a Spanish teacher, I might offer a one-month seminar in which my students learn medical vocabulary and use that to help in area health clinics, or I might seek approval to teach a film seminar – my sub-specialty within my Hispanic Studies major was film, and that would be a great way to expose students to other culture while also promoting critical thinking, discussion, and writing skills. The possibilities are endless for ways that teachers could use their own interests/skills to make learning more fun and applicable to what students want to learn and need to learn how to do.

Posted in Student Engagement, Testing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

D.C. Council Election: Sekou Biddle

It’s time for me to talk about someone new on my blog.  Sekou Biddle is running for D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown’s former at-large seat on the Council.  He won the seat in the special election in January and will have it until (and hopefully after) the general election on April 26.

Sekou Biddle is THE education reform candidate in this race. He has the potential to make a tremendous impact on the council’s work on education because he has spent his entire career in education – most of it in D.C. Biddle grew up in D.C., graduated from Wilson Senior High School in Tenleytown, studied business at Morehouse, and taught in Atlanta (as a Teach For America corps member), New York, and D.C. Since leaving the classroom, he has worked for Teach For America, KIPP DC, and Jumpstart for Young Children, and prior to serving on the Council, he held the ward 4 seat on the State Board of Education. (He got that position shortly before Michelle Rhee became Chancellor.)

It is not often that the public, in D.C. or elsewhere, has the opportunity to elect someone with such great experience in education to public office. Last year I watched every D.C. Council hearing that involved Michelle Rhee and was always infuriated by the hubris and lack of respect demonstrated by many of the Council members – people who have no experience in schools have no right to lecture the Chancellor or any other school leaders on decisions related to instruction or teacher quality. That being said, I don’t dispute the Council’s right to ask questions when controversial issues come up; I just want reassurance that at least someone in that position of leadership has the perspective necessary to ask the RIGHT questions. Sekou Biddle has that.

In the wake of the recent scandals in the newly elected D.C. government, Sekou Biddle has come under fire for having received the support of Kwame Brown (criticized for using city funds to buy two SUVs) and Mayor Vincent Gray (accused of paying off another mayoral candidate to criticize former Mayor Adrian Fenty during the election season, among other things). Let me tell you: Sekou Biddle is no corrupt politician. I’ve met him numerous times in recent months and over the course of my four years in D.C.; each time, he has impressed me with his passion for education and his down-to-earth personality.  He’s not egotistical like Marion Barry or Vince Gray; he’s not unapproachable like Adrian Fenty – he’s just a genuinely good guy, the kind of person you would want to hang out with… not unlike Barack Obama.

If you’re a D.C. voter, make sure you get out to the polls on April 26. If you care about education, cast your vote for Sekou Biddle. His main competition, Joshua Lopez, doesn’t even have an Issues page on his website; you can read what Biddle thinks about education here.

Posted in Educational Leadership | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

further analysis of the USA Today allegations of cheating in DCPS

Today I obtained a list of the DCPS schools that were flagged for erasures in 2008, 2009, and 2010. You can view them here. I love to play with numbers, so let’s take a look at how these schools break down into wards.

There are eight wards in the District of Columbia. Wards 2 and 3 are the most affluent and thus least likely to have struggling schools. Wards 7 and 8 are the least affluent and most likely to have struggling schools (though there is no shortage of poverty and bad schools in wards 1, 4, and 5 either). Ward 6 is kind of a hybrid that has some poverty and some affluence.

 In 2008, the wards accounted for the following percentages of flagged schools:

Ward 1: 11%

Ward 2: 6%

Ward 3: 4%

Ward 4: 19%

Ward 5: 11%

Ward 6: 11%

Ward 7: 18%

Ward 8: 20%

While Wards 2 and 3 have the least and Wards 4, 7, and 8 have the most, this is actually a pretty good spread across the city. There were a total of 85 schools flagged in 2008 (quite a high number considering that there are fewer than 130 schools in DCPS, though at that time there were more).

Let’s look at the numbers for 2008 again, this time only paying attention to schools where 50% or more of the classrooms were flagged (19 schools total):

Ward 1: 11%

Ward 2: 0%

Ward 3: 4%

Ward 4: 26%

Ward 5: 16%

Ward 6: 11%

Ward 7: 16%

Ward 8: 16%

Those results are pretty similar.  

It’s important to note (and USA Today failed to do so) that the number of flagged schools dropped significantly from 2008 to 2009 – the number fell from 85 to 43. Here’s the geographic distribution of those 43 schools (with any flagged classrooms):

Ward 1: 12%

Ward 2: 0%

Ward 3: 2%

Ward 4: 19%

Ward 5: 7%

Ward 6: 9%

Ward 7: 28%

Ward 8: 23%

Again, Wards 4, 7, and 8 have the most. The same is true when filtering for schools with 50% or more flagged classrooms in 2009. There were only 9 of those schools, so it makes more sense to show the raw numbers rather than percentages:

Ward 1: 1

Ward 2: 0

Ward 3: 0

Ward 4: 2

Ward 5: 1

Ward 6: 1

Ward 7: 3

Ward 8: 1

In 2010, the total number of flagged schools dropped from 43 to 40 with an overall distribution as follows:

Ward 1: 8%

Ward 2: 0%

Ward 3: 0%

Ward 4: 18%

Ward 5: 10%

Ward 6: 13%

Ward 7: 33%

Ward 8: 18%

Only two schools had 50% or more of their classrooms flagged: one in ward 5 and one in ward 6. So, despite the fact that ward 7 increased its share of flagged schools in the overall count, none of the 13 flagged schools in that area of the city had more than 50% of their classrooms flagged.

It’s hard to draw firm conclusions about what these numbers mean. There are schools that appear consistently on the lists, and those should certainly be investigated. However, the fact that the number of flagged schools decreased so precipitously from 2008 to 2009 is encouraging, even if we don’t know why that happened. I am not particularly impressed with Michelle Rhee’s responses to this situation thus far, so I’m not going to defend her here; I’ll just say that I don’t think there’s a lot to support the claim that the pressure she placed on principals to raise test scores resulted in systematic cheating all over the city; if anything, these numbers indicate that the opposite happened. I wish we could see figures for 2007 (the year before Rhee entered as Chancellor) and that we could also see a timeline of leadership for each flagged school; it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between a change of leadership and the beginning of cheating. The decreasing number of schools also doesn’t support the claim that the pay-for-performance system now in place under IMPACT has resulted in cheating; 2010 was the first year that IMPACT existed, and that had the fewest number of flagged schools out of the three years in the study and the fewest number of schools with over 50% of the classrooms flagged – only two!

I do think, sadly, that the erasures do suggest that cheating happened. But I am encouraged by taking a closer look at the numbers. The smaller number of classrooms involved in 2010 suggests that teachers or other individuals are acting alone in the cheating, and that gives me hope that this is a problem more easily fixed than one in which leadership was actually ordering teachers to cheat.

Posted in DC Public Schools, Testing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheating in DCPS

Quite frankly, my main response while reading USA Today’s lengthy piece on potential standardized test cheating in DC Public Schools was “oh shit”. This just has really horrible implications for all involved, and it’s a pity that things have come to this. (No Child Left Behind is the original culprit behind cheating, but pay-for-performance definitely adds some additional incentive for teachers to cheat.) Don’t read any further until you read the whole piece; it’s long but worth the time.

The main thing missing from the article is an explanation of what testing procedures are in DCPS. As far as I can tell from anecdotal evidence, teachers administer tests for their own students, at least in elementary school – problem #1. The only other thing I know from my time in the central office is that central office employees are randomly assigned to observe testing in schools (which I think is a general practice in most districts and doesn’t necessarily do much to deter cheating unless there’s an official in each classroom for the entire duration of testing).

Here was my experience at a high school in Prince George’s County that hasn’t made AYP for years:

  • Teachers did NOT administer tests to their own students OR for their own subjects. In fact, teachers of tested subjects were kept out of testing rooms entirely on the day(s) that the test for their subject was given.
  • Students were assigned to classrooms alphabetically; teachers were assigned as administrators and proctors randomly.
  • Administrators and proctors had to attend a training session and sign a document certifying their understanding of their responsibilities.
  • Teachers administering or proctoring tests (there were two teachers per classroom, one in each role) were expected to watch the students – we were not allowed to read or do anything else during the testing time.
  • We were able to look at the tests we administered while the students took them.
  • The testing coordinator in the building picked up the testing materials following the administration (and before the students left the room). There was no opportunity for teachers to tamper with tests unless they were somehow able to access them after they had been collected.

That’s all I’m going to say about this for right now – but if, as the article seems to suggest, the central office was in any way hindering or hiding an investigation of potential cheating (and I think with the statistics cited it’s way beyond potential), then I’m very disappointed and surprised.

Posted in DC Public Schools, Testing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on the IMPACT System in DCPS

There’s been a lot of press coverage of the IMPACT evaluation program in D.C. Public Schools recently. I worked in the central office when that program was launched, and though I won’t provide further details about what I was doing, I assure you – I know a lot about IMPACT.

It’s a controversial system from pretty much anyone’s perspective, including mine. On the one hand, I taught in a struggling school that had more than its fair share of mediocre and ineffective teachers, and I do believe that teachers can make a significant difference in the academic and life outcomes of students regardless of other factors, so I strongly support efforts like IMPACT to give teachers thorough evaluations that can result in their removal from the classroom if it’s clear that they don’t have what it takes. On the other hand, as someone who only taught for two years and came straight out of college (without majoring in education), I know just how hard it is to teach in struggling schools (which make up the majority of the DCPS system) and can definitely sympathize with teachers who feel frustrated or intimidated by the evaluation process.

I also got to hear a fair amount of feedback from principals, and the perspective shared in Jay Mathews’ most recent blog post sounds familiar to me. The anonymous principal featured in the piece doesn’t object to IMPACT in terms of its goals but in terms of its implementation and how that affects her ability to run the school. Instead of conducting frequent, brief pop-ins to classrooms that made her more visible to students and better attuned to the daily goings-on of the school, she now has to schedule her time around the three rounds of 30-minute observations she is required to complete for each of her teachers over the course of the year. Principals last year had a hard time adjusting to this requirement, and I can understand this principal’s complaint. I wish that my principal had popped in more frequently; I think he visited my classroom twice during each year that I taught, and since it was clear that I more or less had things under control, he didn’t bother to keep coming back. (I say that without confidence that he then used that time to observe more obviously struggling teachers more frequently.)

It’s truly tough to find a happy medium between the frequency and depth of observations and feedback. The architects of IMPACT (which, it should be noted, included DCPS teachers) opted for a system that included fewer observations but of significant length in order to provide teachers with a more in-depth picture of their instruction, strengths, and areas for growth. Last year’s evaluations lasted exactly 30 minutes; this year they are a minimum of 30 minutes but can be longer depending on the discretion of the principals and Master Educators. Part of the problem is that secondary schools don’t have the same class lengths across the city – some have block scheduling with 90-minute classes; others have regular schedules with 45-minute classes. 30 minutes in a 45-minute class can give you a more complete picture than 30 minutes in a 90-minute class (especially given that the observations begin at the start of the lesson). It would be ideal if evaluators could stay with teachers for an entire class period in order to see the complete lesson, but there simply isn’t the time or manpower to do that – principals struggle to complete their three rounds of observations even with the help of their assistant principals, who can also complete those evaluations.

Five observations of 30 minutes only add up to two and a half hours of formal observations over the course of an entire academic year – a wholly insignificant amount of time in the grand scheme of things. That being said, it’s certainly a step up from the previous system in DCPS and from those used in most school systems (including Prince George’s County, where I taught). The IMPACT rubric covers the gamut of qualities that add up to good instruction, and teachers receive detailed reports after each evaluation that explain their score for each standard and suggest steps for improvement. While the quality of these reports varies (principals tend to make their reports briefer than those of the Master Educators simply because they have to do more of them), they do provide more insight into a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses than an evaluation in a typical school system.

One of the other main complaints about IMPACT is that it disadvantages teachers who are teaching in the worst schools. When the Washington Post reported, to no one’s surprise, that there were more “highly effective” teachers in Northwest Washington than in Southeast, teachers cried out that it’s just easier to do well if you teach in a better school. This is, to a certain extent, true – the many things that go on outside of classrooms that can contribute to students’ behavior and success in school generally make teaching easier in Northwest than in Southeast. Kids who are hungry because they don’t have enough to eat at home are more likely to be cranky and make for more challenging classroom management, to give just one example.

The part of me that had to struggle against all of these challenges definitely understands the complaints of teachers who think that there ought to be some sort of differentiation in the rubric depending on where someone teaches. I sympathize, but ultimately I don’t agree. Regardless of outside circumstances, it is a teacher’s job to educate students – to cover the same material and see maximum mastery of objectives in any grade in any school in any neighborhood in any city. Making excuses doesn’t ultimately benefit the teachers or the students in our most struggling schools. True: it may not be a high school English teacher’s fault that his or her students don’t enter the year on grade level (or anywhere near it), but it is that teacher’s job to think critically and creatively to figure out how to maximize instruction to move students forward as much as possible. In the March 17th article by Stephanie McCrummen, a Southeast elementary school teacher is quoted as saying that “[the lesson] will deviate because there is always some other rock I have to overturn” in order to teach an objective. I get that; I experienced it myself. BUT a truly effective teacher – and I’m saying effective, not even highly effective – will be able to anticipate those “rocks” and construct the lesson so as to preempt them. This isn’t something that inexperienced teachers will immediately know how to do, and it’s clearly not something that experienced teachers can automatically do, either. That is why there is, theoretically, this process of feedback that allows teachers to ask questions and access resources (verbal or written) that will help them to anticipate and overcome the more numerous challenges that come with teaching in struggling schools.

What IMPACT needs is more people to evaluate and give feedback – but again, this is a problem of manpower. Hundreds of people applied to be Master Educators over the last two years; fewer than 50 were hired. Some of that is a function of available money (they bring home hefty salaries), but it’s mostly a problem of quality and quantity – there simply aren’t enough people who are simultaneously a) willing to leave the classroom, b) able to observe and offer feedback, c) write thorough, helpful reports, d) deliver feedback diplomatically and motivationally, and, most importantly, e) have the experience and proven success of teaching underprivileged students necessary to help other educators reach the same levels of success. DCPS recruits aggressively across the United States to find Master Educators, and there just aren’t enough people right now to provide for a system of evaluations that would include more observations and more feedback.

Jason Kamras, the Chief of Human Capital at DCPS who oversees IMPACT, is a good guy and wants to create a system that reflects the input of teachers – that’s why his team held meetings with teachers across the city in order to develop IMPACT in 2009 and refine it in 2010. My advice to any of you who are teaching in DCPS is to get in touch with him or his deputies and share your feedback. Just understand that there are limitations on what, realistically, can be done to make everyone happy. Don’t ask for a different rubric for teachers in wards 7 and 8 – you won’t get it. The more standardized things are, the more likely they are to be fair – even though standardization can cause a lot of problems (see my post about foreign language teachers under IMPACT). Making exceptions creates a slippery slope that will ultimately lead to lower expectations, and that’s not what teachers OR students need.

Posted in DC Public Schools, Teacher Quality | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

by request: more thoughts on Michelle Rhee’s leadership

One of my very engaged Twitter followers asked me to elaborate on why I like Michelle Rhee’s policies and management style. This is also a good time for me to talk about Richard Whitmire’s recently released book about Rhee, called The Bee Eater.

 Let me talk about management style first because I have less to say about that. First, I want to take this opportunity to state that management is a BIG issue in education, at least as far as I have experienced it. Being a rockstar teacher does not mean you can manage adults and utilize the collective skills of your human capital effectively.

It seems I need to split up the discussion of Michelle Rhee’s management into two realms: the central office and the entire school system. I’ll start with the central office.

Before she gained notoriety as a firer of teachers, Michelle Rhee made headlines in D.C. by firing central office employees. I’m going to defer to Whitmire’s accounts for Rhee’s first two years on the job (before I got to the central office). Whitmire reports:

 “During breaks between meetings Rhee would wander the hallways and drop in on workers unexpectedly. Rhee would ask what did they do and invariably they would answer with their title. No, Rhee would protest. Not your title. What do you do here? The answer was always the same: What my supervisor tells me to do.” (80-81).

Rhee and Fenty got the D.C. Council to approve a law making central office workers “at-will” employees in January of 2008, and Rhee used that power to fire nearly half the central office over the course of three years. (Of course, this is a law that remains in effect regardless of who holds the title of Chancellor – I can remember my boss looking at our team during a meeting last April and saying, “you all know you’re at-will employees, right?” after someone asked a question about what would happen in the (at that time, seemingly impossible) event that Fenty lost the election.)

Now, I work for a big consulting firm on a project within the Department of Defense. I can tell you: there are too many people doing jobs that half as many could do without breaking a sweat. I believe the same was true at DCPS before Rhee arrived. In my experience during the 10 months I worked in the central office, the problem was that there were too few people, not too many – a welcome change. Everyone was busy at every moment; no one worked regular eight-hour days. In some environments that kind of workload and pace might be problematic or unsustainable; in Rhee’s central office, all of the people with whom I interacted were just so excited to be part of meaningful reform. Although we might not have loved our individual assignments or the way our individual teams were managed, we felt proud to say that we worked for Michelle Rhee because we knew that we were really getting things done.

Before the central office moved to newer, nicer, and smaller quarters last February, I got to attend monthly meetings during which all of the major leaders in the school system were present and reported to the Chancellor on a particular topic. Every chief, every instructional superintendent, and everyone with an important role came to these meetings. I came as a spectator. I absolutely loved watching Michelle Rhee absorb (very quickly) whatever information was being presented to her and then start to ask questions. When people ask me now what Michelle Rhee was like, I always answer because of what I saw during those meetings. The “no excuses” attitude that comes out in the media isn’t an act – that is how she actually functions. If someone presented a bad idea or didn’t answer her questions in a satisfactory manner, Michelle Rhee didn’t hesitate to voice her opinion. She was kicking ass and taking names 100% of the time. Was she intimidating? Hell yes! But she came off as the brave warrior for reform that D.C. needed.

You also have to hand it to her – the woman barely slept but made a point of responding personally to every single email she received. I saw proof of this as her employee and as a member of the general public. While working in the central office, I emailed her twice. Both times, she answered within 50 minutes of receiving my email. This is particularly impressive considering that the first time was in the midst of the mess created by the reduction in force in the fall of 2009; I emailed her the day after she had spent hours being grilled (with no effort at diplomacy or politeness) by the D.C. Council. Response time: 43 minutes. Neither of my emails was directly related to my work; neither explicitly required a response from her at all, let alone a response less than an hour later. I see that as evidence of how seriously she took her job.

Now then, that’s mostly about Rhee’s management of the central office. Managing an entire school system, even one as relatively small as D.C., is a different beast.

I am young, so I am by no means highly qualified to talk about what makes a good manager of small or large groups of people. However, one thing that I have observed is that creating a strong culture and sense of common identity makes a big difference in how invested and successful employees are in their endeavors. While I think Rhee accomplished this (albeit more by example than by design) in the central office, she was much less successful at creating a similar culture of goals and expectations among the workforce in the schools. That being said, I don’t think that’s necessarily her fault, and I’m not sure how many superintendents could claim to have accomplished anything similar.

Michelle Rhee replaced an extraordinary number of school principals during her 3+ years as chancellor; although she fired some of the same ones that she hired, in general the intent of that turnover was to hire school leaders who not only met her high level of expectations but also shared her philosophy of accountability and working with urgency to satisfy the educational needs of every child in the system. The best principals are the ones who can take create a school culture according to their own beliefs, and like superintendents (but with many more examples of success), they often fail to do so, either because of lack of leadership on their end or because of severely entrenched ideas among school staff. (The best principals can overcome even that.) Changing the philosophy of a workforce that has long been used to low expectations for performance or giving excuses does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in three years. I think that we can only judge Michelle Rhee but so much on this point.

That being said, clearly her worst mistakes were in her communications with teachers. The media did not give her any assistance; indeed, one of the things I found most disturbing in Whitmire’s book was his report that editors at the Washington Post instructed Bill Turque, the reporter charged with DCPS specifically, to “cover Michelle Rhee like she was a big city mayor” (180), something that I find appalling and deliberately destructive. Turque and his colleagues at the Post covered all of the controversy and only talked about real issues in the school system on off days. It’s a pity, for instance, that no one talked about the efforts Rhee made to connect with teachers and other community members. She dedicated an hour each Wednesday afternoon to meet with teachers at one school without the presence of administrators to hear and address their concerns. I was able to accompany her on several of these visits and don’t think she received any credit for proactively putting herself out there like that. I never saw her refuse to answer a question or try to skate around the issue even during the meeting that she later referred to as the most hostile she had experienced. She also had “office hours” in different parts of the city and used this as time to meet with parents, teachers, and other community members who had concerns.

Rhee failed not so much in her efforts to reach out to teachers as in her execution of those efforts. Because DCPS is a small system with fewer than 4,000 teachers, word travels pretty fast along the grapevine about what teachers experience when they meet with someone as important as the Chancellor. Unfortunately for Rhee, her style of communication didn’t generally win her any supporters despite the number of meetings that she had with teachers. I was present at the meeting at Spingarn High School that Whitmire mentions on page 216 and saw Rhee at her best as she listened to the serious concerns of teachers about the situation in their building and promised to fix the school, but even at her most “heroic”, Rhee still came off very cold. At the hostile meeting mentioned above, I watched as the audience of angry teachers seemed to get more offended as the meeting went on and kept thinking of a few small things that she could have done to change their perception of her. Part of Rhee’s strength is also her downfall: she is so sure of herself and her convictions that she never appears to be on the defensive, so it was easy for teachers to feel like she wasn’t listening to them or didn’t care what they thought.

All of that being said: show me one person who has assumed such an unpopular viewpoint and immediately won the majority over to that opinion.  At the end of the day, no amount of personality or sugarcoating detracts from the fact that Rhee’s main belief is that bad teachers are the major reason that more poor students in this country aren’t on grade level and that she wants them out of the job. The IMPACT evaluation system only launched during Rhee’s third year; teachers spent two years before that getting the impression that she cared only about firing them. By the time the system for facilitating (and legitimizing) any such firings came into existence, the teachers were so scared or angry that they weren’t too willing to examine the possible merits of the system, and the messaging of the system could have been much better. (I say this having worked on the IMPACT team.)

Michelle Rhee is only one person, and like anyone, she makes mistakes. If nothing else, she woke up a city that had been hitting the snooze button on change in the education system for far too long. I have great hopes that Kaya Henderson, who today was announced as Michelle Rhee’s permanent successor, will continue along the same path without falling into the same traps. Kaya’s personality is the exact opposite of Rhee’s when it comes to how she interacts with large groups of people, and I think that will go far in implementing the same Rhee-forms.

Richard Whitmire’s book The Bee Eater was published in 2011 by Jossey-Bass in San Francisco. I’ll be writing about it again, and it is well worth reading just to learn more about education in D.C.

Posted in DC Public Schools, Educational Leadership | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

life after the classroom: are ex-teachers doomed for constant guilt? – this blogger’s experience

Last night my roommate came home after spending several hours helping her charter district schedule interviews with the many teacher applicants they have for the coming school year. She is leaving her school after four years of teaching to pursue experience as an administrator, and she knows the void that her absence will create in her building. As a result, she’s dedicating a significant amount of her limited free time to recruiting and hiring good teachers like her. She mentioned that she already feels guilt at her impending departure and that I should write about teachers who feel guilt at leaving, or in general what it feels like once you’ve left the classroom as I have. Our other roommate is also leaving her school to go to graduate school next year, so this is a particularly relevant issue in our house.

The decision to leave the classroom is never an easy one, even for those of us who did Teach For America and came into it with a probable end date in sight. I remember the end of my first day of TFA – we had spent most of the day getting acquainted with the education situation in D.C., and the already alarming national statistics about the achievement gap came into sharper focus as we learned about student achievement (or lack thereof) in D.C. and how dysfunctional the school system had been up to that point. I remember thinking, “why would I ever leave after only two years? This is just so important.”

I certainly never stopped thinking my work was important while I was teaching, but I sure did get worn down. I never slept more than six hours a night while I was teaching; I never allowed myself to sleep past 8:00 on the weekends because I just had too much work to do. Despite my diligence, I felt constantly behind on my lesson planning and rarely started the week with all of my lesson plans done. Part of this was my own doing: I didn’t like my textbook, so I wrote every single exercise my students did and created guided notes for each lesson. I was also in graduate school with the rest of my TFA cohort two nights a week, and I added coaching the swim team to my plate during the winter. It made for an experience that was 100% rewarding but also physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining. I loved the knowledge –which was reinforced every day – that I was making a difference in the lives of kids and doing something important, but I also knew that I just was not one of those people who got energy from teaching. I didn’t enjoy the act of imparting knowledge enough. My moments of rejuvenation came from the interactions I had with my kids outside of class and the relationships that I had with them.  Those moments didn’t make me a better teacher. I considered staying for a third year and thought for a couple of months that I would, but ultimately I realized that teaching was just not sustainable for me; I would rather take the skills I’d already honed and apply those towards closing the achievement gap. I did that last year working for Michelle Rhee; now I’m trying to raise awareness and generate ideas by writing this blog, and next year I’m starting law school, where I’ll spend my energy learning how to be a true advocate for my kids.

 This isn’t to say that I don’t miss teaching very much. I do. I really, really do. No hour goes by that I don’t think about my students; I still wake up every morning thinking about what I’d be doing at that moment if I were still teaching (I used to get to school at 6 a.m.). I stay in touch with some of my students via email, Facebook, and texting, and I’ve gone back to my school to visit several times. My experience as a teacher still impacts everything I do personally and professionally, and I talk about teaching more than anyone else probably wants to hear.

Do I feel guilty? Not really. The closest I come to feeling guilty about leaving teaching is really more a feeling of self-doubt; sometimes I wish that I were strong enough to keep fighting the good fight like so many of my fellow TFA corps members are still doing. I wonder if I shouldn’t have just kept sacrificing myself for the good of children – they’ve been disadvantaged by so many people that they need as many people to sacrifice for them as they can find. For me, it’s about balance. I didn’t want to continue teaching only to one day resent my lack of a social life or realize that the stress had taken an irreversible toll on my health. (I came very close to that several months after I left the classroom and spent four months very ill before finally being diagnosed with a bizarrely-manifesting anxiety disorder that seriously weakened my immune system.) One lesson I learned from teaching was: pick your battles, and the same goes for big life choices like this. Bad health and stress are battles I am not willing to fight if I don’t have to, and now I’m still very involved in education without having to fight them.

If you’re a teacher who’s considering leaving the classroom, the first thing you have to acknowledge is that it is okay and healthy to think about that option. We can’t help kids if we don’t take care of ourselves first, and maybe teaching just isn’t your calling.

If you know you want to leave, make sure you have a plan. If education and youth are important to you, you will go through some pretty serious withdrawal if you don’t have something lined up to transition you from working with kids every day to whatever it is you’re doing next. If you are moving into a field that is completely unrelated to education (like my current job), find an opportunity to stay involved with kids. I coach an academic team, and that allows me to be in a school at least once a week – it’s so refreshing and keeps me grounded in my passion for education. If you’re not leaving the field of education but know you won’t be working directly with kids anymore, make a plan to keep in touch with the ones you’ve already taught. They’ll continue to remind you of what you contributed, and you will still be able to influence them even though you’re not teaching them anymore. 

It might be reassuring to take a moment and think about this: in English, when you are talking about a teacher from your past, you say, “my high school Spanish teacher”. You don’t say, “my former Spanish teacher” – our language implies that our positions as teachers are permanent in the minds and hearts of our students. You will always be someone’s teacher. And believe me – they’ll think about you after you’re gone. My visits to my school since I left have been by far the most validating hours of my life. The very first time I went back, which was during the second week of the school year after I left, my students swarmed me in the cafeteria, pushing each other to say “I’ve been missing you!” “I wish you were still my Spanish teacher!” “I haven’t forgotten anything!” “I was just thinking about you!”

And if you are leaving, don’t be afraid to tell your students what you’re doing next. Mine knew I wanted to be a lawyer. They kept asking me last year if I was a lawyer yet. They thought it was cool, and they knew that I wanted to be a lawyer to keep helping kids. I am 100% sure that not a single one of my 200+ students resented my leaving to pursue something that I had always wanted to do and that was still aligned with my goals as a teacher. Sometimes the best example you can set is showing that you aren’t giving up on your dreams or afraid to take risks. You can also take the time to prepare your successor – a new TFA corps member replaced me and has benefitted from my experiences and resources so that I live on in his classroom.

Last but not least: don’t beat yourself up. Whatever you do next, our society owes you its gratitude for the time, energy, and love that you put into teaching our youth. You have done the most important job there is. We need great teachers in this country, and whether you teach for two years or twenty, you’ve done an invaluable service. Take your experience and inspire others to follow you.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Segregation and Integration in 2011

Several days ago the New York Times published an article about an issue that’s been around since the genesis of American public schools: integration. Before I get to the article itself, I’m going to go back once again to the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit a few weeks ago, where I attended a session called “Segregation in American Schools and Its Impact on the Achievement Gap”. The panelists included: Russlyn Ali (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education), Pedro Noguera (Education/Sociology professor at NYU), Bill Kurtz (CEO of the Denver School of Science and Technology), Michael Petrilli (Executive Vice President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Executive Editor of Education Next), and Beverly Tatum (President of Spelman College). Like I did in my other sessions, I spent the bulk of this one furiously scribbling notes as these amazing people talked. Here are some of the best:

  • Schools today are more segregated than they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. According to Russlyn Ali, 40% of Latino students and 30% of Black students are in schools where they are 90-100% of the student body.

We know that the least diverse schools, especially when it comes to these populations, are unfortunately also the least likely to be successful. As Pedro Noguera pointed out:

  • Minorities are going to be the majority in 2041. “It’ll be a big problem if we don’t figure this out before then!”

Beverly Tatum offered a number of powerful and insightful thoughts, starting with:

  • The environment you’re in doesn’t guarantee anything; what matters is the level of expectations. “When you’re in an environment where there are high expectations and you are the center of attention, great things can happen.” Unfortunately, we know this is far too often not the case with minority students.

Michael Petrilli pointed out part of the reason for the general lack of awareness in the American public about how segregated schools really are.

  • The number of racially isolated White schools has actually declined, so White people don’t realize the extent to which others are isolated.

The issue of choice came up next, after Michael Petrilli pointed out that very elite private schools are often diverse because the parents realize the value of having their children exposed to different backgrounds. Pedro Noguera pointed out that:

  • Choice only works at delivering access to good schools if there are lots of choices.

He continued by discussing the fact that the worst schools just don’t attract the right people and resources, and until that happens, there aren’t going to be lots of choices for good schools. Even in cases where districts are trying to provide different opportunities, the quality of those opportunities varies greatly. Take, for example, the idea of bilingual education:

  • “We live in a xenophobic society. We’re ending up now with kids who are semi-literate in two languages” because the schools with those programs don’t necessarily know how to do it the right way, nor do they necessarily have the resources to be a great school aside from that specialty.

And, at the end of the session (after some further talk of problem-solving, assessment, what works and doesn’t, etc), Beverly Tatum said something that is 100% true but never acknowledged:

  • “We all have fundamentally racist assumptions. It doesn’t mean that we’re evil; it just means that we’ve grown up in the United States.”

The main take-away from this session was that the issue of school segregation is still incredibly complex on legal, cultural, social, and pedagogical levels. There’s no one thing that will fix the racial isolation of students, and integrating everyone doesn’t guarantee success for all students either. Still, the general consensus over the years has been that it is better to have racially mixed schools than racially isolated ones.

Various school systems have tried to figure this out in the last several decades, and the interesting thing is that good-faith efforts to get everyone together have sometimes been ruled as unconstitutional because, like affirmative action, there is a possibility of negatively impacting one group while trying to help another.

The New York Times article I mentioned at the beginning involves Wake County, North Carolina. (Coincidentally, Michelle Rhee’s Chief Operating Officer from 2007-2010, Brigadier General Anthony Tata, just started as the superintendent there.) Wake County has come up with a plan to integrate their schools by student achievement.

According to the article, Wake County previously used a system of socioeconomic integration. The idea was that all schools would have a ratio of 60% students who did not qualify for free/reduced lunch to 40% of students who did qualify. Last year, the newly elected, conservative school board voted to dismantle that system, much to the chagrin of the NAACP and the Department of Education.

The new plan for integration based on achievement would aim to create schools where about 70% of the students have scored proficient on state tests. It is unclear to me exactly how this would work at the elementary level, where testing starts later and you have the widest range of ages. The plan would supposedly guarantee that students wouldn’t have to switch schools once they were there, which sounds a little impossible to me.

Does the plan sound like a solution?

I’ve been of the opinion since I started teaching that socioeconomic integration is the way to go. Prince George’s County, Maryland, where I taught, is the wealthiest, predominantly African-American county in the United States. Are its students among the highest performing despite the relative wealth of the county as a whole? No – because there is significant poverty mixed in with the affluence, and it’s all concentrated in certain schools. Racial integration isn’t the answer; most of the county is one race to begin with! Socioeconomic integration, however, would make a big difference. The example that stands out most in my mind is from my experience as the swim coach at my school. When I took my small team to the county championship to compete against all the other high schools, the differences in resources and achievement were staggeringly visible. While my team barely had funding enough to cover bathing suits, other teams arrived with banners, sports bags, and a host of other accessories that proclaimed their superiority. It is no coincidence that these same schools were the ones with the highest test scores. Their students were a world apart from mine even though they lived in the same county and shared the same skin color. Ultimately, the push for diversity is about resources – poor students do better when they’re around more privileged students and can share their privilege.

The creator of the Wake County plan thinks that schools will look pretty similar under the achievement-driven integration as they did under the socioeconomic integration model; that makes sense. I have not seen data to indicate whether the socioeconomic integration did anything to raise achievement levels in all of the schools, but I think it’s safe to say that achievement didn’t decrease as a result. The same will probably be true of this integration-by-achievement plan. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.

Posted in Diversity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flunking at Funding

“Leaving Children Behind”

“A Moment of National Insanity”

These are the titles of two pieces I’ve read in the last 24 hours, and they aptly express the crisis brought on by this year’s round of budget cuts.

 Last week the Washington Post reported that Prince George’s County, Maryland, the district in which I taught and which also happens to be the 17th-largest in the country, decreased its budget for the upcoming year by 2%, otherwise known as  $155 million or 1,300 jobs. Ouch.   

On Friday, the Huffington Post reported that Providence, Rhode Island is putting all of its teachers on notice that they could be terminated at the end of this year. 

Detroit is closing half of its schools. Sounds like we might have to import students from Detroit too. 

Idaho might fire 770 teachers and replace them with computers.

Hawaii is cutting the number of days in its school year (because students clearly spend too much time in school as it is).

And finally (for this blog but not for Budget Crunch 2011), Texas is besting Prince George’s County by cutting its education budget by 13.5%… $3.5 billion. Too bad for those 85,000 additional students Texas will get this year, as it does every year.  

[Insert exclamatory expletives of your choice here.]

Paul Krugman aptly sums all of this up (in the piece called “Leaving Children Behind”) when he asks, “what’s supposed to happen when today’s neglected children become tomorrow’s work force?” 

The sad truth is that we don’t seem to be at a place where we know enough good practices to say with any real confidence where we can cut funds for education or how we can reallocate them to be used more effectively. A good chunk of education budgets probably goes towards special programs that are somewhat experimental in nature as each district tries to find things that work really well. And unfortunately, some of the things that do work well are just more expensive.

I’m not in any position to say what states and districts should be cutting out of their budgets instead of education, but I can agree with David Brooks’ assessment that “legislators and administrators are simply cutting on the basis of what’s politically easy and what vaguely seems expendable”. We’re never going to get the education results we need if we always go for what’s easy. What’s easy usually isn’t what’s right, and when it comes to kids, we must always, always do what is right. 

I also don’t know all the things that are right when it comes to schools, but here’s what’s definitely wrong.

  • Increasing class sizes without making sure that teachers are receiving proportionately higher levels of support, particularly for differentiating instruction.
  • Shortening the school year when kids aren’t learning enough in class as it is.
  • Replacing teachers with technology. (See my post on what Florida’s doing.)
  • Cutting art, music, foreign languages, sports, and other classes and activities that don’t help kids to score higher on our standardized tests.
  • Cutting non-instructional staff members who play important roles, like parent liaisons who work specifically with Hispanic parents.

 For more on the budget issues in education, read the following:

 “Leaving Children Behind” by Paul Krugman

“The New Normal” by David Brooks

“A Moment of National Insanity” by Diane Ravitch

Posted in Funding | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The REAL Goal of Teacher Evaluation

Randi Weingarten reminded us that education reform isn’t a contest to see who cares more about kids; I’d like to take this opportunity to assert that it’s also not a contest to see who loves or hates teachers more (and who’s right).

Like any issue, teacher quality has extreme voices at either end of the spectrum who tread a fine line between passionate and crazy. Some in the media would have you believe that there are only two camps: those who love teachers and find them all faultless, and those who blame all of America’s teachers for all of our educational woes.

My own opinion includes the following points:

  • Teachers deserve more respect than they receive in our country.
  • Teachers have one of the most important jobs anyone in our society can have.
  • There is no one way to be a good teacher, but the one thing all good teachers have in common is that all of their students learn – a lot.
  • There are many ways to be a bad teacher, and one thing that all bad teachers have in common is that not all of their students are learning and/or their students are not learning a lot.
  • Teacher quality must be measured through more than test scores.
  • You can make a difference in the lives of children and in the world of education outside of the classroom.
  • Changing the skills, knowledge, and values of our future generations starts in the classroom.  

One of my chief frustrations when it comes to this debate about teacher quality is how pissed off (self-described) good teachers get when they hear all this talk about bad teachers. In my view, getting people to talk about bad teachers (in an effort to get rid of them) is the first step towards making teaching a more respected profession, which has the potential to make a lot of things better. If you’re good at what you do, it shouldn’t make you feel angry or threatened when people like Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee talk about getting rid of the weakest links.

Bad teachers make everyone’s job harder. As a Spanish teacher, I had students come from Spanish 1 into my Spanish 2 class barely able to say “hola”. Trying to teach Spanish 2 to someone who’s forgotten (or more likely, never learned) the objectives from Spanish 1 is like trying to teach algebra to someone who can’t perform basic arithmetic. It just doesn’t work, and it didn’t help me do my job, which was to get kids to speak in Spanish at the proficiencies proscribed for level 2. It was in my best interests as a teacher to have strong Spanish teachers at my school so that students coming to me from lower levels were prepared to learn my material and so that I could continuously improve my own teaching through the presence and assistance of high-performing peers.

 People talking about teacher quality often bring up the examples of highly respected (and usually high-paying) professions. In an op-ed published in yesterday’s Washington Post, Bill Gates noted that:

  “The value of measuring effectiveness is clear when you compare teachers to members of other professions – farmers, engineers, computer programmers, even athletes. These professions are more advanced than their predecessors – because they have clear indicators of excellence, their success depends on performance and they eagerly learn from the best. The same advances haven’t been made in teaching because we haven’t built a system to measure and promote excellence.”

Note the last words:  “measure and promote excellence”. Much of the advocacy for teacher evaluation gets misconstrued as measuring failure or promoting firings; that’s not the whole picture. Yes – one of the goals of such systems is clearly to get bad teachers out of the classroom. (That doesn’t mean we’re forcing them out of education entirely. You might be a bad teacher but a great coach or counselor.) But ultimately, all of this is about giving our students the best education possible. No teachers are perfect, and even the best still have something to learn. Reaching a time when 90% of our teachers are great teachers will help us reach a time when not only are all of our students finally performing at proficiency levels but they are also surpassing our standards of proficiency to rival their peers around the world who, at this point, are set to unseat the United States from its superpower status just by virtue of their superior educations.

So, to all the good teachers out there: keep up the great work. If you can, take on the responsibility of mentoring other teachers so that they can emulate your successes. Share what you’re doing well so that the public knows what great teaching looks like. And get a thicker skin. This isn’t personal. And if you’re a good teacher, you’re probably more selfless than the average person. Remember that ultimately the push for greater teacher quality is about making things better for the kids you teach and that the intended side effect is that your job will be easier. Let’s hope that one day all our kids will be on or above grade level and that others when they meet you will say “oh, you’re a teacher!” with the same tone of respect that we now hear for doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

Posted in Teacher Quality | Tagged , , | Leave a comment