Sunday, December 21, 2008
Three of us from the "Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform" initiative met with Special Assistant to the Chancellor Jason Kamras and Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson Dec.18 to share our concerns about important reforms being designed in DCPS. Our bias -- that system support for improvement in the quality of teaching and learning is needed. But we aren't sure the focus is there yet in Rhee's reforms. The meeting was candid, and concrete. Among the suggestions we made:
1. Efforts to re-design the teacher evaluation system needs to utilize national experts to get it right, and needs to be collaborative to ensure buy-in. A credible, not secretive, process is crucial.
2. Recent involvement of AFT with the WTU and DCPS is a step forward.
3. There needs to be a "framework" that defines skillful teaching that teachers and administrators can study and that gives the whole conversation about the quality of teaching and learning legitimacy and serves as the basis for evaluating teachers.
4. Professional development needs to stop being random acts in each school. We need a comprehensive program of professional development that promotes a clear conception of what good teaching looks like. Teaching is rocket science.
5. The symbolism of the Chancellor with a broom and the emphasis on cleaning house is demoralizing to the best teachers, in part because it is absent a clear definition of what good teaching is.
6. Downtown DCPS must own some responsibility for the demoralizing lack of improvement in the conditions of teaching and learning -- eg: discipline and truancy issues, instability in student enrollment that charters and school closings have exacerbated, schedule mismanagement, materials of instruction deficits.
7. Equating the quality of teaching with student test scores on the DC CAS is insulting to teachers, and amounts to accountability to a proxy for learning rather than the act of teaching and learning itself.
8."Red and green" salary schedules make no sense and has become a distraction and an obstacle to reform aimed at improving teaching and learning.
We look forward to further conversation with Henderson and Kamras. Multiple eyes, ears, and voices will be needed to help get it right.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Well, you can't win 'em all. While I had no expectations that the Obama team would select the only progressive educator on the list for Sec. of Ed, I had hoped he would steer clear of the hatchet-swinging, test crazy, union busting, NCLB-loving, privatization-minded, Klein-Rhee-Vallas-Duncan types. Now some of my friends here in Chicago have argued with me, that Duncan is really not that way--that he's more of a compromise pick somewhere in the middle of Klein and Linda Darling-Hammond.
After all, they point out, Duncan got Randi Weingarten's stamp of approval along with that of Margaret Spellings. Everybody to the right of left-center field and left of Rush Limbaugh should be happy with this pick. Duncan isn't an ideologue, they argue. He'll be a decent bully-pulpit spokesman for urban public education, especially now that he's out from under the thumb of Daley. And the good side is, it might open the way for some changes here in the Windy City, where the disaster that is Renaisance 2010 has but a year to go and hopefully will go the way of NCLB.
Up until yesterday, I thought that the fallout over Blagojovich might reach all the way to City Hall, thereby making a Chicago pick for SOE too risky. But then I came to my senses.
My feeling is that these battles over cabinet posts tend to be ultra-divisive and sap the energy of progressive educators. Whoever is running the DOE is going to be a damn sight better than what we've had the past eight years. The struggle continues either way and the battle over real education reform will remain contested territory.
Is that sour grapes talking? Maybe a little.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Our response appeared in the Times, but here's the unedited version:
David Brooks got it exactly wrong (“Who Will He Choose?” Dec. 5 Opinion column). Linda Darling-Hammond was appointed as head of Obama’s transition team precisely because she represents the real and deep education reform faction in the national education debate. Her track record of analysis of what it takes to improve the quality of teaching and teachers has been the most consistent critical voice over the past 25 years. She is anything but the establishment. On the other side, we have self-described change agents without a real plan for improving teaching and learning. Brooks does a disservice labeling Klein, who ended the successful reforms in New York’s District 2, a reformer. The question is one of deep versus superficial reform. Deep reform demands that school systems nurture skillful teaching, and that standards assess students’ higher order thinking skills, not just multiple choice tests. We can do better than the superficial reforms that have led to very mixed results over the past eight years. Obama should go with the real reformer, Linda Darling-Hammond.
The writer is a member of Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform, DC
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
I was pleased to read Larry Cuban's articulate commentary on D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's efforts to reform the District's failing school system ["Michelle Rhee: Better to Be a Marathoner," Close to Home, Nov. 23].
I, too, am concerned that the urgency of her response has compromised her analysis of what is wrong with the system. Intelligent analysis, though time-consuming, is an essential step in identifying and implementing effective solutions. Ms. Rhee, I am afraid, skipped this step.
Mr. Cuban was also correct to stress how important it is for superintendents to work with teachers unions. Ms. Rhee and the union that represents D.C. public school teachers are equally ardent in their desire to better educate students. Why, then, have they become enemies? As Mr. Cuban noted, once these battle lines have been drawn, you can "kiss reform goodbye."
As a D.C. public school teacher, I would like to add another concern to Mr. Cuban's list.
Ms. Rhee prides herself on having a "data-driven" administration. Has she missed the data on public school test scores vs. charter school scores?
Charter schools in the District of Columbia can fire teachers at will, and yet few of them are outperforming their public school counterparts. If firing teachers lay at the heart of the problem, wouldn't these charter schools be doing better by Ms. Rhee's favorite yardstick, test scores?
A good educational leader needs to carefully analyze the issues before blindly grasping at solutions. Unfortunately, Ms. Rhee, in her impatience, has not adequately analyzed the issues and has made enemies of people who share her goals of bettering the education of our students.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
In her second year as the District's schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee looks like a sprinter. In less than two years, with the full support of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, she has already cut central office administrators, fired principals, closed schools and challenged the teachers union on seniority transfer rights and tenure.
By comparison, Atlanta Superintendent Beverly L. Hall and Austin schools chief Pat Forgione each served a decade and showed strong gains in students' academic achievement. They were long-distance runners. Fixing urban school districts takes marathoners, not sprinters.
Look at Alan Bersin, who ran out of gas as San Diego's superintendent in 2005. Determined to lift student learning rather than preserve school officials' status quo, he reorganized the system and fired administrators. He went after collective bargaining rules that protected seniority rights and incompetent teachers. Union leaders fought him by seeking national and state allies and turning to parents. He exited well before fulfilling his reform agenda.
My point is not that union leaders block reform. In some cities they work closely with superintendents. Nor should superintendents play nice with unions to avoid conflict.
But sprinter superintendents err in jumping on unions too early in their long-distance race for better student achievement. They suffer from ideological myopia. They believe low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities result in large part from knuckle-dragging union leaders defending seniority and tenure rights that protect lousy teachers. Such beliefs reflect a serious misreading of why urban students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate from high school.
As important as it is to get rid of incompetent teachers, doing so will not turn around the D.C. school system or any other broken district. The failure of urban schools has more to do with turnstile superintendencies, partially implemented standards and other factors that trump the small percentage of teachers who are just putting in time.
This error in thinking has occurred often in districts where impatient superintendents have demonized unions, only to discover that they have stumbled into a war as a result. Once union leaders were convinced that they were fighting for their survival, they converted the battle into an "us vs. them" struggle. When that happens, kiss reform goodbye.
Rhee's ideological push against unions comes much too early in her tenure to improve teaching and learning. Such initiatives fail because they can turn the entire D.C. teaching corps -- including first-rate veteran and mid-career teachers -- against any classroom change. Rhee may deceive herself into believing that teacher whispers about forming another union will split a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers that was founded in 1925. It won't.
"Us vs. them" is not predestined. Boston's Tom Payzant and Carl A. Cohn in Long Beach, Calif., served more than a decade in their districts and received national awards for raising student performance. Neither saw teacher unions as foes to be squashed. They convinced union leaders that it was in teachers' best interests to work with them. Trying to destroy the union will not throw 4,000 teachers behind the mayor and chancellor.
Were the untimely face-off with the D.C. teachers union to spiral into an ugly scrum, angry union leaders and teachers would reach out to allies on the D.C. Council and elsewhere to join against a mayor and chancellor viewed as determined to destroy their organization, much like President Ronald Reagan was with the air traffic controllers union in 1981. Such conflict could possibly end in the mayor dumping his talented chancellor. Another round of high hopes for the D.C. schools would be dashed.
If Rhee knows in her gut that teaching is the heart of good schooling, she needs to think less like a Teach for America sprinter and more like a long-distance runner.
-- Larry Cuban
Palo Alto, Calif.
The writer is a former D.C. Public Schools teacher and was superintendent of schools in Arlington from 1974 to 1981.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Lazy, incompetent, irresponsible and selfish are some words used to describe them. They are touted right now as being the primary obstacle to DCPS reform efforts. Who are they? The “bad” DCPS teachers, of course.
Anyone who has worked in DCPS or has had their children enrolled in the public schools has encountered teachers who should be removed from the classroom ASAP.
But how many “bad” teachers are there? The hype created by our school leaders, politicians and reporters would lead one to believe that most DCPS teachers are abject failures while only a small minority are really good. The few great teachers are described as mostly young and are talked about in saint-like terms. Anecdotal stories are told about how these extraordinary teachers struggle with the burdens of working in schools with a bunch of professional rejects.
However, the reality is quite different. While bad DCPS teachers exist, they are not the majority. Teachers have become an easy scapegoat for a reform effort that doesn’t understand the complexities of the problems facing DCPS. If we look closer, we see a failed system that has left the majority of teachers overwhelmed without the proper supports or the necessary training to overcome the tremendous obstacles that the children present.
Complicating matters, the Washington Teachers Union appears to rigidly defend all teachers, including the “bad” ones. This feeds into the stereotype that the Union doesn’t care about children, but is only concerned with protecting jobs. Our school leaders take advantage of this, framing the reform debate in these terms: eroding or even eliminating tenure is the only way to rid the system of the incompetents. Can’t we get rid of bad teachers without depriving all teachers of their due process rights?
Along with this massive firing campaign, huge salary increases are being proposed as the primary way to improve academic instruction. If you oppose this you are labeled an obstructionist who is interested in only preserving the status quo.
It is not that simple. Almost doubling teachers’ salaries will not magically make them better able to teach students who are disruptive nor will it make it easier to teach students who are several grade levels behind. These are the tougher issues that need to be addressed before any reform can be successful.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I have never heard Randi Weingarten or John Deasy speak, but I was truly impressed. I thought it was funny when Deasy said that we would be disappointed if we were looking for a fight between him and Randi at the forum. He actually understands and has put into practice a reform model for education in which “management” and “labor” sit down together to deliver real reforms.
The possibilities mentioned were endless—community schools with wrap around services, reciprocal accountability, building human capital, master teachers…..
I was also impressed with Jen Whitman, a lead teacher in Montgomery County who explained the Peer Assistance and Review program.
For those of you who attended the forum, I am very interested in hearing your thoughts on tonight’s event.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I've also had the unfortunate experience of my child being in classrooms where learning couldn't go on because of disorganization in the way the teacher managed the students and in the way lessons were delivered. She's had teachers who used videos to kill time, lost her work, didn't return assignments with grades, threatened and bullied students, or bored and frustrated my daughter to tears. If you want to know how much damage a bad teacher can do, read page 15 in the World's School Systems report produced by McKinsey in Sept. 2007.
In DCPS, the great teachers and the craft of teaching seem to get little recognition, respect or notice from the higher-ups. By the same token, there doesn't seem to be any system of intervention and support for a teacher who's really messing up.
As “teachers and parents for real education reform,” it’s important that together we advocate for a credible system that ensures good teaching in every classroom. I want to see teachers brought into DCPS with proper orientation to our school system. We are still throwing people into our schools and expecting them to swim. I want to see resources placed at the school level to enable teachers to do their best work because when they get what they need, so will my child. And when principals evaluate teachers, they have to know what to look for. If a learning standard is posted on the wall, that doesn’t make someone a good teacher in my book. If my child does well on the DC CAS that alone doesn’t make her teacher good. We also have a duty to make sure that we can get rid of incompetent teachers when evaluations merit it. But it can’t be as arbitrary as it now seems to be. I know from direct experience that it's been wrenching to have teachers that someone in power thinks "don't fit in" dismissed from my school despite their achievements and the praise of students and parents. As another parent recently said to me, "I don't see how coming down with a hammer is going to make things better." I surely agree.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
In 2007, I was given the MetLife Foundation Ambassadors in Education Award for "Supporting School - Community Partnerships" for a research project my students did on the role our school played in the Brown v. Board school integration decision. My students presented their case to the DC Board of Education, City Council, Congressional Black Caucus and the US Senate on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board. A description of their project was published in Writing for a Change and the Teaching for Change publication Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching. The students, their parents and the community were proud, but my principal was evidently not. I was transferred to another school. At Garnet-Patterson MS, where I went next, the principal informed me that she was aware of my reputation as an excellent teacher, but didn’t "want a teacher who is too political or one that taught students to question the status quo.”
After two months, I was transferred to Hart MS. This is my second year at Hart MS. Although the school didn’t make AYP, the teachers work hard to boost academic achievement with the limited support and resources provided by the school system. Although Hart has been restructured, we continue to suffer with teacher shortages.
For as long as I can remember, involuntary transfers of good teachers have been initiated by principals to silence teachers who have ideas that might be different than that of the principal or who teach to promote critical thinking in their schools. Rather than freeing the hand of principals, we need to be holding teachers and principals accountable to a clear definition of what good teaching is, making the process less arbitrary. We need a less autocratic and more collegial culture in schools. I think of excellent teachers like Emily Washington, Jeanette Feely and Art Siebens, just to name a few, who fell victim to arbitrary principal authority. Creative, critical thinking teachers who teach students how to become creative, critical thinkers are rapidly becoming a rare commodity. If we allow this trend to continue, our students will be the losers.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
You’re dead on target. Last week, I attended the quarterly meeting of the DC Area Writing Project (DCAWP) which is comprised of over 250 of the best and brightest teachers in our school district. When I arrived, teachers were discussing a letter writing campaign to our union leadership about the trade-offs proposed by Chancellor Rhee. The consensus was that such trade offs; (specifically the proposal for the ‘red and green tier’) will not improve teaching or learning in our schools. While teachers are concerned about pay raises and step increases, as anyone would be given the state of our economy, they are equally or more concerned about professional teaching conditions in their schools and the supports they need to do their jobs effectively.
Teachers are not satisfied with what DCPS and the WTU have brought to the table in contract negotiations. Yes, higher salaries are important and we’re not opposed to removing teachers who can’t teach. But the current proposal is a recipe for an anti-professional, fear-based culture in schools. A climate of fear, mistrust, and test pressure is not good for students nor teachers.
Teachers are not satisfied with what DCPS and the WTU have brought to the table in contract negotiations. Yes, higher salaries are important and we’re not opposed to removing teachers who can’t teach. But the current proposal is a recipe for an anti-professional, fear-based culture in schools. A climate of fear, mistrust, and test pressure is not good for students nor teachers.The real tragedy in DCPS is the long-standing lack of system-wide support for the craft of teaching. While all the neighboring districts have designed real professional growth systems that begin with respect for teaching and teachers, DCPS has proposed firing teachers as the solution.
Teaching and learning requires teaching conditions and resources to get the job done! Teachers must demand these professional teaching conditions and engage in the ongoing dialogue about our contract and the reform agenda for our schools. Within our Union, the membership has been, and will always be, the ultimate authority.
Monday, October 13, 2008
But then she got to the point of the letter, the failed contract negotiations. “Without a new contract, we will be unable to reward teachers….” and here is where I have a problem. The Chancellor seems to see bonuses and pay increases as the only route to getting our students the education they deserve. What about the teaching and learning conditions we and our students need – basic classroom resources, quality mentoring for new teachers, books and curriculum, or even a clear definition of what good teaching is? Why can’t these be part of the equation?
I am confident that if you asked most teachers what they need to become better teachers, most would not say bonuses and raises. They would ask for classroom sets of novels, art supplies, copy paper, money for field trips, and opportunities to offer enrichment programs for students after school.
This is not to say that teachers don’t want raises. It’s just that raises are not going to solve the problem of low academic achievement.
The second half of the letter takes a somewhat threatening tone saying that since contract negotiations had broken down, “I will move forward aggressively with the following steps to ensure that an excellent teacher is in every classroom….”
What follows are five bulleted steps all focused on getting rid of teachers that DCPS evidently has the right to do even without a signed contract with the union. The second step involves, “Aggressive implementation of the 90-day plan to remove ineffective teachers, with increased resources to principals in order to support this implementation.” (bold added) The Chancellor is willing to supply “increased resources to principals” to document firing teachers, but fails to offer additional resources to schools for teachers and principals to support quality teaching in the classroom.
Teachers continually write grants for basic classroom resources. Last month I had to write a grant requesting money to buy novels for my school’s social studies classes. My school had no money to buy novels to promote literacy, yet there is plenty of money for this teacher firing campaign.
I was disappointed with the solutions proposed in this letter, and by extension, with the nature of conversation at the bargaining table. It is very disheartening to read that the Chancellor’s main strategy to guarantee quality education in every classroom has been reduced to paying teachers lots of money and firing teachers whom administrators consider “bad.”
“Teachers and parents for real education reform,” a new grass-roots initiative, aims to convince the Chancellor and WTU president George Parker that the problem of low academic performance will not be fixed with raises, bonuses and mass firings. We owe it to our students to get reform right. The system is failing, not some isolated teachers who need to be fired.
To view the complete letter from the Chancellor, click on the link below to the DCPS website:
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Monday, October 6, 2008
The following was posted today on "Eduwonkette" one of the nation's most respected education blogs, hosted by Education Week Magazine:
October 6, 2008
In the Name of Reform? A Lesson About Michelle Rhee's Big Plans from Art Siebens
Reporter: “The teachers’ union is saying that their concern is arbitrary firing…. that it just isn’t possible to give everyone sort of a level of fair scrutiny.Rhee: “It’s interesting because, I mean, the bottom line is that people are saying, ‘Well, great teachers could be fired arbitrarily.’ My answer to that is, ‘Why would I ever create a system where we were arbitrarily firing great teachers? That would not benefit me or the school system.’” - Michelle Rhee on NPR
All along the Eastern corridor, folks are buzzing about firing teachers. In New York City two weeks ago, the New Teacher Project once again called for the district to put excessed teachers who have not been hired after a year on unpaid leave. Last week in his Washington Post column, Jay Mathews also sang a paean about the virtues of principals firing teachers at will. And in Michelle Rhee’s proposed contract, teachers would give up tenure in exchange for performance pay. Now, she’s moved to “Plan B,” which involves giving “bad teachers” 90 days to improve, or else face dismissal.
In all three cases, the assumption is that principals know best, that they make decisions based on the best interest of students, that “kid issues” will be put before “adult issues” in hiring decisions, and that concerns about fair treatment are retrograde - even passé.
Yet right under Michelle Rhee’s nose, her own theory of action – that principals will always pick the “best teachers” – has been tested by the case of Dr. Art Siebens. Few things manage to keep this groggy, dissertating kid awake once my head’s hit the pillow. But the case of Siebens, a biology teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, DC for the last 18 years who was not rehired when the school reconstituted 20% of its staff last spring, is haunting for the glimpse it offers into the brave new world of unchecked principal autonomy.By all accounts, Michelle Rhee should be carrying Art Siebens around on her shoulders, because he exemplifies all of the qualities she desires in DC Public Schools teachers:
* Rhee wants to recruit more highly qualified alternate route teachers. With a PhD in Biology and post-doctoral work at Yale and NIH, Siebens has credentials that leave most TFA corps members in the dust.*
Most important to Rhee are test results: “To work here,” she says, “you've got to be a bottom-line person.” In that spirit, Siebens outdid every other AP Biology teacher in the district. During the 13 years in which Siebens taught AP Biology at Wilson, 72% of his students earned passing scores on the AP test (i.e. scores of 3-5). Across DCPS in 2007, 95% of DC Biology AP students with scores of 3-5 were taught by Art Siebens. This is all the more impressive because his courses were no less diverse than other AP courses at Woodrow Wilson High School, and almost all of his students took the AP test. Because of these achievements, Siebens has received an Advanced Placement Recognition Award from the College Board.*
Rhee, often drawing on her own chaotic first year of teaching, speaks of the need for high expectations for student behavior. Siebens was widely known to be a steward of order and discipline, even taking it upon himself to maintain a database tracking compliance with Wilson’s behavior management system, as well as truancy. Moreover, Michelle Rhee personally gave Siebens password access to student attendance data so he could track Wilson’s truancy and tardiness rates. When the district brought in a restructuring guru, he reviewed Siebens’ data to make sense of the school’s climate.*
Rhee wants teachers who are willing to “sweat” - teachers who go the extra mile and don’t just “follow the contract.” Siebens held lunchtime and after school review sessions. He attended his students’ sporting events, plays, and musicals. He composed and performed songs about biology to help his students remember biological processes – songs that apparently work because they’ve been adopted by biology teachers across the country. This fall, his work using music to teach biology has been featured in a five-part series on XM and WorldSpace satellite radio. (You can find archived versions of the first three parts here.)*
Rhee wants team players who will go out of their way to help their colleagues. From the letters of support from other teachers in his school, it is clear that he was the consummate colleague, one who supported new teachers and worked towards the good of the school, not just the good of his own students.Rhee often says that her motto is, “Ensuring that adult issues never come before the best interests of children.” Why, then, was Art Siebens excessed and then involuntarily transferred when Woodrow Wilson restructured last spring and reconstituted 20% of the faculty?
Your guess is as good as mine. The only peep criticizing Siebens has come from a group of minority parents, who nonetheless maintain that they had no hand in Siebens’ dismissal from Wilson. (They did not respond to multiple attempts to contact them.) Siebens’ former students, their parents, and his colleagues have come out of the woodwork to support his return to Wilson. You can see their testimonials about how he touched their lives here.
In the meantime, we’ve now had an inside look at how Michelle Rhee’s system manages talent. Siebens applied for all open science positions at a hiring fair in June, and was not called for interviews at any of the schools to which he applied. He interviewed at several other schools over the summer, and either was not offered the position or told that “the position has been filled for us.” On the first day of school, Siebens – who has a PhD in Physiology - was assigned to teach 9th grade environmental science, a course he has never taught before. To date, he has not even received the teacher’s edition of the environmental science book, despite asking for it repeatedly.
And the kicker? The Washington Post reported a week ago that Wilson has a science vacancy. Is this what the “strategic management of talent” looks like?"
What I need is for you to have trust, in me and in the school district….I know that trust doesn't come overnight, and I have to earn that trust," Michelle Rhee recently said. What Rhee must realize, of course, is that debacles like the dismissal of Art Siebens eat away at that trust, as does her refusal to even consider that the principal made the wrong call here. Art Siebens has 18 years of data, a PhD, a gaggle of national awards, and a legion of parents and students standing behind him. If this can happen to him, it can happen to almost any teacher in the DC system.
Checks and balances, my friends, are the hallmark of the American system of governance, and I see no reason why we should abandon them in public education.
Posted by eduwonkette at 10:07 AM Permalink Comments (9) TrackBacks (0)
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
We decided that we should focus first on pressuring George Parker in hopes of putting the brakes on the current contract negotiations. I am attaching a copy of a petition addressed to George Parker and Randi Weingarten, AFT President, that we can use to educate teachers and parents on the issue, as well as pressure the WTU. Please get as many signatures as possible and fax completed forms to the number at the bottom of the petition (202-319-1010).
We also discussed setting up meetings with City Councilmembers and other efforts to increase our support. We will discuss these strategies in more detail at our next meeting, which will be held this Thursday, October 2nd at 5:30 (place TBD). It is very important that we have as many people as possible at this meeting who can join us in creating a movement to redefine the terms of the debate. Then, we can actually begin to address the real issues surrounding real reform in teaching and learning.
Also, for those of you who missed it, I am pasting here the link to our Commentary published in the September 28 Outlook Section of the Washington Post. This makes it clear what we believe in. Please use this, along with the petition, as a way to reach out to other teachers and parents.
Thanks again. I hope to see you on Thursday.