Thursday, October 23, 2008

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher: What Parents Want

As a DCPS parent I have had the good fortune that my daughter has been taught by some really great teachers. She's now in sophomore year of high school and I've been at this since Pre-K. I've felt the happiness and security of knowing that my daughter loved those teachers, enjoyed being in their classrooms, and was doing important and interesting work with them. Her second grade teacher went from being "so unfair!" to "the best teacher in the universe!" by the end of one school year. I will always appreciate the way she made my daughter think about things and learn how to work hard on school assignments. Teaching is complex work.

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

Good Teacher, Bad Teacher: How Do We Decide?

I’ve taught in six DC public schools under the supervision of six different principals who had six different ideas of what constitutes 'quality' or 'effective' teaching. My experience makes me very concerned about what I hear is the enhanced principal authority to get rid of teachers they don't like in the proposed contract. Current administrators may or may not be the best judges of quality teaching, rarely having been trained to recognize it.

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

There Is Another Way!


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. 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

Thoughts on the Letter from the Chancellor

A week ago Friday, teachers received a letter from Chancellor Rhee summarizing what she had given out at a press conference the day before. The letter began with: “Ensuring that our students—no matter what their challenges are—receive the education they deserve is the most important task that we face as a city and a nation.” No disagreement there. That’s why I became a teacher.

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.

Kerry Sylvia

To view the complete letter from the Chancellor, click on the link below to the DCPS website:
The next meeting of "teachers and parents for real education reform" will be October 14 at 5:00 PM at the Lamond-Riggs Neighborhood Library - 5401 South Dakota Avenue, at Kennedy Street, N.E.. Please join us!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Update on Last Night's Meeting

Turnout was good on Tuesday's meeting, with lots of teachers who had not come to previous meetings. The agenda included an update on negotiations including a clarification that the letter that teachers had received from the Chancellor on Friday was merely a continuation of negotiations by other means. The bulk of the meeting was devoted to deepening our common understanding of what this initiative -- teachers and parents for real education reform -- stands for. The statement of what we believe in will be turned into various written pieces for teachers and parents.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Meeting Tuesday at Lamond- Riggs Library

Our next meeting will take place this Tuesday, October 7, at 5:30 at Lamond-Riggs Neighborhood Library, 5401 South Dakota Avenue NE, at Kennedy Street, NE Washington DC 20011. All teachers and parents who believe in real education reform that is focused on improving the quality of teaching and learning, and doing it with teachers, are welcome to attend.

Eduwonkette Takes Rhee to Task

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 Comments (9) TrackBacks (0)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome to this Blog

For those of you who could not attend Saturday's meeting, I wanted to give you an update. We had a group of approximately 20 teachers and parents who came to the meeting, which was quite impressive considering that it was planned with such short notice. Even more impressive is that we had teachers and parents on the same page and articulating a shared vision of education reform in DC.

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.

Kerry Sylvia