Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heedless 'Reform' in D.C. Schools

Letter to the Washington Post Wednesday, November 26, 2008; A12

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

Michelle Rhee: Better to Be a Marathoner -- By Larry Cuban

This article appeared in Sunday's Washington Post, Close to Home section, November 23, 2008; Page B08. It echoes the concerns raised by "teachers and parents for real education reform."

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 15, 2008

The "Bad" Teacher

They are infamous. Countless newspaper stories have been written about them. DC school leaders and politicians include classroom horror stories about them in their speeches. Parents lament about them. They are assailed in e-mail posts and comment sections of articles and blog postings. They’ve even gotten attention nationwide with the recent spotlight on DCPS’ chancellor in the national media.

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

Another way to reform--spelled out at tonight’s forum

I am just getting home after this evening’s forum. I have to say that I was truly inspired by tonight’s event and the huge turnout. It mirrors my feelings toward Obama’s victory last night—although the problems we face may seem insurmountable right now, there is a vision and a way forward.

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.