Monday, December 7, 2009

Hardy MS Parents Confront Rhee

Chancellor Rhee met with predominently African American parents and teachers who had demanded that she explain why their beloved, talented, principal was being "promoted" out to start an arts magnet school in antoher part of town. She may not have anticipated the firestorm she got. The history of Rhee's tenure in DCPS may record this as yet another misstep in the name of shaking things up. See the clip here. Hardy MS is a newly renovated school in the white, upper income Georgetown neighborhood that serves students who predominently live outside the neighborhood. Sunday's Washington Post covered the "firestorm" of a meeting at Hardy MS in an article by Bill Turque.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Showdown Over Individual Teacher Talent May Be the Wrong Focus

The escalating conflict over firing and hiring individual teachers may be the result of an ill conceived reform strategy in DCPS. To the extent that even the budget crisis that led to firing 229 teachers after hiring over 900 over the summer fits into a long term strategy of turning over the teacher workforce, that strategy may fly in the face of research on what works.

In a new Policy Brief released October 26th by the Economic Policy Institite, Harvard Professor Susan Moore Johnson argues that reforms focused on individual teachers falls short. Johnson summarizes recent research by several teams of researchers, including an important new study by Jackson and Breugmann (2009), a mathematica study of new teacher mentoring programs, as well as her own work over many years. This new research supports the conclusion that the effect of a teachers' colleagues and the culture of the school on student achievement may be greater than the individual characteristics that the teacher brings to the equation.

The conventional wisdom that the way to improve education is to find talented teachers, assign them to classrooms, and hold them accountable for raising students' standardized test scores does not, it turns out, lead to the hoped for results. Rather, Johnson argues, we need to focus on the social organization and professional culture of schools as organizations.

The implications of this analysis for DCPS are huge. To the extent that we are sacrificing or failing to invest in the collegial and professional culture in schools and are placing brand new teachers in schools with dysfunctional professional culture where teachers draw defensively into their isolated classrooms, that misplaced emphasis could actually lead to further deterioration in the quality of teaching and learning. To the extent that teachers view themselves in a battle with the DCPS administration over jobs, while their needs for professional supports, respect and trust remain unmet, the atmosphere that is needed to build within-school collegiality is undermined.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Uniting for Real Education Reform -- a teacher reports on the impact of the Oct. 8 Rally for Respect

After a stressful few weeks of uncertainty from the impending RIFs followed by 16 lay offs at my school alone, it was a welcomed feeling to board a bus full of colleagues to last Thursday's Washington Teachers Union rally. New teachers alongside veteran teachers rode together as we joined the thousands of others rallying around the unjust budget cuts made a month and a half into the school year.

Despite all of the rhetoric and finger pointing by Rhee/Fenty and the City Council, those of us directly impacted—teachers, parents and students—were finally uniting and standing up to the lack of planning and transparency that has become the MO of the Rhee Administration. Enough is Enough! Young and old, white and black, custodian and teacher, fired and employed—we rallied together with a sense of unity and purpose.

From the beginning of the mayoral takeover phrases have been used to divide us—adults vs. students, red tier vs. green tier, veteran teacher vs. new teacher. Yet, the RIFs served as a unifying force because they were the latest and most egregious example of the disconnect between central office decisions and their impacts on schools. Adding fuel to the fire were the repeated assurances by the Mayor and Chancellor that the RIFs were not going to impact children and that only incompetent teachers were fired. The Washington Post’s article about Marie Fonrose is just one example of how these comments are more propaganda for an administration that seems more concerned with PR than providing basic resources to classroom teachers.

At the rally I saw community—something that has been seriously lacking in the school reform efforts under Michelle Rhee. If we are going to transform our schools, we need to work together to create positive and conducive teaching and learning environments. That requires long term planning, transparency, stability, and a willingness to unify all stakeholders. We need to get beyond the management vs. union confrontation that has allowed many to think that teachers only care about a paycheck and a job for life. The WTU must broaden the dialogue to expose the realities of the current reform so that the solution can’t be reduced to more TFA and KIPPs as Richard Whitmire’s attempts to do in today’s Post. I wonder if Mr. Whitmire has spent any real time in a DC public school or was he spewing out the latest reform rhetoric.

The RIFs were a glimpse for many of the big picture of instability and poor planning that has continued to make teaching and learning difficult for teachers—both TFA and veteran. I hope the rally serves as the spark that ignites a demand for accountability from the reformers. There's way too much at stake for those of us in the trenches not to speak out and demand an active role in DCPS reform. The students of DCPS can't wait another 5 years to get things right.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rhee Fires Teachers, Apparently Without Cause -- Budgetary or Competence

The RIFs came down Friday as 229 teachers and others totaling 388 school employees got pink slips. They will be put on paid leave until November 2, when they will no longer have jobs. The Washington POST dutifully wrote an editorial Saturday applauding the RIFs. Incredibly, the POST reasoned that since there are some bad teachers in DCPS, therefore any firing of teachers must be justified, no matter whether those bad teachers were the ones fired or not. Meanwhile, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray questioned why any cuts were needed given that DCPS has more money in the current budget than they did the year before. Independent budget analysist Mary Levy fired off a quick analysis that documents why the cuts were not needed at all. Meanwhile, no evaluation of teachers was used to identify who should be cut. Principals had been instructed how many teachers to eliminate and came up with lists. Broad criteria provided by Rhee instructed principals to rank their teachers using "needs of the school" for 75% of the determination, the lowest ranking teachers to be cut. So this highly disruptive action, one month into the school year, was based on a process no one trusts based on a budget cut that has not been justified. Even those who want attention to the quality of teaching and want bad teachers removed had trouble defending these RIFs, except the editors of the Washington Post.

At some of the most challenged high schools, significant numbers of students will have to be re-scheduled into classes a month into the year. Cardozo HS is losing 16 teachers, 18 at Ballou HS and 15 at Spingarn HS. Parents and teachers throughout the City are scrambling to figure out what the impact will be on their kids. A demonstration has been called for Thursday, October 8 , from 4:30 to 6:00 at Freedom Plaza in front of the Wilson Building.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SHAPPE Letter Questions $ Cuts and RIFs

On this day when budget cuts were due to be translated into pick slips delivered to teachers in every school, the Senior High Alliance of Principals, Parents and Educators (SHAPPE) today delivered a carefully worded letter to the City Council. It called for Council hearings and closer oversight over DCPS to make up for a lack of central planning and accountability that schools need from the system. "The absence of requirements in the law for public process, transparency and reporting has left us wondering whether all this disruption caused by the budget cut to schools was necessary," the letter said. It is posted on the SHAPPE web site under "Letters and Testimony." Also in the letter is a careful accounting of the factors that contributed to the budget cut one month into the school year.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Cat's Out of the Bag on Budget Cuts

Over the weekend City Councilmember David Catania revealed privately to "Teachers and Parents for..." member Kerry Sylvia that the purpose of the contrived budget cuts was to get principals to ID their least competent teachers for removal. Today the Washington Post announced the same thing in their lead editorial. So what's the problem with this?

The problem is that the Chancellor has had more than two years to come up with a way to credibly evaluate teachers based on an objective assessment of their competence, according to a commonly held standard of what good teaching looks like. She has failed to do this. She didn't even start trying to come up with such a system until this year. And the budget cut process even bypasses the system she has just recently created. And quite frankly the teachers union has also failed to step up to the plate to offer an alternative way to effectively evaluate teachers.

Telling principals to come up with an arbitrary list of positions to cut to satify a budget cut quota randomly assigned to each school is at best a crude, blunt instrument. Budget watcher Mary Levy questions whether there is a need for cuts at all. Members of the Council also question the need for cuts. It will create ill will, unnecessary instability in every school as students are re-assigned one month into the year, and in many cases the wrong decisions will be made. It seems to us that it will also open DCPS to lawsuits on the part of people who lose thier jobs without adequate rationale or due process. The problem of teachers teaching who should have been subject to a better evaluation system is real, but this way of addressing it avoids the hard work that the Rhee administration was hired to do two and a quarter years ago.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mass Hiring and Mass Layoff -- What Gives?

DC teacher Dan Brown's September 18 Huffington Post article on the DCPS budget cut to schools hits the nail on the head. He explains why hiring 900 newbies over the summer and mass teacher layoffs in the fall is an ill conceived strategy.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Marginalized For Life

Ten years working with students as a DCPS social worker and I can confidently say that David’s situation is not remarkable. Due to concerns about privacy I am not going to discuss specifics about his life but speak about typical circumstances of students like him.

Who shares the blame for David being in the fifth grade and not being able to read? It is a multi-system failure starting with his family. Parents not having the skills to manage their own lives let alone raise a child are disturbingly common among DCPS students. Substance abuse, mental illness, illiteracy, incarceration, medical problems, poverty, joblessness are chronic conditions that plague too many families.

David lives in a city where affordable housing and health care as well as access to adequate mental health and substance abuse services are scarce to non existent. Public schools have been neglected for decades and used as a rallying cry by politicians for everything from scapegoating anything publicly run, to breaking the union, touting change for change sake and shedding mostly crocodile tears.

Yes, DCPS has failed David but promoting year round standardized testing as one of the hallmarks of reform is not going to improve his reading or writing skills. Why make so many children suffer through taking tests where most of the content is completely unfamiliar and if you can’t read, incomprehensible?

Special education in DCPS is a mess and the move towards more inclusion without the proper staffing will only make the chances for David to learn to read, graduate high school and get a decent paying job very remote.

I hate to be so doom and gloom about the future but that is the reality David lives in and I work with every day. I want to participate in a reform effort that brings people (students, parents, teachers and community members) together to discuss these challenges in an honest and open dialogue. While overwhelming David’s challenges are not insurmountable. It will, however, take a collective effort that is not so politically charged.

* This entry is a continuation from "Marginalized Taking the DC BAS" and in response to some of the feedback sent to me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Marginalized taking the DC BAS

Only two days after Labor Day and the high stakes testing frenzy is in full swing across DC Public Schools. At my school students started the first day of the DC BAS today. It is not as long as DC CAS and is supposed to serve as a baseline to track student progress for the April tests.

Without getting into all of the politics of standardized testing, I thought I would share my experience today to offer an inside perspective.

I was responsible for administering the DC BAS to David*, a fifth grade special education student. When I was assigned David, I was told that he may not take long to test because he is so low academically and would probably just randomly bubble in answers.

David was very cooperative and respectful the entire time. We both opened our test booklets and I read the sample question. David got it wrong. “No worries,” I said trying to prevent him from getting too frustrated. “All we want you to do is try your best. It is okay if you don’t understand a question or do not know the answer, just guess.”

With the new NCLB regulations we can no longer read questions or passages to special education students. We are only allowed to read aloud the directions for the reading and writing sections. David’s facial expression went from pleasant to a combination of confusion and fear when I told him he would be responsible for reading the passages and questions. “I can’t read,” he exclaimed in exasperation. Unfortunately, he was not exaggerating.

In the end, without reading a single word he bubbled in all of the answers and did not write anything for the writing passages except for his name at the top of the page. I spent the next hour and a half talking with him about his summer and how school was going thus far. We also did some play therapy with puppets.

The testing not only served no purpose for David, it was also a humiliating and alienating experience. The reality is that there were thousands of Davids today in schools across DC suffering in silence or acting out to cope with feelings of inadequacy. They just don’t fit in with the NCLB standardized testing equation. It is heartbreaking to witness.

* David is not the student's real name

Thursday, August 20, 2009


By Guy Brandenburg, retired DCPS math teacher

Question: Can the statisticians in the group check the following claim, made in the intro to the PBS segment on DCPS progress under chancellor Rhee?

“…almost half of elementary students are now on grade level, according to the city’s year-end DC-CAS test. That may not sound like much, but when Rhee took over, only 29% were on grade level in math.”

Answer: Well... sort of. But one could also make the much more unfavorable claim about Rhee's record: In reading, DCPS students are ALMOST, but not quite, back up to the levels they scored at in 2005!!!! In math, under the current leadership, they are still about 6 percentage points behind!

See for yourself. Here are the percentages of students on the elementary school level scoring ‘advanced’ or ‘proficient’ in reading + math over the past 7 years, from the DCPS- OSSE – NCLB website. (Use the buttons at top right hand side of the website.) I rounded to the nearest whole percent, and the testing company involved did change at one point, from Harcourt/Pearson to some other firm. (Guess when!)

Year Reading Math

2003 44% 54%

2004 46% 56%

2005 51% 58%

2006 37% 27%

2007 38% 30%

2008 45% 41%

2009 48% 48%

However, there is a problem with equating the SAT-9 or DC-CAS category 'proficient' with the concept of 'being on grade level'. I will try to explain.

By one widely-used definition, 'being on grade level' means scoring at or about the 50th percentile on some nationally-normed [or perhaps internationally-normed] test of whatever kids of that grade level are supposed to be learning. If Johnny is at the '50th percentile', that does not mean he got exactly half the questions right. It merely means that about half the kids on that grade level scored worse than Johnny did, and roughly half scored better than Johnny. (For simplicity, I am leaving out all the other kids who got the exact same score as Johnny.)

So (you are wondering), what's the problem? Isn't the DC-CAS a nationally-normed test? In a word, NO. It ain't. As far as I know, almost none of the questions were tried out on students in any other jurisdiction. Instead, DCPS or OSSE contracted with some company that makes tests, gave them the learning 'standards' ('objectives' if you haven't kept up with the jargon) and asked them to write a test. I am pretty sure that some DCPS teachers were asked to review the questions, or even to write some of them. I spent an afternoon a couple of years ago, with other teachers, helping to weed out questions that we thought were no good, but I no longer remember if that was for the DC-CAS or the DC-BAS. Confusing, huh? The DC-BAS was/is a series of practice tests supposedly designed to help kids prepare for the real thing - the DC-CAS. B versus C.

So, the DC-CAS and the SAT-9* are both 'criterion-referenced' tests rather than 'norm-referenced'. Let me illustrate the difference by looking at a hypothetical, impoverished, corrupt, 3rd world country where the typical child – let’s call her Rubina - has illiterate parents who can only afford the school fees for about half their children (typically the boys), and then, only for a few months a year, and for a few years only. After that, the children need to go to work doing whatever. Rubina, being a girl, doesn’t get sent to school at all.

A norm-referenced test of all of the 11-year-old kids in that country might show that if Rubina knows the local alphabet, can write her own name and a few other words, and add whole numbers that have no more than 2 digits, then she is about on par with the median kid of her age. So, half of the other kids in the country know and can do less than Rubina, but the other half of thev11-year olds know and can do more than her. In some cases, other students in her country know a great deal more indeed, attending schools on a par with any in the world.

A criterion-referenced test, on the other hand, might even consist of very similar questions [though probably a lot fewer of the extremely basic ones that might be on the previous one], or it might not. The big difference would be the scoring: some appointed committee or individual would decide in advance what they think 11-year-old children should know and be able to do. They would then designate the lowest scores as, perhaps, 'failing', or 'moron' [the term was actually invented here in the USA by Henry Goddard, one of the 'fathers' of testing psychology] or 'below basic' or whatever; and the top scores as 'superior', 'honors', 'gifted and talented' or 'advanced' or whatever. In our hypothetical 3rd world country, perhaps only a few percent of the cohort of 11-year-olds would do well enough to be considered ‘on grade level’. Little Rubina doesn’t stand much of a chance of passing.

Sound familiar?

And perhaps a great hue and cry would arise in said country to replace all the no-good teachers in said country with 2-year Peace Corps volunteers or similar missionary types from wealthier countries overseas. Also to get rid of the failing public schools, to privatize everything dealing with social services, and so on. Not to improve society as a whole, heavens, no! It's the TEACHER, that's all! Oh, yes, by all means, let's pay the teachers for test results.

Whoops. I forgot! Actually, they already have that pay-for-performance system in a number of 3rd world countries: the government doesn't pay teachers a living wage, so only the kids whose parents have enough money to pay their child's teacher for private tutoring, actually pass the tests. I have heard that ALL of those who pay, pass, one way or another. Hmmm....

Again, does that sound familiar?

So, does 'proficient' and/or 'advanced' mean the same as 'being on grade level'?

That depends on how you define the terms, doesn’t it? And it also depends on who’s writing the tests, and how they score them. I think that I have had to administer tests from at least 4 different companies during my 31 or so years in DCPS. You can define things so that Rhee is doing great, or just the opposite.

And speaking of Rhee and test scores, does anybody actually recall seeing the raw data showing that she actually performed that miracle when she taught in Baltimore? Last I heard, they all got 'lost'. Read the Daily Howler and search the archives for several fascinating articles about Frau Rhee.

Guy Brandenburg, Washington, DC

My home page on astronomy, mathematics, education:

or else


"Education isn't rocket science. It's much, much harder."

(Author unknown)

* There are those who claim the SAT-9 was actually norm-referenced.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


By: Guy Brandenburg, retired DCPS mathematics teacher

The results from last year’s DC-CAS flatly contradict the media-spread ‘wisdom’ that public charter schools always do better than regular urban public schools.

In fact, regular DC public elementary schools out-performed the charter schools on the 2009 DC-CAS in 11 out of 14 categories. Strangely, at the secondary level, the results were almost exactly the opposite: in 12 out of 14 categories, the secondary charter school students scored higher.

These results come from a mathematically simple, but tedious, calculation of the averages of the percentages of students in the various subgroups who were deemed 'proficient' based on their scores on last spring's version of the DC-CAS (Comprehensive Assessment System) exam, which is taken by all DC public and charter school students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 under the No Child Left Behind act, or NCLB. The computations were done by this writer by cutting and pasting the data into several Excel spreadsheets, separating the regular and charter schools, and taking averages of the averages provided for each group given in the data on-line.

On the elementary level, the regular public school students outscored the charter school students in the following eleven categories:

  • In both math and reading, the entire schools in question (about 48% versus 38% in math, and 48% to 45% in reading);
  • In both math and reading, among the economically disadvantaged (meaning, those eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches), by about 43% to 37% for math, and 43% to 42% in reading;
  • In reading only, among the educationally disabled (also known as special education students) by a score of 32% to 26%;
  • In both math and reading among LEP-NEP students (that is, students with limited or no proficiency in the English language), by scores of 55% to 48% in math, and 47% to 43% in reading;
  • In both math and reading among black students, by scores of 46% to 37% in math, and 47% to 45% in reading; and
  • In both math and reading among white students, by scores of 93% to 85% in math, and 92% to 91% in reading.

The only three categories where elementary charter school students did better were these:

  • In math only, among special education students, by a score of 29% to 28%; and
  • In both math and reading among Hispanic students, by scores of 56% to 53% in math, and 49% to 47% in reading.

On the secondary level, the situation was almost exactly reversed.

Students in the public charter schools did better than those in the regular public schools in the following twelve sub-categories:

  • In both math and reading for the entire schools in question (46% to 41% in math, and 49% to 42% in reading);
  • In both math and reading among those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (45% to 40% in math, and 47% to 39% in reading);
  • In both math and reading among the special education students (32% to 14% in math, and 21% to 16% in reading);
  • In both math and reading among students just now learning English (43% to 40% in math, and 37% to 31% in reading);
  • In both math and reading among African-Americans (46% to 38% in math, and 49% to 41% in reading); and
  • In both math and English among students of Latino or Hispanic origin (54% to 50% in math, and 47% to 44% in reading).

Curiously, the only two sub-groups in which students did better in the regular secondary schools were both math and reading among white students, by scores of 92.9% to 92.7% in math, and 95.1% to 93.8% in reading.

The raw data can be found at and by then clicking on the various buttons on that page.

It should be noted that the rules determining whether a school is considered to be secondary or elementary, or whether a group of students are to be counted at all, are not exactly straightforward. A school is considered to be elementary if it contains either a 3rd or a 5th grade. And, if it goes above the 6th grade and still has a 3rd grade, then it remains an elementary school. For it to be considered secondary, a school needs to contain one or more grades above the 6th grade, but no 3rd grade. If sub-group of students has fewer than 25 students, it is not counted – but there are exceptions for students with limited or no proficiency in English. And, yes, some students might be counted in several different groups. For example, a student whose family is poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch, with a Spanish surname, and who has a diagnosed learning disability because of hearing loss, might be counted in as many as eight subgroups or as few as none, depending on whether the subgroups have enough students in them or not. Remember, there is both math and reading, and there some extremely small schools in the list who appear to have not enough students for any sub-groups ay all. (Got that?)

All of the percentages given indicate the portion of the students in each group or subgroup who scored at the “advanced” or “proficient” level on the various tests. Keep in mind that one subgroup at one school might have only 25 students, whereas a different subgroup at the same school might have many hundreds.

The summary tables I computed are as follows. If you would like to see the five pages of Excel spreadsheets I made using the OSSE data, send me an email.

Public Charter schools: Elementary






Whole School



Economically Disadvantaged [F-RL]



Disabled [a.k.a. special education]



LEP/NEP {English as a second language]



Black students



White students



Hispanic students

Regular Elementary schools [DCPS]






Whole School



Economically Disadvantaged [F-RL]



Disabled [a.k.a. special education]



LEP/NEP {English as a second language]



Black students



White students



Hispanic students

Public Charter schools Secondary






Whole School



Economically Disadvantaged [F-RL]



Disabled [a.k.a. special education]



LEP/NEP {English as a second language]



Black students



White students



Hispanic students

Regular Secondary Schools [DCPS]






Whole School



Economically Disadvantaged [F-RL]



Disabled [a.k.a. special education]



LEP/NEP {English as a second language]



Black students



White students



Hispanic students


Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Value Added" Test Score Method Probed

An article in this week's Education Week (July 15) points to controversy over whether "value added" assessment of teacher effectiveness might be built on "shaky assumptions." The "Value Added" method is based on judgements as to whether individual teachers are getting greater, lesser or on par student test score gains compared with those historically predicted for their students. While significantly better than the current method of comparing the scores of this year's students with last year's different students to judge schools or teachers, serious questions remain as to whether the value added method is ready for high stakes use. Researcher Jesse Rothstein, who authored the study that was the subject of the Ed Week article, and testing expert Dan Koretz who authored the recent book Measuring Up, don't think so.

Meanwhile, it looks like the long awaited new teacher evaluation system in DCPS, developed by special assistants to the chancellor Jason Kamras and Michael Moody, relies on a "value added" assessment of individual teacher's students DC CAS scores for 55% of a teacher's professional evaluation. Stay tuned for a fair amount of controversy as this gets rolled out. DCPS isn't just planning to use this method to justify a bonus or as the basis of a pilot study as in other school districts experimenting with value added -- eg. Prince Georges County, Denver, NYC. DCPS is going right to full implementation of this untested method for as much of the teacher workforce as they have value added scores.