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.