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What DC Can Teach Us About New Teacher Policies

This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead.

1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn.

The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.”

Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education.

On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are clearly in need of an extreme makeover; and teacher unions have clearly been occasional obstacles to some of the larger efforts to remake our public schools. In that regard, any and all efforts to “upgrade classroom instruction” are exactly what the doctor ordered.

And yet, the reality is that the past four years have been more of a national debate about labor law – and less of a national investigation about how people learn. And the problem is not that labor law doesn’t need fixing; it does. But when things like “last in, first out” (LIFO) firing policies, collective bargaining rights, and teacher pensions crowd out our capacity to identify what highly effective teaching and learning really looks like – and requires – what we get are cover stories about personnel dismissals and litmus tests on national personalities, not evaluation tools that are designed to help the vast majority of teachers get better. Which leads to the second thing . . .

2. STOP spending so much time talking about the best and worst teachers; START focusing on everyone else.

Although mass firings of the sort DCPS reported last week are rare, the number of personnel affected was still quite small – just 5% of the total workforce. In fact, very few teachers were rated as either great or horrible; the vast majority – nearly 70% — were simply rated “effective.”

This underscores a rather obvious point: the only way to transform the teaching profession is by crafting policies that help the vast majority of educators improve the quality of their practice over time – not by lionizing the master teachers or demonizing the ones that should find a new line of work.

Is that what’s happening in DC? I believe our new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, when she says that IMPACT, the city’s new teacher evaluation system, is designed to build capacity, not just weed out the unwanted. Perhaps over time IMPACT will even become a useful national model for a different sort of evaluation tool that can provide feedback, reinforce high standards, and help ensure a high-quality teacher in every classroom. However, based on a recent in-depth review of IMPACT, we’re not there yet – and we’re still way too focused in our public rhetoric on the best and the worst teachers. It would be nice to see the rhetoric and the reality get more in line with each other. And it would be nice to imagine that some worthy educators won’t recklessly lose their jobs along the way.

3. STOP viewing poverty and education as an either/or; START viewing them as a both/and.

Anyone who lives and works in education knows that an ongoing argument has been occurring between some who feel you can’t fix education until you fix poverty, and others who feel you can’t fix poverty until you fix education.

The reality is that both sides – and neither side – are right. Poverty and education are inextricably linked, and the ecosystem each child inhabits – from his home and community to his health and his school – has a massive, complicated impact on that child’s capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, any new policies that fail to account for that complexity aren’t just poorly designed; they’re patently unfair.

This point was reinforced in the article about the DC firings and the IMPACT evaluation system. As Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, “a breakdown by ward confirms, as it did last year, that the overwhelming majority of highly effective teachers work in schools with lower rates of poverty and other social problems.”

This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – how could it be otherwise? – and yet too many of us are still suggesting the path forward must be lit by signs saying either “It’s The Poverty, Stupid,” or “No Excuses Means No Excuses.”

We can do better. We have the capacity for greater nuance in our understanding of something as complex as teaching and learning. And as we spend the summer months preparing for a new school year, we would be wise to be more mindful of what we must stop, start and keep doing in the months and years ahead.

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“Data Craziness” (aka The Other Education: Part Deux)

Earlier this week, I responded to a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who constructed an artificial divide between our “formal education” (aka school) — which he indifferently described as linear, objective and ordinary — and our “emotional curriculum” (aka life) — which he approvingly described as nonlinear, subjective and transformational.

In fairness to Brooks, he’s hardly alone in this misconception — in fact, it’s probably inaccurate to call it a misconception, since this is how it works for too many of us: formal schooling is what you endure, and informal schooling is what helps you discover what really matters to you, what your personal strengths and weaknesses are, etc. But just because that’s the way things have been doesn’t mean that’s the way they should continue to be — a particularly relevant point for folks like Brooks, who are supposed to help light a better path, and for reform-minded cities like Washington, DC, where I now live. And yesterday I read something that gives me hope our city may be slowly adjusting its course to a more fruitful strategy for school improvement.

The event was a radio appearance by interim schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, a former deputy to Michelle Rhee, and a person who, depending on whom you ask, is either a constructive bridge between the Rhee era and the Gray administration, or a destructive reminder of the past four years. In the interview, Henderson artfully addressed the source of this artificial divide between formal and informal schooling, and suggested, to me at least, a nuanced understanding of what needs to happen going forward — in short, exactly what I want to hear from the top education official of my city.

“I think we’ve gotten something wrong,” she began. “Previously there was no measure of student achievement. We just sent kids to school and hoped for the best. And then the standards and accountability movement came along and said what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done, so we have to test. And I think testing is incredibly important. But I also think that we have to help people understand that tests are a benchmark, not the goal. The goal is to educate children. And I think the swing of the pendulum from absolutely no accountability to what I might call data craziness is starting to hurt.”

Henderson ceded that, currently, test scores remain the most objective available indicator of academic growth across the school system. “But I feel like we have to make people understand that test scores are not the only thing happening in our classrooms,” she said.

Imagine if more of our education policies were being constructed to address this vital insight? Imagine if more of our public leaders urged us all to end our obsession with either side of the pendulum extreme  — and charted a course to let that pendulum settle in the middle, where we value both measures and meaning, and where our schools are incentivized to create environments that nurture the academic, emotional and spiritual needs of our children (and communities)? And imagine if the Gray administration, under Kaya Henderson’s leadership, set out to establish three conditions that are not being met today:

  1. To measure all things worth measuring in the context of providing children the most meaningful education possible (aka Brooks’s “informal curriculum”).
  2. To ensure we know how to measure what we set out to measure.
  3. To attach no more importance to measurable things than we attach to things equally or more valuable that elude our instruments.

I like what I’m hearing.

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