Rheehire the Teachers, Rheetire the Chancellor
What I learned teaching in the D.C. Public Schools
"We are going to impose the new evaluation tools regardless" [of the outcome of talks with the union]. "We are going to be moving people out who are not performing." -District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, March 2, 2009
a culmination of her three years as head of the D.C. public schools,
Michelle Rhee acted on her union-busting pledge, firing 241 teachers, 5
percent of the district's total. All but a few of those dismissed
received the lowest rating under a new evaluation system, dubbed
“IMPACT,” which ties students' standardized test scores to teacher
evaluations. An additional 737 employees were put on notice that they
had been rated "minimally effective," the second-lowest category, and
would have one year to improve their performance or also be fired.
A closer look at the IMPACT evaluation method, however, reveals its ineffectiveness as a tool to judge teacher performance—while simultaneously exposing its true purpose: a smoke screen to obscure the real factors necessary to provide a quality education.
Under IMPACT, all teachers are supposed to receive five 30-minute classroom observations during the school year that account for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, three by a school administrator and two by an outside "master educator" with a background in the instructor’s subject. However, some teachers never received the full five evaluations because some of the master teachers hired to do those jobs quit. Moreover, educators have questioned the scoring criteria for the evaluations of teachers. During the 30-minute observation, usually unannounced, a teacher is supposed to demonstrate 22 different specified teaching elements. As Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss pointed out, “What teacher demonstrates 22 teaching elements – some of which are not particularly related – in 30 minutes? Suppose a teacher takes 30 minutes to introduce new material and doesn’t have time to show... Oh well. Bad evaluation.”
Another 50 percent of the teacher’s IMPACT score is calculated—in a process designed to turn students into a commodity with a specific worth on the education market—by what they actually call “value added” improvement in scores on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC CAS. As Strauss astutely notes, “Judging teachers on the test scores of their students is all the rage in school reform these days – thanks so much, Education Secretary Arne Duncan – but, frankly, this is unconscionable for several reasons, not the least of which is that DC CAS wasn’t designed to evaluate teachers. That’s a basic violation of testing law. Ask any evaluation expert.”
From 2001 through 2004 I taught in a public elementary school in South East Washington, D.C.—an area sectioned off from the city both geographically, by the Potomac River, and socially, by its dearth of everything from jobs to grocery stores. And to borrow from the great educator and author Jonathan Kozol, the schools there are savagely unequal.
The elementary school at which I taught was almost completely segregated, serving 100 percent African American students—until my third year when one white student entered kindergarten. Directly across from the entrance of the school was a decrepit building with vegetation growing out through the windows. Around the corner lay a pile of cars that had been stripped and incinerated. Our school offered neither a grass field nor a basketball hoop for the kids to use at recess. The library’s book collection was more appropriate for an archeological study than a source for topical information. Our textbooks were woefully out of date and we seldom had enough for every student. Police roamed the halls of our elementary school looking for mouthy kids to jack up against the wall.
But to fully capture the ambience, you would want to enter my classroom. I had one hole in the middle of the chalkboard and another hole in the ceiling. The first time I noticed the opening in the ceiling was a Monday morning, when I came back to school after a rainy weekend and found standing water on the floor and all of my students’ U.S. history poster-board projects waterlogged. After the second flooding of my room, I got smart and put an industrial sized garbage can under the hole.
One lasting memory of my teaching experience in D.C. came on my third day of standing before these sixth graders. I had asked the students to bring a meaningful object from home for a show-and-tell activity. We gathered in a circle in the back of the room that Friday morning and the kids sat eagerly with paper bags on their laps that concealed their autobiographical mementos. One after another, each and every hand came out of those crumpled brown lunch sacs clutching a photo of a close family member—usually a dad or an uncle—that was either dead or in jail. By the time it got to me, all I could do was stare stupidly at the baseball I had pulled out and pick nervously at the red stitches as I mumbled something about how I had played in college.
Only a few days after this lesson, the tragic attacks of 9/11 were carried out, closely followed by the government’s launching of the war on Afghanistan. I received a higher degree in education theory that year as I witnessed the cynicism of our nation’s ability to bomb children halfway around the world but not able care for them in the shadow of the White House. Soon too, it became apparent in all of the No Child Left Behind rhetoric about accountability that I was being asked, from inside of the classroom, to correct for all of the mistaken priorities of the politicians.
As much as my youthful energy and ambition helped reach many of my students that year, it became painfully obvious that so many factors shaping my students’ lives and educations were beyond my control: homelessness, a prison industrial complex that had torn so many of the families apart, the lack of jobs for even the better-educated parents, the war budget that necessarily left so many students behind.
Now, nearly a decade later, official Black unemployment in Washington, D.C. has reached 20.4 percent, many of my students no doubt have been sucked into the school-to-prison-pipeline, and the war in Afghanistan rages on with a price tag of over $345 billion, more than 1,200 American casualties, and thousands of Afghan deaths.
Crying, “Money for war, not for schools!” the U.S. Senate recently voted to drop $20 billion in aid for the public schools—money intended to prevent the elimination of some 200,000 teacher jobs projected to be cut nationally in the next year—from a spending bill that provides $59 billion for President Barack Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan.
Michelle Rhee once said, “I know success stories where parents didn’t change, home life didn’t change, tough-streets life didn’t change. What changed was the adult in front of them every day in the classroom. These external factors don’t have to define achievement for our kids. If a prospective teacher wants to come up with a laundry list of why kids are failing because no one is reading to them at night, they can go teach in Fairfax County.”
The problem with Rhee’s thinking is that our goal should not be to discover “success stories” of kids who were able to transcend the deplorable conditions of life that make it so hard for so many to succeed, but rather to change those conditions in the first place. As a landmark 2009 study from Arizona State University demonstrates, we have to look at youth holistically and understand how our society, how the “external factors,” affect every aspect of a child’s life—from mental healthcare and nutrition to housing and support at home—if we want to give more than trendy slogans and instead provide a quality education for every student.
One of the criteria for judging teachers in the IMPACT evaluation asserts that the lowest possible score for the section will be given to teachers who “Deliver information with at least one mistake that leaves students with a misunderstanding at the end of the lesson.” When Michele Rhee announced the firing of the D.C. teachers she made a profoundly inaccurate statement that put her in jeopardy of failing her own evaluation. In her partially correct, but ultimately truth-obscuring declaration, she said, "Every child in a District of Columbia public school has a right to a highly effective teacher - in every classroom, of every school, of every neighborhood, of every ward, in this city."
The truth is, every student deserves much more than that.
Every Student deserves, too, an effective teacher who is supported—not scapegoated—by the school district, a class size that allows the teacher to provide the individualized attention each child deserves, a curriculum that addresses the culture and the needs of his or her community, and government that spends more to build schools than to bomb them.
Re-hire the D.C. teachers. Retire the Chancellor.