Rheehire the Teachers, Rheetire the Chancellor

What I learned teaching in the D.C. Public Schools

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.

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.

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."

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."

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

"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."

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.

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

Re-hire the D.C. teachers. Retire the Chancellor.

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