What DC Can Teach Us About 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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7 Comments

  1. Kevin M. Talbert
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Agree. I would add, we largely already know what good learning is and consequently what good teaching is. If we all think of our “favorite” teacher, or our local “best” teacher, we get a sense of what good teaching is and why it is, how/what/that they helped students learn. But we don’t trust that we (i.e. the community) knows that, that somehow “official” measures of quality and dictates about learning standards have as much, perhaps more to do with removing power from the hands of parents and communities to decide together their educational values. All mandates and dictates about “standards” and “quality,” all mandates about hiring practices or collective bargaining, are matters of power, meant to privilege some and deny others. It is past time we start seeing these for what they are.

  2. Posted July 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Amen, Kevin! Have you seen http://www.facesoflearning.net? It’s a campaign based on this same insight — that we already know more than we think we do. Not sure if you’re in the DC area, but there will be a public story event Saturday, July 30 in DC, at which folks will share stories of their most effective teacher and/or most powerful learning experience. Perhaps I’ll see you there? The link is http://www.facesoflearning.net/events/11/faces-of-learning-story-slam/

  3. Bill Ivey
    Posted July 31, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Outstanding! Would your local paper consider printing it?

  4. Posted August 1, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    IMPACT is a teacher-behavior checklist that–while better than many checklist-type evaluations–still presumes that the evaluator knows better than the teacher. It is a useful tool for rank novices, because it helps them understand *some* of the observable behaviors that shape an effective practice.

    It does not, however, acknowledge or honor what is not observable: thinking, planning forward, why teaching decisions are made, the skill set of a great teacher. It honors one kind of teaching and one kind of teacher. Considering that nearly half of DC teachers are newbies, it might be helpful for them. But it will not build a core group of accomplished veteran teachers. And that’s the rub.

    Tools like IMPACT lead to the belief that someone can observe teaching and, combined with test scores, make a judgment call on that teacher’s effectiveness, without ever asking the teacher herself to explain her actions, goals, decisions. That’s not a model designed to lead to what Daniel Pink said about motivation: Autonomy, mastery, purpose. It’s merely one limited and low-level view about what “mastery” looks like.

  5. Cary Harrod
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    And I would argue that we (teachers) don’t necessarily know what good teaching is when it comes to the 21st Century. Let’s be clear from the onset…I am not teacher bashing…I am a teacher. Anyone who doesn’t understand that what we’ve been doing for the past 50 years simply isn’t going to work anymore doesn’t understand what we now know about learning. Does that mean we throw everything out the window? Of course not. We’re walking a tightrope here; we simultaneously need to help teachers grow in their understanding of how children learn and what it means to be a teacher in a swiftly changing landscape without making them the scapegoats for every bad thing going on in education. No one wins when we make believe that we have this all figured out. The world is changing before our very eyes and if we don’t grab a hold of that fact, and soon, we will become completely irrelevant to those who need us the most.

  6. Posted August 4, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Thats and Im happy to support the teachers who put their heart and soul into working with kids like mine. Yet Ill be that most parents of students with special needs have met and worked with teachers about whom we could only think This person will have to retire if theres going to be any hope for school inclusion. Its not always a bad thing when the old guard retires and I cant get too sad that some are leaving early.

  7. Clyde Evans
    Posted August 10, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    We need to strive toward objective ways of teacher evaluation. At this time I have not heard of instruments that provides the science to rate teachers for merit pay. People who know nothing about evaluation make policy. Not only do they make evaluation, but that make all major education policy. Education advisors to presidents and governors either do not know anything about education or they are education prostitutes. I observed this serving as a conservative Republican legislator.

    Clyde Evans

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