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What you didn’t hear on Oprah yesterday (Part II)

September 21, 2010

More great posts: Valerie Strauss offers her take on “Warrior Woman” Rhee, while a New York teacher blogger lights into Oprah’s own shady history in the education world (her school in South Africa). Dr. Gary Stager also notes that we probably shouldn’t be too surprised about Oprah’s views on education.


As for my take? Well…

I recently returned from following Dr. Jesse Turner’s walk to D.C. (some cool video is coming soon!). During the trip, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with more D.C. teachers, and catch up with an old friend of mine who is currently teaching there. In an e-mail a few weeks earlier, he described the next phase of the DCPS IMPACT system:

So, basically for teachers whose students don’t take the standardized assessments (like k-3, some other random grades [11th and 12th, who aren’t tested under NCLB– henceforth “NVA” teachers, for “non-value added”], and all the subject teachers in HS), we have a portion of the assessment that was “non-value added“…last year, this was the scores from DIBELS and a few math assessments the kids were given.  This year they changed the category to teacher created assessments and are using a growth measure to score the section and assign a 1-4 for this section.  To get a 4, your students have to show 1.5 years growth at the end of the year; a 3 is 1.25 years; 2 is 1 year; and below that is a 1.  But on the scale, a score of 2 is classified as minimally effective, so doing your job makes you minimally effective…

Throughout the rest of our in-person conversation, he described what had happened during the school year so far. There were the professional development sessions where no one seemed to know just how the new IMPACT model is going to be implemented, the scripted curricula they’re being required to use for certain subjects, and of course, the normal things that happen when you teach young children. At each turn of the conversation, my mind kept returning to what is being asked of these teachers, and just how crazy this whole situation is.

For starters, there’s the time piece. In order to be considered effective according to the value-added measure, a teacher’s students have to make at least one and one-quarter years of growth in one year. Assuming that we have a reliable, valid way of measuring that, isn’t that still inherently unfair to ask of someone? I can’t think of any other job where it is demanded that someone do more than a year’s worth of work in a year, or risk losing said job. To be considered “minimally effective” for doing a year of work in a year…I can’t get my mind around how that’s fair.

(Thankfully, this is only five percent of the total evaluation for this group of teachers starting next year…according to their district-approved handout. BUT, Chancellor Rhee and the officials at DCPS would have everyone believe that “…decisions at all levels must be guided by robust data“…so which is it? Teachers outside of testing years, and in non-tested subjects, make up a weighty proportion of the teaching force. Will their value-added data be an important factor, or won’t it?)

Second, there’s the use of teacher-created assessments rather than standardized ones. Now, I’m all for authentic assessment, and teacher-created assessment tools. But this system is not about authentic assessment– it’s about “objective” measures of student and teacher performance, relative to a pre-determined standard. So how, exactly, can someone (all by him- or herself, in just one year) reliably establish what constitutes a year+ worth of growth on a measure that hasn’t been normed or standardized? They are apparently using this year to work out these kinks (only the “teach” component of the system will be used to evaluate NVA teachers this year), but is it reasonable to expect that there will be a satisfactory answer to this question in just one year? The people who make the tests we use now took far longer than one year to figure it out, and that’s their full-time job! (And by the way, their tests are still unsatisfactory in many ways! But good luck, DC teachers, figuring this out this year while also doing everything else your job already requires…)

And not for nothin’, but if your boss posed on the cover of a national magazine with a broom, strongly insinuating that YOU were the detritus to be swept away, do you think you might just be the tiniest bit inclined to make your assessment a really easy one to pass so that you could say you had exceeded her expectations and should be allowed to keep your job? (Not even a little tempted? Ok, well, consider that you know she’s asking you to do something that may well be impossible, and that if you actually, somehow create a robust assessment that meets these demands, you stand a decent chance of being fired when your students don’t do more than a year’s worth of learning in a year. That means leaving the education of your community’s students to the teachers who weren’t so virtuous. A bit more tempting now? Oh, and the time you’re taking to make this decision, and deal with any of the normal things {school emergencies, PD days, picture days, sick days, talent shows, holidays…} that come up in the course of the school year? That all counts against your time to make that 1.25 years of growth! So decide soon, and get crackin’!)

(Why would anyone needlessly introduce ethical dilemmas such as these into an already difficult, sensitive situation?)

Third, there’s the issue of holding teachers responsible for their “value-added” when their ability to exercise professional judgment in their classrooms has been significantly reduced. If teachers are being asked (forced…) to follow a prescribed curriculum to the letter, and strictly follow a pacing and planning guide, how can you even distinguish between teachers, or hold individuals responsible for their actions? Does a teacher’s value-added come in the particular voice she uses to read out of the text book? Or in the facial expressions he makes as he complies with central office mandates? (Are any other freedom-loving, Constitution-reading Americans out there a little queasy over that?)

And it only gets more confusing and frustrating from there. You seriously would have to be Superman to do all this!

So it’s strange to me, in light of this and the important points made elsewhere, to then see Michelle Rhee sitting amongst some of the most influential people in the world, being held up as a hero for schools. Just how much learning is going on, in a crazy and confusing situation like the one she has created? How is this a “caring, supportive” learning environment? (And why wouldn’t the likes of Bill Gates, Davis Guggenheim, and Oprah Winfrey bother to dig a little deeper, before lionizing this woman?)

And if the changes she made were really meaningful and sustainable, in the best interests of children, then why would it be “devastating” for her to leave DCPS? If she really did her job, then the good things should continue, even in her absence. It reminds me a bit of Joe Clark, when he said that his school would blow up after he left. I’m still left asking: Is all of this chaos really necessary? Is the confrontational, dictatorial approach really about what’s in the best interests of children and schools, or is it about getting power and attention, and feeding the myth?

And why would this myth be gaining such traction right now? Who benefits from this?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Fiorillo permalink
    September 22, 2010 3:53 am

    “Is all of this chaos really necessary?”

    If the intention is to destabilize, fragment and privatize huge segments of the system, while creating a consttantly churned, de-skilled, at-will workforce, then yes, it is necessary.

    As for the kids, well, under the business model of education, they are merely products, as Jack Welch put it. Look up the definition of value-added: “the enhancement of a product or service before the product is offered for sale to customers.” Then ask yourself abut the implications of the worldview embedded in that term, and what it means for students and teachers.

    The kids are the product, and the customers are future employers in a workplace with absolute management control of the work process, high productivity (“Work Hard!”) and obedience (“Be Nice!”).

    Starting with the first mayoral control regime in Richard Daley’s Chicago, chaos, or “disruptive innovation,” as the McKinseyites and Harvard MBAs call it, has been an explicit policy of those managing the hostile takeover of the schools. Keeping people off balance with constant reorganizations (3 in NYC in 7 years, for example), shifting and even contradictory mandates, and the constant denigration and scapegoating of teachers and their unions, is all part of the script in every urban system today.

    The city’s are the beachhead, but this will eventually expand to inner-ring suburbs (where poverty rates are accelerating faster than anywhere else in the country and many of the same problems seen in poor urban communities over the past 50 years are quickly developing), where the local school boards will be disbanded and taken over by grads from the Broad Academy and Harvard’s PEPG (Program on Educational Policy and Governance, which Rhee graduated from).

    As for who benefits, the words of Deep Throat of Watergate fame still suffice: follow the money.

    Follow the money backwards to the private interests that have already succeeded in using their immense fortunes to privatize educational policy-making, and you will be able to parse the dry, pseudo-scientific jargon and academese behind which are the blueprints for what is happening in DC right now.

  2. Chris permalink
    September 22, 2010 5:09 pm

    I feel like we’ve been learning over the years that the model of a successful business looks much less like the all go, no quit, cut throat Microsoft of old and more like Google, where employees are encouraged to take time out from “work” projects to work on individual projects and be creative. Why is it that we ignore these type of examples and assume they won’t work for teachers or for students.

  3. January 4, 2011 5:17 pm

    Ms. Sabrina Stevens Shupe, you are the real deal. Smart, clear, concise, and BRAVE. I loved your article in the Huffington Post, “Knowing What You Don’t Know,” and re-posted it on my “Kids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill” Facebook page.

    I’m glad I found your website. I’ll link to your stuff often.


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