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D.C. School Protestors--What's Your Plan?

My colleague Bob McCartney and our editorial writer on education issues--both friends of mine--offer somewhat contrasting views in the Sunday paper. As always the mugwump, I think they're both right. McCartney wisely points out that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee needs a clearer explanation of why she hired so many teachers when she knew the budget was being cut. Our editorialist notes that the union seems to be, once again, defending seniority as the way to decide which teachers to keep and promote, a bad idea if there ever was one.

I have only one thing to add. The union, as both McCartney and our editorialist indicate, is of course right to protest the firing of its members, and to file suit to see if Rhee violated any laws or regulations in the process. But the union still has not told us which of Rhee's innovations they want changed, and WHY.

I think everyone in the city agrees that our schools are bad and our kids deserve better. That is why Rhee has gotten so much support despite her sometimes maddening management style. She has said what she is trying to do, in some detail. Indeed she is showing us what she is doing in schools already. If the union and her critics got rid of her, which seems to be their intent, what would they put in her place? What would they do differently, and what evidence do they have to show that would work?

Two small details: McCartney did not have the space to explain that the 90-day notice that many dismissed teachers got last spring was somewhat longer than that. Only working days were counted, so the teachers had about five months to respond to regular coaching from their principal and other school staffers, when you discount weekends and holidays, to see if they might improve and their jobs be saved. I am not sure that keeping all of the teachers recently dismissed for another five months would work very well. Some of them are new hires that do not merit a 90-day plan under the current regulations.

Also, rating teachers by performance reviews, at least of the sort we have had here and in the rest of the region for the last several years, probably does not tell us very much. I will be writing more about that soon. Rhee is trying to change that system. I wish her luck. Many have tried and failed.

It is sad that so many good people who chose to be teachers lost their jobs in this mess. But I also think those who say the firings have hurt many kids in D.C. might consider the fact that the vast majority of schools lost few if any teachers. The largest number of teachers were lost at a few high schools that are already among the most dysfunctional in the country. It is hard to imagine them getting any worse for their students than the already are.

By Jay Mathews  | October 11, 2009; 9:54 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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How do you propose to rate teachers if not with the performance reviews that downtown gets to set up however they please?

Are you seriously suggesting that teachers should be able to be fired with NO system of evaluating whether or not they are effective teachers? There is a pretty substantial amount of evidence that many of the teachers RIFed were effective teachers (as described by their principals in their evaluations) and that their dismissal was due to other factors (such as being union reps, etc...)

Nobody I know is defending seniority, everyone wants to know why good teachers are being fired while bad ones are still there.

It was NOT hard to dismiss a teacher using a 90 day plan, it merely required a principal or assistant principal to observe the teacher a few times and dismiss them. The fact that principals failed to do that for the teachers that do need to be removed is not the teacher's union's fault, but the administrations.

Finally, I think the burden of evidence should be on Ms. Rhee to explain why it was appropriate to circumvent contractually agreed to firing provisions rather then on the union to explain why the contract should be followed.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | October 11, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Jay, what about the student who was taking French 3 at McKinley and is now in Spanish 1? What about the student taking AP English, and now due to that teacher being fired, is unable to access that?

You, who promote AP for all, and promote students taking college prep academics in general (i.e 3 years of the same foreign language), are completely ignoring that when you state, "The largest number of teachers were lost at a few high schools that are already among the most dysfunctional in the country. It is hard to imagine them getting any worse for their students than the already are".

Losing the ability to take AP or the third year of a language is actually worse, no doubt about it.

Posted by: researcher2 | October 11, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse


If DC really wants to help their children, they need to increase the amount of emotional help these children receive. Children who are growing up in unstable neighborhoods have a hard time concentrating in school. Their minds are overwhelmed by their emotional distress, and they have a difficult time concentrating on school.

Schools are failing across the country in unstable neighborhoods. Perhaps it is time people concerned bout education start taking into account the way this type of background keeps children from learning.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 11, 2009 11:11 PM | Report abuse

One more thing. The main cause of ineffective principals and teachers is an inability to handle children's emotional distress. Many principals and teachers effectiveness would greatly increase if they learned techniques to make them more effective in this area.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 11, 2009 11:19 PM | Report abuse

My plan would be to find a more objective voice to discuss this issue. You state that the "few" high schools which lost a large number of teachers deserved their fate because they are among the "most dysfunctional in the country." Putting aside your penchant for hyperbole, this statement is simply not true of my child's school--McKinley Tech--which lost 15 positions. But then again, you probably know more about all that than I ever could.

Posted by: dcproud1 | October 12, 2009 12:15 AM | Report abuse

Wyrm1 | October 11, 2009 10:45 AM
has it pretty correct.

But this is to be expected when things started out with a lie, namely the Wall Street Journal, Home Show, Hartford Courant write-ups as well as the undocumented claim to have taken kids in two years from the 13th percentile to 90% of them in the 90th percentile.

Posted by: edlharris | October 12, 2009 12:46 AM | Report abuse

Teachers want to get the job done, as well as see that those who don't teach get out, either jumping or being pushed.

But as efavorite has pointed out, Mrs. Rhee has been disrespectful towards teachers; eg. wondering why they would want a career in it.
And the Post editorial writer (Miss Armao??) has followed with the same disrespect, namely the editorial from the 3rd, implying the RIFfed teachers were incompetent.

I've pointed out that Mrs. Rhee resume has problems with the truth.
Two weeks ago, Mrs Rhee gave a disingenuous response to my questions on Shaw Middle:
(A first look, there appears to be a lack of consistency on your behalf regarding the use of test scores to evaluate personnel, eg. firings you made last year and this year with Shaw Middle. Could you please clarify?

Michelle Rhee: I don't think there's any inconsistency. Shaw was a failing middle school that needed to be restructured. Anyone who has been in the school under the new leadership can attest to the fact that the school's culture and environment has improved radically. The test scores stayed pretty level this year (not uncommon for the first year of a turn around) and we expect to see greater gains in the years to come. I'm excited by what Principal Betts, the staff and students have done there!)

So how are teachers supposed to trust her on evaluations and teacher incentives:
(see my second question to her:
How is the private funding for teacher incentive programs coming along? I haven't read much about it recently.

Michelle Rhee: The commitments are still there if we can come to agreement on this contract! We're very lucky on that front because this will be an opportunity to significantly raise teacher pay during this tough economic time.)

So the real question should be to Mrs. Rhee and she needs to start this process by being honest with the teachers and with the citizens of the District.

Posted by: edlharris | October 12, 2009 1:06 AM | Report abuse

Researcher2 and dcproud1 are right. I was wrong. I should not have suggested that McKinley Tech was one of the country's most dysfunctional high schools. It is quite the opposite. I apologize, and I share researcher2's view that denying students a chance to take AP is a major problem. I am hoping that this will be quickly corrected. All the DCPS people I know share researcher2's view on the importance of AP. We shall see.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 12, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

As a Riffed teacher, your comment that most schools did not lose many teachers, and that for the schools that did lose teachers, things could hardly get worse anyway flies in the face of reason. It speaks to an attitude of, "Well if it didn't happen in a school west of the park, we're not going to worry about it." My students called me every morning last week, asking where I was, complaining that they weren't doing anything. They were being 'taught' by a sub. If I had been there we would have been continuing reading a memoir, "The Pact,", practicing reading strategies such as summarizing, making connections, and asking questions, and starting a unit on financial aid. Yesterday I got an email from one of my students, saying she had no one who could help her in her math or English class. How exactly, is this helping students?

Posted by: damccarey | October 12, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"It is hard to imagine them getting any worse for their students than the already are."

When poorly functioning schools lose great teachers its impact is multiplied many times. As an education columnist, I am surprised (actually appalled) that you have so little regard for the excellent educators who were removed from these "dysfunctional" schools. The point that you and Rhee seem to miss by a mile is that it is the poor administrations of these schools (who also mismanaged the RIF) that are in desperate need of reform. Teachers cannot perform to the best of their ability under unsupportive and disorganized administrations. The constant focus on teachers and how we can remove them more easily is what Rhee has made her job about. We need to shift the debate onto issues that are currently not receiving attention, and YOU need to TALK to more teachers (perhaps at some of those "dysfunctional" schools) so you can start writing posts that are worth reading.

Posted by: damccarey | October 12, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Here's my solution:

Posted by: rlaymandc | October 12, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

We can never allow any individual, no matter how well-intentioned, to step over the rights of others. We're a nation of laws and that's why Michelle Rhee will ultimately fail. Here's what I'd like to see done for the children of DC:

Hire a leader who is both intelligent and of strong character.

Hire mostly experienced teachers with a history of success. Don't hire people with "emergency" credentials. The suburbs don't.

Help struggling teachers by pairing them with successful ones.

Support teachers by giving them the tools that they need (like Internet access).

Provide extra support for children who disrupt instruction.

Use fair and legal processes to dismiss ineffective teachers.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 12, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Trying again, just for kicks - haven't been able to post here all day.

Posted by: efavorite | October 12, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Hello EdlHarris, Hello Jay –

A correction of sorts about Shaw’s scores was made right here in Jay’s blog. It was published late Friday afternoon – always a good time for burying the news - and had a headline (below) not designed to attract readers. Even you missed it, Ed! Still, it was something, and I’m glad, Jay, you offered me the opportunity to do it. Here it is again, in two installments, in case the length is what’s causing the problems posting:

Fixing Errors (Not Mine, Of Course)
At the Struggle, we like to be accurate. Although when we do corrections we try to dig into them and not to be as boring as those little items on page A2 of the Post. Here is a complaint one of the Struggle's most persistent readers, known as efavorite, sent me about a recent statement by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on a Q and A Sept. 29:

Efavorite: I think a correction should be made about the Shaw score information, just as John Merrow did on the PBS "Learning Matters" website after it aired the same inaccurate information about Shaw back in August. Rhee said in the Q and A:

“Shaw was a failing middle school that needed to be restructured. Anyone who has been in the school under the new leadership can attest to the fact that the school's culture and environment has improved radically. The test scores stayed pretty level this year (not uncommon for the first year of a turn around) and we expect to see greater gains in the years to come. I'm excited by what Principal Betts, the staff and students have done there!”

That's not accurate. As you reported in your Sept. 28 column:
"Shaw dropped from 38.7 to 30.5 in the percent of students scoring at least proficient in reading, and from 32.7 to 29.2 in math."

Posted by: efavorite | October 12, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse


Me: I think efavorite is right. We stand corrected. But efavorite overlooks the more important issue of what those score drops mean. My column also said that only 17 percent of those 2009 Shaw students were at the school in 2008. It is mostly an apples and oranges not-so-useful comparison. As I said, if you compare the scores of just the 44 students who were there both years, the result is different: "The students’ decline in reading was somewhat smaller; it went from 34.5 to 29.7. Their math scores actually increased a bit, from 26.2 to 29.5” That is closer to Rhee's view that the test scores stayed pretty level. But a very low level, as I said.

Jay - Speaking of apples and oranges, the -4 and -9 numbers are the ones under discussion, not other un-verified data only mentioned in your column as a result of what sounds like a private conversation with the chancellor. I disagree that I’m “overlooking a more important issue.” I can’t overlook something that’s not visible. How deep do I have to look to find that other data, or is it even available for the public to peruse? How do I know it actually exists? Shaw’s standing is based on the same official, publicly available “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) data used for all the schools, so it’s incredibly disingenuous for Chancellor Rhee to use different data when discussing Shaw’s scores. This is apples and oranges writ large, with fingers crossed behind her back.

Besides, if Shaw had experienced an increase of 4 and 9 using the standard data, I doubt if you or Chancellor Rhee would have said the scores "stayed pretty level." You’d simply say “increased.” Children first, Jay. You and the Chancellor should set a good example. Second graders can see that -4 and -9 are declines. And they know the difference between a fact and a self-serving distortion.

Posted by: efavorite | October 12, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Thanks e. I alway like to see my words repeated. I wasn't trying to bury the news. But I was with my wife in Madison, WI, where she was attending a conference, and trying to fit a little recreation with her between her various meetings. Our computers had blocked me from creating new blog posts earlier in the week, and so I went for the first opportunity I had. I thought I posted that on Saturday. Our Web gurus tell me we have a lot of weekend readers. But I am new to this blogging thing, and will make mistakes, just like that certain someone we have been discussing.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 12, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

And I thought the headline was a real grabber. That's may be why they never let me write headlines for the newspaper.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 12, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

For rlaymandc: You have my deepest thanks for responding to my question, and presenting an alternate solution. Your blog post is full of wisdom and erudition, and I recommend others read it. Sadly, however, you place your faith in creating great systems to make a great school district. I lost my faith in that approach many years ago, having watched many great and wise systemic changes go belly up. What works, as far as I can see, is great people, particularly in the principal's office. My KIPP book is full of examples of that. If you have a good example or two of systemic change turning a school district around, tell us what it is. You are helping us move this discussion along, and I suspect most of us are grateful for that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 12, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Now that I read the comments more carefully, others too have proposed solutions. Thank you for them.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 12, 2009 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Of course, you made some glaring panoramas, particularly about the hubris of the Fenty-Rhee administration and their cryptic political agendas: worker bias and gentrification (yes, I said it, and it's true!). On the other side of the coin, Gray would certainly be a wiser, fairer mayor—especially after Fenty has disappeared (he was everywhere during his first days as mayor—at candlelight vigils in ‘the hood,’ in school system warehouses, shaking and hugging people in schools, etc.). Where is this guy, now, really? It seems like he's been in hiding! It's time for Rhee and Fenty to go, clearly. I think she had good intentions, but steam-rolling people out of their jobs and not working with impacted communities is definitely not the way to go. Not to mention, she's now upset children: the most important consumers...

Posted by: rasheeedj | October 12, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Jay - would that Rhee's errors were as inconsequential as yours.

Where was her staff when she was hatching her RIF plan? I figure not everyone at 825 N Capitol Street thought this was dandy idea, but were afraid or knew better than to disagree with her.

As for my plan for the schools – I have designed and executed numerous excellent plans in my area of expertise. However, as I’m not an educational expert, I do not have a plan for the DC public schools beyond getting Rhee out before she can do more damage and getting someone in who knows what they’re doing.

I could be more specific, of course, after studying the Rhee regime so closely, but all my insights are common-sense responses that any intelligent, informed, concerned citizen could formulate.

Posted by: efavorite | October 12, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Jay, Thanks for the apology on McKinley.

Regarding the truly dysfunctional high schools you mentioned, I'd like to know why you think that losing a few teachers in those schools couldn't make them any worse than they are.

Posted by: efavorite | October 13, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Two very different sets of personnel actions took place and are being conflated.
One is the substantial reconstitution of staffing at several DCPS high schools. Those have a place and legally prescribed procedure under NCLB, regulated locally by the Chief State School Officer, ie. Superintendent.
For unstated reasons, Chancellor Rhee chose not to differentiate her legal authority to reconstitute schools; and instead folded those wide-scale re-staffings in with between-school staff-level adjustments, firings, and pruning. Worse, she claimed budgetary necessity, which is hotly contested.
Maybe this conflation was to hide the fact that despite closely supervised and monitored universal year-long teaching to the test, real school improvement looked hopeless at several schools; but to admit that when overall score increases were trumpeted early last summer would have sounded unattractive and discordant notes.

Posted by: incredulous | October 13, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Jay -- you know the joke, "there are no great men, only great committees."

If you look more deeply into successful reform efforts, you will find that the great leaders are truly great because of their ability to link leadership and their suasion capabilities with the ability to develop strong systems and processes focused on quality outcomes.

E.g., Bratton and crime. Without CompStat, focused on generating data about problems and a strategic system for response, he would have been nothing.

I am not surprised you disagreed though, similarly to your recent negative reaction to a book making similar points.

After Rhee and others like her are gone, the true test will be what systems and structures did they leave behind to ensure the sustainability of their programs for improvement.

cf. the work by Jeff Henig, Clarence Stone and others in the urban education reform project sponsored by the NSF a few years back.

Posted by: rlaymandc | October 13, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

You wrote:
“But the union still has not told us which of Rhee's innovations they want changed, and WHY. [or] What would they do differently, and what evidence do they have to show that would work?”

I have a better idea. Instead of telling critics of the chancellor’s actions to list the “innovations they want changed, and WHY,” why don’t you list all of the “innovations” the chancellor is “showing us and doing in the schools already” as well as previous policies she is retaining and the “evidence [you] have to show that would work?”

Since the futures of thousands of students are at stake as well as the casually smeared reputations of many outstanding teachers, the public needs the evidence. For each innovation or retained policy, you should report the documented evidence (annotated with links) that the chancellor and her staff are basing it on. Hopefully, you will find that them based on carefully designed studies conducted in actual urban public schools, where academic improvement has been sustained over a period of several years and was independently measured and documented and then successfully replicated in similar schools.

Please be sure to include evidence that/of:
1. The IMPACT Teacher Evaluation instrument accurately distinguishes between effective and ineffective teachers;
2. The validity of test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness;
3. Teacher effectiveness can be measured by the number of learning styles they teach to;
2. Evidence that a two-tier salary schedule produces more effective teachers on both tiers;
3. Whether one-year contracts improve the quality of school principals;
4. The role of the following factors in teacher effectiveness and student achievement and, if so, to what degree:
a. Class size
b. Increased teacher responsibility for managing disruptive student behavior
c. Heterogeneous grouping of students by reading and mathematics achievement levels
d. Textbook and basal reader quality
(Please add any that are not on this list)

I hope you agree that the real burden of proof for evaluating the success of any educational policy, whether innovative or long established, lies with the school system’s decision to implement it.
Since the chancellor has used the extensive public and private resources at her disposal to assemble a world class organization of academic advisors and pedagogical experts (whose names, roles, resumes and teaching experience should be included in your report to your readers) to develop her educational policies, she should be more than willing to share them with you. You will be doing a great service.

Please: no anecdotes; no quoting this teacher or that principal unless they are citing research.

Posted by: ehmartel | October 18, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

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