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A Third Way: Other Voices on School Reform

A new group has organized around the proposition that fixing D.C.'s schools will require nurturing and developing teachers -- not just threatening them with dismissal for failing to raise student test scores.

Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform, which gathered at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church last night, was co-founded by a core of activists who agree with Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that DCPS is in need of dramatic change. But they say that school reform requires a broader conversation than the one taking place between Rhee and the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) over a new labor contract.

"Our purpose this evening is to change the subject," said Kerry Sylvia, a social studies teacher at Cardozo and a co-founder of the group, which opposes Rhee's two-tier salary plan that weakens tenure protections in exchange for the highest salaries. Sylvia and other members believe it places too much unaccountable power in the hands of school principals and other administrators.

Bill Turque

Sylvia and other co-founders, including Hart Middle School teacher Elizabeth Davis and parent advocate Margot Berkey, also say the labor talks have been virtually mute on the subject of developing the skills of teachers. They want a new contract to include stronger provisions for mentoring, professional development and a much clearer definition of what good teaching is supposed to look like.

The audience of about 100 heard from three major advocates of teacher development: outgoing Prince George's County Superintendent John Deasy, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and Jen Whitman, a Montgomery County teacher who helps to run the school system's Peer Assistance Program.

Whitman, the least prominent of the three, was the most direct in questioning the District's commitment to raising teacher quality. "It seems that the leadership of D.C. schools is not moving in the direction of systematic support for teachers," she said, to a burst of applause.

She described the county's system of "consulting teachers," assigned to novice instructors or experienced ones who have received "below standard" evaluations from teachers. They receive counseling, classroom observations and intensive work with guidelines established by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Those that do not improve after two years are subject to dismissal. But until then, she said, "The idea is to grow the capacity of that individual."

Deasy, who soon will leave Prince George's to join the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, took pains to emphasize that he was not commenting on any aspect of Rhee's performance. He said his administration placed a high priority on teacher development and what he called "reciprocal accountability." His message to teachers: "I can't hold you to a high standard if I haven't invested in your ability to do the work."

Weingarten said there have always been two ways of looking at reform. One is a "business model" which holds that "as long as someone cracks the whip a little bit harder, then achievement will soar." The other works to build the capacity of teachers and parents to serve the child.

Weingarten was also reluctant to address the specifics of Rhee's battle with the WTU, but strongly suggested that both parties need to find common ground in a system that holds teachers accountable for student achievement but also honors the craft of teaching. She said that with the Obama administration taking office, Washington's efforts at education reform will be more closely watched than ever before.

"The world beyond education wants it to work so badly here," she said. "We need models. We need models where it can work."

By Marcia Davis  |  November 6, 2008; 1:59 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Michelle Rhee is attracting good young teachers by the hundreds. She is providing support to them and all teachers who want to grow in the job. The teachers union is controlled by "teachers" who can't teach and are not interested in learning anything.

Posted by: jy151310 | November 6, 2008 8:40 PM | Report abuse

On Channel 13, I heard the Chancellor said that 700 teachers have left since the first 60 days of school...that's not so inspiring.

JY, can you give me support that there are hundreds of new, young teachers in DCPS? I don't see it.

Posted by: cleanconscience | November 6, 2008 9:18 PM | Report abuse

Wow a group who is talking about the details of how to improve teacher performance and student learning! All we have heard of so far is blaming everything on teachers and the unions.

Teachers need training and support to work with the many students who are far below grade level and experience a myriad of social ills. They don't need a mean arrogant leader who thinks that the way to solve the problem is too just pay teachers more and somehow they will get the necessary training.

To the previous poster saying that Rhee is attracting hundreds of new teachers. What we need are teachers who want to make a profession of teaching and not just do a two year stint with Teach For America. TFA's motto believe or not is "Got two years?" While I don't think we should get rid of TFA, I certainly don't think that is where we should be expanding.

Posted by: letsbereal2 | November 6, 2008 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Good to see that another voice is being recognized--teachers who want to improve the system. They do exist. For years DCPS has not honored teachers as professionals and thus sometimes got less than professionalism in return. Treat teachers as professionals, give them what they need to be successful, THEN hold them fully accountable with an appraisal system that is clear and well thought out. Well, we can dream can't we?

Posted by: 63glxie | November 6, 2008 10:08 PM | Report abuse

The chancellor doesn't have a clue on how many teachers left anymore than she could explain that sorry budget. She failed to disclose that she excessed many teachers and some of them were highly qualified and had evaluations that reflected that they were meeting the standards. Principals were not re-appointed whose schools made AYP and/or safe harbor. Teachers and principals do want their schools and students to succeed. Unfortunately the "business" of education gets in the way of teaching and learning and this administration has no ability to suppport the workforce. The fear tactics approach really shows what this chancellor does not know about education. You can fire and hire people all year long which is the flavor of this chancellor, but in the end, what have you done to improve teaching, learning, job-embedded professional development, parental involvement and community support? NOTHING!!!!!

Posted by: candycane1 | November 7, 2008 6:19 AM | Report abuse

Rhee is going to spend the duration of the Fenty Administration in an arrogant unyielding power struggle between teachers, parents and the council. With those odds she will fail. It really is quite that simple. She presents herself as a transformational leader, yet has displayed any of the characteristic traits of such a leader. Radical changes, which I agree DCPS needs, requires coalitions to be build not rivals as Rhee has developed.

In the end, the students, yet again, will be left in the want, want for a decent education, want for leadership that are dedicated to them vs. their ego, want for a adults who act like adults.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | November 7, 2008 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Here is a group addressing the inadequacies of our school system in an intelligent and thought provoking manner. They are doing so by creating a dialogue and allowing a variety of voices to be heard. It is interesting that two ways of improving the system have now been presented before the community that is DCPS. One way says throw money at the problems and the problems will disappear - by paying teachers more and paying students to perform. The other way says improve the conditions in which teachers teach, provide them with the tools they need to do the best possible job, support them in their difficulties and help them to improve when they are struggling - make it hard for a teacher to fail by training and supporting that teacher to be the best possible educator he or she can be. Deasy said it best "I can't hold you to a high standard if I haven't invested in your ability to do the work." That investment has yet to occur in DCPS. Michelle Rhee needs to join this dialogue. It would demonstrate an openness of mind that is very much needed for our system to survive. One can only hope.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | November 8, 2008 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I was there and at any number of times I could have jumped out of my seat. To hear DC teachers spoken of with respect, and not contempt, brought tears to my eyes. The notion that we are life-long learners who need constant professional growth AND can provide it for each other was inspiring.

The flip side is that I just can't see any of the reforms mentioned happening in Washington DC in the current climate.

My children have all made reading gains in the last TWO MONTHS, but it's been hard work -- gathering hundreds of books on my own, leveling them, sending timed readings home for practice, figuring out how to do Reader's Workshop with a stack of books purchased on But if things don't change soon, I will leave. A product of DC Public Schools, 15 years teaching in DC & Baltimore, and I'm just about worn out -- not by the kids, but by the adults downtown.

Posted by: ame_hr | November 10, 2008 6:52 PM | Report abuse

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