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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 09/20/2011

An odd way to honor teachers

It would be somewhat churlish to criticize any attempt to honor public school teachers just when they feel under assault by the modern school reform movement — including Monday night’s glitzy celebration for some D.C. teachers at the Kennedy Center.

But it seems fair to ask whether a fancy event at the city’s leading arts venue — complete with big-time supporters (including The Washington Post Company) — is really the best or even appropriate way to celebrate teachers and their profession.

The event on Monday night, called “A Standing Ovation for D.C. Teachers,” actually honored seven teachers named winners of “Excellence in Teaching Awards.” They were plucked from a pool of more than 550 teachers and principals who were rated “highly effective” on the school system’s controversial IMPACT educator evaluation system. The winners, the event website says, “represent a true cross-section of the diversity and skills that characterize the workforce within DCPS.”

No doubt the winners are great teachers. The system is lucky to have them and it is hard to begrudge the seven a night out where they are the stars .

But is a night of Kennedy Center applause the best way to celebrate their achievements?

How about honoring great teachers with an evaluation system that is fair, and that doesn’t, as IMPACT does, use standardized test scores as an assessment tool for some teachers? After all, there are many factors that affect a child’s performance on a test.

The system, launched a few years ago under former chancellor Michelle Rhee, is actually a collection of some 20 different evaluation systems for teachers in different capacities and other school personnel. It evaluates some teachers in part on the standardized test scores of their students and is largely based on five half-hour evaluations of teaching skills each year by administrators and master teachers.

Critics have attacked the system for a number of reasons, saying that it disadvantages teachers in schools with high rates of poverty and other social problems, and is punitive, doing little to help teachers develop professionally.

Don’t teachers deserve a valid and reliable assessment system?

And how about honoring teachers by ensuring that they have all of the supplies they need, and don’t have to spend their own money. A 2006 study published by the National School Supply and Equipment Association reported that teacher customers spent an average of $493 of their own money on school supplies and instructional materials, for a total of $1.9 billion. And that was before the massive budget cuts of recent years.

And how about honoring teachers with administrative and instructional policies that don’t infantalize them?

In the D.C. public school system, as in many other school systems, administrators tell teachers they are not allowed to talk to reporters without permission. Many principals won’t do it without permission from the central office either. What else to make of these policies than to believe that administrators don’t trust their educators to have enough sense to know how to handle themselves in an interview?

The whole thrust of standardized test-based reform has been to lessen the control that teachers have of their own classroom and lesson plans. They can’t, apparently, be trusted.

Many teachers justifiably feel that their profession is under assault by reformers intent on eliminating tenure, curtailing teachers’ collective-bargaining rights, and evaluating educators on student test scores.

About one-third (32 percent) of teachers favor getting rid of tenure for teachers, a key goal of many reformers, according to the 2011 Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011, recently published by the National Center for Education Information, a private, non-partisan research organization in Washington, D.C.

Only 10 percent support evaluating teachers’ effectiveness primarily on student achievement, and only 11 percent favor contracting private, for-profit corporations to operate schools, the survey showed.

The best way to honor teachers — all of them — is to institute fair and reliable evaluation systems that really get rid of awful teachers, give help to those teachers who would profit from it, and let the great teachers do their jobs without people who don’t understand education telling them what to do.

By the way, the Kennedy Center event was a benefit awards presentation of the D.C. Public Education Fund, a private non-profit that has raised more than $80 million from private foundations to fund reforms in D.C. schools started by Rhee and continued under her deputy and successor, Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

The president and executive director of the education fund, Cate Swinburn, was just appointed by Rhee’s successor, Chancellor Kaya Henderson, as the system’s new chief of the Office of Data Accountability.

Cozy or what.

Henderson said in her announcement that Swinburn will not have to give up the job of directing the annual “Standing Ovation” event.

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 09/20/2011

Categories:  D.C. Schools

 
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