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.
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."