New book offers ground-level view of two D.C. schools


Sam Chaltain at Bancroft Elementary. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Sam Chaltain is a former teacher who spent a year following two D.C. schools — one charter, one traditional — in an effort to understand how the city’s high-profile school-improvement efforts are working for teachers, students and parents.

Out of that year came “Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice,” a book recently published by Columbia University’s Teachers College Press.

It’s a ground-level view of a first-year charter school, Mundo Verde Bilingual, and a long-standing neighborhood school, Bancroft Elementary. But it also touches on broader questions about the direction of education reform in the District and beyond.

Chaltain spoke on a recent rainy morning about those broader issues and about his book. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Q. How did you conceive of this project and what did you set out to do?

A. Part of it was selfish. I haven’t really seen for a sustained period, up close and personal, what it’s like to be a teacher right now. And I’m curious: What is it like to be working in a first-year start-up environment? My assumption going in was it must be exciting and insane. And what’s it like to be a third-grade teacher as test-based accountability starts to kick in? I left the classroom before No Child Left Behind.

Then also, my wife and I were about to start searching for a school for our son. I have a pretty good sense of what I’m looking for, but what I saw among our friends was lots of really smart, educated folks that have the time to really think about where they want to send their kids to school, and they had no idea what to look for. So there seemed to be a real information gap. People don’t really understand what healthy schools look like and require, what teaching and learning look like and require.

Q. You wrote that you weren’t going into this to compare DCPS and charter schools.

A. It’s a false choice because they’re so different. But what’s become clear to me is that each sector most needs the other’s strength.

The strength of charter schools is they’re able to create these cultures where everyone opts in. The best and the worst feature of charter schools is that everything’s up for reimagining — from the report card to the professional development calendar to the way they recruit. That’s really exciting and it does lead to some innovative thinking, and also that’s why it’s so exhausting and insane.

At Mundo Verde, they needed to design a report card and they would have really benefited if there had been some system in place to quickly access the wisdom of other schools. But none of those dots had been connected, so they were really on their own.

The strength of DCPS is you’re operating at scale. But you’re also — and you see this in the book — professional development is like a game of telephone. The principal at Bancroft would be e-mailed slides from DCPS that she was then responsible for presenting to her staff. And that’s stultifying.

Q. Teacher turnover is a huge problem in urban schools, especially in D.C. What struggles did you see teachers face at Bancroft and Mundo Verde?

A. Teaching is unsustainable work. So that’s what I really saw being reinforced on both sides. . . . All of these women envision careers in education, but pretty soon none of them are going to be in the classroom.

Q. Is there anything that can be done to address that burnout?

A. Definitely.

We’re in the middle of this huge shift — it’s the biggest redefinition of what it means to be a teacher in more than a century. The old notion when we were students was that it was the job of the student to adjust to school. And now it’s the school’s job to adjust to students, every one. So the teacher has to adjust to every student and every need.

That’s right and that’s what schools should be doing, but it’s so much harder to do, and we haven’t caught up yet in our training and our development and our evaluation.

There are three things: There’s what kids need; there’s what teachers need to know and be able to do in order to meet the needs of kids; and then there’s ways in which teachers are evaluated and supported by the larger system.

And if those three things were in alignment, I think teaching would be less unsustainable.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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