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Teachers in Trouble, Parents Ignored -- Part I

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007 10:52 AM

I have written several columns about clashes between educators and parents, a subject that rarely gets much attention because it is so personal. Those involved are often reluctant to give details. Over the last few years I have been saving material on some particularly interesting cases in which parents feel school officials froze them out of the process of dealing with their children's teachers. A few months ago, less-detailed versions of these episodes were reported in The Post. Today, and in the next two columns, I will describe four cases at more length, and follow with a column of reader reactions, and one on how experts in parental issues think these cases should have been handled.

What do you think explains these communication meltdowns? What can be done about them? Two of the cases I will examine are about teachers who allegedly abused students and were eventually fired, with parents unable to get the full story. I will start however with a different situation: a teacher who was fired for reasons that made no sense to the many parents who loved her work. They tried to influence the decision, but found their views rebuffed.

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Veteran third grade teacher Soon-Ja Kim was recommended for dismissal from the Montgomery County, Md., schools in the spring of 2006, despite letters from more than 100 parents saying she was one of the best teachers they had ever seen. Like many parents, they were used to being ignored on school personnel issues, but in this case, they said, the circumstances were particularly galling.

The parents told the county school system that the Lakewood Elementary School teacher was "a phenomenal role model" and "in a peerless category" and had "enhanced confidence, self esteem and motivation" in her students. They begged that Kim, with 20 years experience, be allowed to keep teaching.

But the county schools review panel that has the most influence on dismissal decisions declined to read any of the parent letters before its hearing, according to a leader of the panel. The panel members included eight teachers and eight principals.

In 30 minutes the hearing was over and Kim was soon told she would not be coming back to Lakewood Elementary, one more defeat in what parent activists say has been a long, losing war to get useful information and have some influence when their children's teachers get into trouble.

Education officials throughout the Washington area, as well as the rest of the country, have been calling for more parental involvement in public education as the demand for better schools and better trained teachers increases. Recently the Maryland Board of Education voted to support a range of pro-parent initiatives, including evaluating teachers and administrators on how well they involved families in their work.

But school administrators who say they want parental involvement act very differently when parents ask questions about teachers. Parents whose children witness teacher abuse are typically barred from hearing the details of investigative findings, and decisions to fire popular teachers appear to be carried out with parent objections mostly ignored.

"As parents of children enrolled in the public school system, it seems that we're informed about issues that affect our children in one of three ways. Too late, too little, or not at all," said Tonye Gray of Wilmington, N.C., who is editor of The Public School Parent's Network Web site at psparents.net. "It's as if there is an unspoken, unwritten code of silence keeping us at arms length from being true participants in our children's education."

Montgomery County school officials say that they, like school administrators across the country, are handicapped because state public information laws and union contracts prevent them from telling any outsiders, including parents, the details of such cases. They say their decisions about teachers must be based on the law and judgments of professional educators, and not which teachers parents like.

The Kim case is one of the few instances in which a teacher being accused of incompetence agreed to have her case files, and supporting parental letters, made public. It provides an unusual look at the frustration generated by such cases, for both parents and educators.

Doug Prouty, who was vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association and co-chair of the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) panel that recommended Kim be fired, defended that decision. He said the parental opinion that was so strongly on Kim's side was considered only a "secondary data source" in the dismissal decisions.

Test scores, he said, were also a secondary data source. The primary source for the panel's decisions was the judgment of the school's principal, the consulting teacher assigned to evaluate and help the teacher improve and the panel members.

"The people who provide those secondary data sources don't have direct access nor do they have the training in terms of our evaluation system and our observation system to be able to give us the best picture of what is happening in the classroom," said Prouty.

Robert Bastress, a veteran principal who was also co-chair of the PAR panel, said: "What is the measure of teachers' performance? Is it the number of parents who like them or don't like them? I think not. I think it is the standards that we have established."

"That's a bunch of hooey," said Elyse I. Summers, a lawyer whose son Benjamin was in Kim's third grade class in 2005. In an interview, she said: "Our children went to Mrs. Kim's class every day, came home and are performing extremely well. I know the choice of experiences she gave them, such as a nature walk or relating her experiences as an immigrant American, are extremely valuable to them in growing into whole human beings."

Several parents supporting Kim said they were also professionals with experience evaluating job performance, and that some of them were teachers in the Montgomery County system. "I am very happy with Luke's academic progress and thought that Mrs. Kim's excellent teaching skill was responsible for the success," said Mary Richards, an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher in Montgomery County.

Every new teacher without previous experience hired in Montgomery County goes through the PAR process. PAR is also designed for more experienced teachers whose principals have decided they need help. Of the 106 tenured teachers who went through the process from 2001 to 2006, 51 were returned to the classroom and 55 resigned, retired or were dismissed.

Montgomery County school superintendent Jerry D. Weast said the system has raised the overall quality of teaching and improved student achievement, as well as saving many teaching careers. "We have actually helped more teachers become better than we have helped teachers find other career choices," he said.

But many parents in the affluent Rockville neighborhood that surrounds Lakewood Elementary say the system misfired in Kim's case. According to Kim and her supporters, an initial move to have Kim removed in 2001 failed after evaluators found her to be not only good in the classroom, but a worthy model for the school faculty, particularly in the teaching of writing. Three years ago a new principal, Elaine Chang-Baxter, told Kim her special activities, including the annual stream pollution project and the class play, would have to be justified as fitting with the county's new curriculum, designed to prepare students for the Maryland School Assessments, the principal recounted in a written statement.

Chang-Baxter then recommended that Kim undergo the PAR process. In response, some parents engineered passage of a PTA resolution supporting her. Several parents said they thought Chang-Baxter had too much influence on the consulting teacher assigned to her case. Kim said the consulting teacher told her early in the process of helping her that she was going to be fired no matter what.

County school officials deny that. Copies of the consulting teacher's reports on his observations of Kim say he repeatedly tried to explain to her what he considered deficiencies in her lessons, but she did not improve. In a Nov. 21, 2005, report he said about a reading lesson that "Mrs. Kim failed to communicate the four key messages to her students and gave students the message that they are not all capable of learning a challenging curriculum." As evidence of this, he said: "When a group of students asked Mrs. Kim what they should do with the words that had been crossed out of the overhead list, Mrs. Kim responded, 'Those words are very hard. You will know them better when we finish reading. If you can't handle it, you can throw them away. Then, you know, you can write them down.'"

In the same report, the consulting teacher said Kim failed to plan and deliver lessons according to the goals and instructions of the curriculum guide, failed to display a deep or broad knowledge of how to teach students how to summarize material and failed to pace her lesson appropriately, spending 50 minutes on what the curriculum guide said should take only 20 minutes.

Kim said that the four words she crossed out for her third graders were "submersible," "hydrothermal-vent," "bathysphere" and "ROV." She said the Lakewood reading specialist agreed the lesson could not be done in 20 minutes.

Chang-Baxter said in the statement that she always treated Kim and the parents who supported her with respect. "With regards to parental feedback," she said, "I listened very carefully to both positive and constructive feedback and always took them into consideration when working with staff."

Weast, Prouty, Bastress and other school officials say the system protects teachers against principals manipulating consulting teachers because half of the PAR panel is teachers. But so far the panel has only reversed three cases in which both the principal and the consulting teacher recommended dismissal.

Weast said there was an additional protection for teachers, since the panel recommendation is reviewed first by an administrator designated by him and then by him. So far, however, neither the superintendent nor his designee have overturned a panel recommendation. Another case offers some contrasts to what happened with Kim. The 2001 firing of Darlene Kranz, a second grade teacher at the county's Olney Elementary School, in the first year of the PAR program produced a series of administrative and legal challenges to the system. Kranz had 25 years of service when the panel dismissed her in 2001. Kranz appealed to the county school board and the state school board. She lost both times, even though the case file lacked evidence of low achievement by her students. There was in the Kranz case much less parental input than the Kim case. The file includes nine letters unfavorable to Kranz and five favorable. Montgomery County schools spokesman Brian Edwards said a school official familiar with the case said that the original PAR panel did look at those parental statements.

Kranz, like Kim, said that she thinks her firing stemmed from a principal's campaign to get rid of her. In Kranz's case the principal was Joan O'Brien, who had for several years given Kranz good evaluations but in 2000 turned against her, Kranz said. A new assistant principal complained of not being able to find a lesson plan that Kranz said she had already given to her substitute for that day. Kranz said she began to hear complaints from O'Brien about her classroom being messy and disorganized. The two women argued about other matters in the school, since Kranz was the school representative of the teacher's union, the Montgomery County Education Association. After one disagreement, in which Kranz had appealed the principal's decision to a higher official, Kranz said O'Brien told her, "You're not going to get away with this."

In 2001, when the teachers union succeeded in getting approval for the PAR process, Kranz was one of the first veteran teachers subjected to the process.

Among the parent letters in the Kranz case file was one from a parent who said she thought her child "would do better with someone that is more professional and less motherly" than Kranz. Another said "had it not been for Mrs. Kranz, I do not believe my child would have succeeded in his quest to conquer failure and improve, especially his reading ability."

One parent, Cecilia Plante, said in an interview that Kranz was one of the best teachers her son Brendan had. Kranz had students doing projects that required a lot of movement around the classroom, and some clutter, Plante said. "It was somewhat more chaotic than the other classes he had been in," Plante said, "but the children were more happy there." Plante said she did not think her opinion would help Kranz much, because, she said, her effort to complain to Weast about another teacher had been rebuffed.

O'Brien, the principal, denied making the statements Kranz attributed to her and said her decision to put the teacher into the PAR process had nothing to do with any personal or union-management feud. "For several years prior to her being recommended for PAR," O'Brien said of Kranz, "she received support from reading specialists and staff development and instructional support teachers to help her improve her teaching. Evaluations as early as 1994 indicate areas for improvement. Her lack of growth was documented by two assistant principals, a staff development teacher, a reading specialist, the consulting teacher, and the principal. In all of her appeals, the decision of the PAR panel has been upheld based on documentation." O'Brien said: "I believe now, as I did then and related to Mrs. Kranz on several occasions, that if she had worked with the consulting teacher, she could have been successful. Unfortunately, Mrs. Kranz denied that she needed to improve and chose not to take advantage of this support."

Asked why she did not seek more parental support in her presentation to the PAR panel and her appeals, Kranz said, "I didn't want to cause a lot of disruption with the school."

At Lakewood Elementary, parents who supported Kim said they advocate resistance if it can help save a great teacher from being fired.

Ingrid Landi, a former second grade teacher who worked as a volunteer assistant in Kim's class, said she was delighted with the impact Kim had on her daughter, Mikayla, in the 2004-2005 school year, the same year the Lakewood principal was giving Kim failing marks on every evaluation.

Kim, Landi said in a letter to superintendent Weast, "is inspiring, intelligent, creative, caring, and puts her whole heart and soul into her teaching." Because of Kim's dedication, she said, Mikayla "now loves to read for herself."

She told Weast in the November 2005 letter that she had just learned Kim was in danger of losing her job. "From what I have observed and experienced in her classroom, I cannot believe that a teacher of this caliber and dedication could be in this predicament. Teachers like Mrs. Kim are hard to find."

Next week: Parents fight unsuccessfully to learn the details of allegations that a teacher traumatized their students.

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