Mark Simon, an education policy associate with the Economic Policy Institute, is a former high school teacher and D.C. Public Schools parent activist. He is a member of the Ward 1 Education Council and serves on the board of EmpowerEd. He was president of the Montgomery County Education Association from 1985 to 2003.
The experiment of tying teachers’ evaluations and pay to student test scores is over. It captured the imagination of decision-makers in D.C., Denver and nationwide a decade ago. As Post columnist David Von Drehle pointed out, the demand to end the experiment motivated a citywide strike in Denver. An “innovation” when it began in 2006 has become what Von Drehle called “an anachronism.” School districts such as Denver and D.C. that jumped in big — Denver’s Pro Com and the District’s Impact teacher evaluation system — are seeing a backlash. The public and teachers have soured on test scores as bad measures of quality.
Acting D.C. Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, responding to questions at his nomination hearing before the D.C. Council this month, acknowledged he was brought to Indianapolis by reformers to be the disrupter of neighborhood schools. That’s not how he wants to be seen now. He’s spent the past two months listening to parents, principals, teachers and students, and he’s learned a lot.
If policymakers pay close attention to what teachers, parents and students are saying, the District may stumble into insights to fix teacher turnover and tackle school instability. At public hearings, demoralized parents and teachers say teacher and school ratings over which they have little control feel inaccurate. Standardized test scores are driven by factors outside school, including the socioeconomic background of students and the quality of neighborhood assets, more than by what takes place in classrooms.
Ferebee admitted that teacher turnover is a big problem in the District. He wants to take another look at the Impact evaluation system and the short-leash one-year contracts given principals. He’s heard there’s a culture of fear in schools. Teachers and principals are afraid to exercise their judgment or say what they think. He heard the District may, by design, have created a school system in which respectful relationships of trust have been undermined. In the rush to fix the outcome data on a few narrow indicators — test scores, graduation rates, attendance — we may have jeopardized the heart of what defines good teaching and what parents want from great schools.
Listening to the questions D.C. Council members and the legions of public witnesses asked Ferebee, it’s clear that the tide has turned. There is a broad consensus that we need a correction in education reform in the District. Regardless of whether Ferebee gets confirmed as chancellor, the nominee, his overseers on the D.C. Council and teachers and parents who have lived through almost two years of scandals seem to have reached the same conclusions. The metrics used to judge schools and teachers have lost credibility. The voices of teachers and parents are starting to have newfound respect.
I recently watched an amazing prekindergarten teacher, Liz Koenig, and her daughters, ages 2 and 4, at an EmpowerEd meeting. EmpowerEd was created two years ago by classroom teachers in D.C. Public Schools and the charter sector to elevate teacher voices and relational trust in each school and citywide. I watched Koenig as she allowed her daughters to make decisions while providing subtle feedback, building a sense of agency. It struck me that great teaching — the talent to nurture a child’s development — is personal, interactive and requires tremendous skill. I’ve seen the adoring letters from her students’ parents. She’s beloved. Teachers at her school voted her “best of staff.” So, it was a shock this week when we found out that the Bridges Public Charter School administrators have told her not to come back in the fall. It had nothing to do with the quality of her teaching, they said. The unspoken message was that charter operators are accountable only to the metrics that rate them as Tier 1, 2, or 3. There’s something wrong in DCPS and the charter sector when teachers are expendable.
Teachers and public education have been subjected to one failed experiment after another over the past decade. It’s time to get back to measuring teachers and schools by the things that make them valuable and to admit that the past 10 years may have led us in some wrong directions. Schools are best measured by what parents, teachers and students say they’ve experienced: the learning culture.
According to University of Massachusetts professor Jack Schneider, who spoke at a public Senior High Alliance of Principals, Parents and Educators meeting at the Columbia Heights Education Campus attended by the deputy mayor for education and other elected officials last month, there are excellent climate surveys of parents, teachers and students that should be on D.C.’s school report card, overseen by the state superintendent of schools on the My Schools DC website. Instead, most of the simplistic five-star rating is derived from the PARCC test.
Teachers should be tapped and retained because they create a love of learning and change students’ lives — not just their standardized test scores. If we learn the lessons of this moment, and it looks as if there’s a good chance we are starting to, the District’s education future looks bright.