This past year, D.C. Public Schools rolled out Learning Together to Advance Our Practice (LEAP), an initiative to empower teachers to help each other improve their practice. Done right, this approach to teachers and teaching could usher in a culture of professionalism, teamwork and collegiality among educators. But “could” is the operative word. Unfortunately, the micromanaged, top-down implementation of initiatives in DCPS and the resulting teacher cynicism could doom the project.
For nine years, under Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson , DCPS implemented controversial, fear-based mandates aimed at teachers and principals, assuming the workforce to be failing and incompetent. DCPS requires teachers to follow rigid rubrics, not their own judgments. The IMPACT teacher evaluation system bestows a numerical rating on each teacher. Teachers study the rubrics and imitate the behaviors. Unfortunately, even with LEAP, IMPACT remains as the teacher-evaluation system and dominates the professional culture.
Last year, DCPS made IMPACT worse by eliminating the trusted second opinion of master educators entirely, giving principals complete control over the ratings, rewards and punishments. Teachers hate IMPACT. The most accomplished teachers dislike it the most because it discourages innovation and creative teaching.
LEAP, by contrast, is trying to build a culture favoring nonjudgmental conversations among educators, exposing vulnerabilities and opening avenues for feedback. Up to 90 minutes each week is devoted to team discussions. One specially trained teacher in each department or grade-level team spends at least half her time observing fellow teachers, providing feedback and facilitating team conversations. Teachers meet as subject or grade-level teams to learn from each other. It’s potentially revolutionary — the opposite of individual ranking and rating according to rigid rubrics. LEAP could be the opposite of the top-down, micromanaging approach to teachers.
So what’s going on here? Giving DCPS the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the past nine years of firing, hiring and high turnover has brought DCPS a handpicked teacher and principal workforce, so the future can involve trusting the professional judgment of educators. But DCPS should be honest about the change in culture, how different it is from what went on before.
The mixed messages may indicate a lack of commitment to a new professional culture. If DCPS truly wants to build new habits of teaming and collaboration, it needs to send a consistent message that it trusts teachers.
In one-third of schools, LEAP teachers are grade-level or subject colleagues. In another third, they’re assistant principals, mixing support with top-down supervision. And in the final third, they’re instructional coaches. Only a system of teachers helping teachers is true to the LEAP concept.
David Tansey, who was a LEAP math teacher at McKinley Technology High School last year, is pleased by the new direction in DCPS. “They’re finally getting it,” he said, “but they’re not willing to acknowledge that LEAP, done right, is the opposite of the top-down approach that’s been in charge for the past nine years. Their compliance obsession could still kill it.”
Laura Fuchs, a Woodson High School social studies teacher, was selected as the LEAP teacher for her department during the pilot stage but declined to continue for her department last year. “LEAP makes assumptions about what teachers are not doing — that we’re not collaborating and communicating with each other. It actually took away time from that, forcing us to use canned materials and putting the emphasis on LEAP teachers and administrators entering observation notes to the computer.” Those implementation problems could spell the difference between success and hostility from the teaching workforce. “One size fits all won’t work with this,” said Fuchs.
DCPS administration seems sensitive to the concerns. The instructions to next year’s LEAP teachers include school flexibility. The new direction allows less frequent meetings and more discretion as to how time is used to meet the needs of teachers and students in each school — less top-down, more judgment at the schoolhouse.
The good news is that after nine years of little progress in narrowing achievement gaps, and chasing blunt-instrument indicators of success such as test scores and suspension and graduation rates, DCPS might finally be emphasizing the learning that can take place between teachers about the choices they make with their students. This bottom-up approach to quality teaching could be truly interesting.
DCPS could finally become the innovation engine in our city. Charter schools, with their much higher rates of teacher turnover, are not, by and large, engaged in anything as bold as LEAP’s gamble on teaching.
LEAP, done right, is an experiment in a new approach — anything but a continuation of the strategies of the past nine years. Whether that will be the case is unclear.
The writer, an education policy associate at the Economic Policy Institute, is a former president of the Montgomery County Education Association, a former D.C. Public Schools parent and former Montgomery County teacher.
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