Is DCPS re­ally re­design­ing teach­ing?

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - 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.

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 top­down 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.

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