Thursday, April 23, 2009

The problem with DCPS

I've become convinced over my (relatively short) career in teaching that the real problem with education reform is not the kids, it's the adults. As we were finishing up testing this week, I became acutely aware of this.

First, our administrators made the decision that for the entire month of April, our 10th graders would be in special tutorial classes, which basically means that they do reading and math all day every day. They do not go to any other classes at all for a full 4 weeks. All this in order to help them "prepare" for the DC-CAS. Ridiculous, of course, but we "need to raise test scores."

Second, as anyone in DCPS knows, one of the hardest parts about making AYP is that you absolutely have to test 95% of your students, and you must test 95% of the students of each ethnic subgroup. Getting 95% of kids in our school to do anything is nearly impossible, so getting them all to come take a test that lasts a total of like 7 hours is quite a challenge. You might think the problem here is the kids (and I suppose at the high school level, you could argue that it is). However, when calling parents to remind them of the test, I was informed by one mother that her son is "sick." When I pushed further, I discovered that he is in fact on vacation for two weeks in New York. What parent lets their kid go on vacay for two weeks in the middle of the school year?

Third, our kids were promised a series of things as a reward for going through all of the testing hooplah. Example 1: a barbeque at the end of the week to celebrate the end of the test. The barbeque has been put on hold indefinitely for indeterminate reasons. Example 2: the kids were supposed to be given a special breakfast and lunch during testing. They go downstairs for breakfast on the first morning and are greeted with little mini cups of cereal. Lunch was left-over sandwiches. Special indeed.

The most heartbreaking part of this whole thing was watching how hard my students worked on that test. They all tried their hearts out and put forth a lot of effort. I'm very proud of them. (Even though I'm not technically their teacher; I was one of the poor saps that was recruited to teach these special tutorial classes). It makes me so sad when I think about all of the ways that incompetent adults -- either purposefully or through their own ineptitude -- stop them from really succeeding.

22 comments:

Glenn Watson said...

What parent lets their kid go on vacay for two weeks in the middle of the school year?>>

It seems like a pretty good time to go on vacation. What difference do the tests make to the kids. The kids are not affected by the test scores and you are not teaching, really teaching, for those two weeks.

Anonymous said...

1. Among those “incompetent adults” I assume you’re including Chancellor Rhee, who places such value on DC-CAS, and as head of the system is surely the main administrator who supports the intensive test prep.

2. You're a quant guy, right? One parent sending her son on vacation during test prep is hardly conclusive of parents not supporting their children. You question the time taken for test prep too, and you obviously care about the kids. Let’s see how her son does on the test. Maybe she knows her kid well enough to know he’s already prepared for the test and is learning more away from school than in it. Maybe, like a lot of people, parents or not, she thinks the tests are useless.

3. Are you suggesting that disappointing food choices on test day will lower the kids’ scores? If not, what are you suggesting? Whatever it is, you clearly think it will “stop them from really succeeding,” so I’d like to see it spelled out.

The only thing that comes through clearly is that “blame” must be placed if the kids don’t do well and blame goes to adults – incompetent adults, as described by you, and certainly not including you. You’re a competent adult (and I don’t doubt that), so if the kids don’t do well, you have already shifted the blame away from you, even though, according to the chancellor, it’s people like you, teachers who are “in front of the kids every day” who are responsible for kids’ success.

Now, if your kids do well, who gets the credit?

Kat said...

I'm embarrassed by the lack of competence in the administration of this test. Why, for the love of god, is this so freakin' difficult, people???

To witness this past week's debacle has been to realize something very disturbing: this system isn't and hasn't been working because it is being run by incompetent, under-educated adults, products of the system itself, who absolutely, steadfastly refuse to listen to anyone who might have a clue as to how the other 50 states pull this testing off every year without a hitch.

This is the sad, deeply unfortunate irony of DCPS: the people who have been allowed to run the system into the ground (through cronyism or whatever method was at work) are now standing in the way of it ever improving. It's like they're proud of the wreckage they have wrought and will defend it at all costs. Woe be to the person who suggests improvements or asks logical questions, especially if that person is (a) white, (b) not "a product of DC schools", (c) an employee of less than 5 years, or (d) all of the above.

It makes me want to cry.

Melissa said...

preach on! SO many of us that have left urban teaching have said the same thing--it is not the kids, it is the adults.

Of course, the sad thing about all this is we end up creating a never ending cycle. We (the purportedly competent ones) get fed up by them (the administrators and incompetent ones--> so we leave, which means we can never become the ones in charge and can therefore never change the status quo...

Anonymous said...

Kat has some really good points. Whether it's a pleasant subject or not, so much in DCPS is about race. White teachers criticizing the system are seen as outsiders and snobs who think they know better than the people, mostly black, who had been running it. Maybe running it to the ground, but running it none the less. The fact that these white teachers, many of whom with excellent, not third rate teachers' college educations, don't stay, for whatever reasons, doesn't help. More later. my planning is over.

Mr. Potter said...

Hi Anon-

1. Yes. I don't think the Chancellor is generally incompetent, but the way she forces us to freak out about these tests (which aren't all that well written or reliable) is problematic. In this regard, I think she's part of the problem.

2. I guess I was using this one adult as a metaphor for the general trend I've seen for students who don't come for many weeks at a time (which I know is a problem at all levels, not just high school). In this case, by the way, the kid was not prepared for the test. Incidentally, I also know plenty of parents that are very supportive and are great advocates for their children.

3. I'm suggesting that when you promise something nice you should deliver on it.

Finally, I was only with these kids for 3 weeks before the test, so if they do well the credit goes to their classroom teachers and me and, of course, the students.

My post was more generally about the fact that I - and many other teachers I know - get frustrated and burned out not by the children, but by the adults in the school system. And I suppose, if I'm being self-reflective, every time I comply with a ridiculous request without voicing significant opposition, I'm part of the problem.

Would you disagree that our system is plagued by incompetence?

Anonymous said...

Of course our system is plagued by incompetence on many levels. That's why Fenty brought in Rhee to completely clean house. And I better go anonymous here, before people start calling me out on this blog.

Anonymous said...

I think any place that has incompetence is plagued with it. Incompetence is a plague, large or small.

I think Rhee has added to the incompetence - in her own, special and different way.

If DC CAS is so important to her, you'd think she'd find a way in her own system, to have it administered correctly.

Toby said...

I don't get what people mean about the DC CAS not being administered correctly. That may be because in my school, we have an excellent testing plan and excellent administration of it, as noted by last year's monitor and the one who's been out this week to our school. Teachers and other test adminstrators have met numerous times, gone over how to administer the test to general ed and accommodated students. We had room parents bring in snacks, absent kids called up to come in, no teachers absent, a pep rally last week and God willing, we'll make AYP. Also, we are using most of the testing window with fewer sessions per day. This way, the students are not being rushed and seem to be doing better work. We'll see.

Toby said...

Also, the testing chair told me that our assistant superintendent was emailing her every day, checking and rechecking the testing plan and this must have been a directive from Rhee.

Anonymous said...

Melissa – does it occur to you that you are one of the adults? Doesn’t sound like it. Sounds like you’re really talking about those other adults – the incompetent ones, over whom you have no influence. Only you and the kids are the good guys, according to you.

Also, Is there such a thing as a first rate teachers’ college or are all teachers’ colleges third rate in your eyes? Is it possible for a first rate teacher to have been educated at a third rate teachers’ college or a third rate teacher to have been educated at a first rate college? If some of your students whom you’ve inspired to be the first in their families to go to college decide to attend a third rate teachers college, will you consider them 3rd rate? Will they automatically become third rate teachers? Really, Melissa, you seem pretty out of touch for someone who’s had a first rate education.

Anonymous said...

Harry - I wanted to be sure to think you for your thoughtful post in response to mine.

Anonymous said...

I mean thAnk you.

Anonymous said...

As a point of clarification, most TFA and DCTFs did not attend teachers' colleges. Instead they went to universities and colleges where they majored in academic subjects such as political science, psychology, English, a foreign language, math, etc.

Anonymous said...

Private school/Ivy League educated competence: Al Gore, Barack Obama

Private school/Ivy League educated INcompetence: George Bush, Michelle Rhee

Maybe teachers can think of both competent and incompetent colleagues who are products of public schools and third-rate teachers colleges.

Anonymous said...

Testing was a complete joke at my school. The "supervisor" or proctors never came on time, our fax machine broke and we had several kids that did not take it, probably about 8%.

Is the problem the adults and just the adults-yes and no. I think yes, cause it is the adults (parents) who raised their children to not prioritize school work and to require extrinsic rewards for anything related to school. So the kids got cereal and sandwiches for lunch? So what? They should not be getting any sort of "reward" for taking the test. I know it's used as a bribe, but it's the fact that we have to use a bribe what gets to me.

Anonymous said...

Anon- OMG - A teacher suggesting that parents might have something to do with children's ability to learn!

Congrats - takes nerve - even anonymously - in this crowd to suggest anything other than all kids are thirsting for knowledge and just waiting for that really "great" teacher (who can't have majored in eduation) to sate them.

Toby said...

For NCLB, there are 8 subgroups for reporting and monitoring purposes, including the 5 traditional US racial/ethnic groups, FARMS (free and reduced meals), LEP (English language learners) and SPED. If I'm not mistaken, there needs to be 25 or more students in a particular subgroup in a school to have their scores count for AYP. For the attendance part of AYP, I believe that 95% of all students need to be tested. Students who came from either out of the country after April 2008 and from another school after the freeze date don't have their scores counted in the school's reporting. But they have to be tested nonetheless. All school year, my principal had been analyzing last year's scores, where we didn't make AYP in the subgroup of FARMS in reading and math. Though I don't believe other children were ignored, those specific children were identified to the teachers and provided with intervention.

Anonymous said...

I work for a company that develops these tests. We are very competent in what we do and we try extremely hard to make the tests valid and fair- but our recommendations are constantly vetoed by administrators and assessment directors who don't have a clue what a really good test looks like. If the general public were allowed to see the actual tests they would be appalled. I will keep trying to convince state level assessment people to make the tests better, but with little exposure improvement will be slow.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with testing is that is doesn't tell us anything new.
A good teacher is always"testing", the high stakes test show us what a student did in one moment of time. I would like all those in favor of the TEST to have to give up their lives, prepare for it by doing irrelevant stuff and then take the darn thing.Oh, tie the evaluation of the "teacher" to that snapshot. Let's stop the insanity!!!

MaryKayH said...

Mr. Potter, the problem isn't just with DCPS. It's with a good number of the PS districts in our country. I'm a substitute teacher in OH (and looking for a FT position) and our district just wrapped up testing. OMG... the administrators are totally in a tizzy because their jobs ride on testing outcomes. Because doo doo rolls downhill, principals pass on their anxiety to the teachers, who of course are also depending on good test scores to stay in good with the principals. And who is at the bottom of the stress pile? The kids -- who are told to relax and "do their best." The principal even comes into the testing rooms to make sure all is well -- not to pressure anybody, of course, but just "checking." I don't know about you, but NOBODY can relax and do their best work with all that pressure!

Tim said...

Which is exactly why I got out of teaching in the U.S. in 2005 and have been teaching internationally ever since. While we do test our students (any good assessment package should), we are not driven by this. We do what's best for our students, and, "heaven forbid," we're allowed to teach! Until the U.S. Department of Ed. does away with high stakes testing, this problem will never go away and will most likely grow much more intense. It is the adults' fault, and unfortunately the kids have gotten caught up in the middle because "we" are the ones who tell them that they have to pass the test, or the school will be sanctioned and the teachers will be fired and the school will lose funding, blah, blah, blah.