Teachbad and Jay Mathews: Part I
Happy Back to School time to everybody. I’m sorry.
Do you know what you need? A good read and some magnets.
Last week Jay Mathews at the Washington Post ran a piece, not exactly about me, but using me as an example in order to propose an argument. It was called Maybe Schools Shouldn’t Work As Teams.
The summary is that Mathews believes school principals should be like general managers of baseball teams. Principals should be able to get rid of people at will if they aren’t working out on ‘the team.’ He suggests that I am ‘bright’, an ‘interesting teacher’ and that I have an ‘independent spirit.’ The question he poses is whether or not the principal should have been allowed to fire me because in some ways I was unwilling to ‘adapt to her system.’
My response follows. (The next post will be the email exchange between Jay and myself over the next few days. After that, I think I the new song will be ready.) (And I apologize that some of this is a little inside baseball for DC people.)
I will attempt to respond in sports team terms and extend the analogy, though it is somewhat outside my comfort zone.
Let’s start with the New York Yankees. They are a baseball team. People hate them because they can overwhelm the competition with money; poaching young, promising players just as they’ve started to prove themselves and giving huge contracts to stars that other teams cannot match. That money, which Kansas City, for example, simply does not have, has translated into pretty good baseball success for the Yankees.
The school where I worked, the Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC), is a bit like the Yankees of DC Public Schools. There exists, created and administered by CHEC’s principal, the Multicultural Intern Program (MCIP). The only purpose of this organization is to raise money for CHEC, a DC public school. The first two bullet points of its charter read as follows:
Operate as the not-for-profit fundraising arm of the Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC).
Mmaintain [sic] and raise funds for the programs of CHEC including, but not limited to education, career development, counseling, family and youth support, and multicultural program components.
How much money this is, I don’t know. But it seems to be a lot and the donor list is impressive. The Corporate Amigos of MCIP/CHEC include Bank of America, ExxonMobile, IBM, KPMG, and Pepco. There are a number of full-time employees at CHEC who are paid and formally employed by MCIP, rather than DCPS. These include, but are not limited to, a personal secretary for the principal, facilities managers, technology administrators, dedicated staff to make copies for teachers, publicity and fundraising personnel.
The facilities at CHEC are amazing and brand new. Teachers have computers and internet access in their rooms, laptops if they want them. LCD projectors, smart boards and fully equipped science labs are everywhere. There are so many science labs that I, a social studies teacher, taught in one of these very expensive rooms last year. I was the only social studies teacher with nine sinks in my room…many more than I needed.
There is a brand new artificial turf soccer/football field. There is a beautiful auditorium in which the back third of the seats can rotate on a platform into a completely different room on the other side of the main hall. (Stop and think about that.) There are video screens in the hallways providing inspirational quotes and announcements. In three years, I had never once heard a teacher complain about resources. In terms of facilities administration and resources, CHEC is an easy A-plus. The principal, Maria Tukeva, is an amazing fundraiser and I want to be clear that none of this is illegal or improper. Rather, it is brilliant.
But…do you remember the Yankees? They spend a lot of money, too. Here’s what they have to show for it in the past 15 years: Four American League Eastern Division Titles, Two American League Pennants, and Five World Series Championships. That’s 11 times out of 15 when they did way better than almost everybody else. This year doesn’t look bad either. Right now they are only a half-game behind Boston and have the third best record in baseball.
The Yankees have a lot of money. They use it effectively to win baseball games.
Now back to CHEC. We know it has a lot of money. But how would we know if it was “winning”? The whole idea of winning makes most of us in education uncomfortable. Winners and losers? Parents, politicians and principals are rightly squeamish about putting winners and losers into separate piles when it comes to kids. The solution to that bit of discomfort is to ease the pressure on students and parents. But your physics teacher will tell you that that pressure and energy has to go somewhere.
One function of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been to absorb and re-channel this pressure and energy. It generates benchmarks against which we; as districts, schools, and teachers may measure ourselves and compare one to another. The measures may be arbitrary and crude. They may be punitive and unreasonable. But, for now, they’re all we’ve got. We can find the winners and the losers; the wheat and the chaff.
Mr. Mathews compares school principals to the general manager of a baseball team. So, how does Team CHEC stack up under the management of Maria Tukeva? Are they winning? The short answer, I think, is no.
In the last three years, since Bell Multicultural High School and Lincoln Middle School merged to form CHEC, CHEC has failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in both reading and math. Is CHEC doing better than most DC secondary campuses? I suspect it is. But it exists within an open sea of mostly desperately awful schools. All Ms. Tukeva has to do in order to be left alone by downtown is to keep the wheels from completely falling off. She has been doing this and sometimes more for several decades.
So, with all that extra money and the decades of administrative experience, one might expect to hear the thunder clap of the Achievement Gap slamming shut. But it’s pretty quiet at CHEC.
Mathews is right to say that I did not want to be on the CHEC Team and that the GM insists on a very high degree of conformity. To be honest, I cannot think of a single teacher who likes being on this team. Just as I have never heard a teacher complain about resources, I have also never heard a teacher say they like being there. Teachers come and go at CHEC like hobos on a boxcar. Many get fired (21 on the last day of school back in the final year of PPEP), but many more leave just as soon as they can.
In the three years I taught at CHEC, Maria Tukeva and the CHEC assistant GMs had to hire about 235 teachers for about 85 teaching jobs. If you are firing or otherwise alienating that many people, even with all of your extra resources, and still not making AYP, somebody at a higher level than me ought to see that there is a big problem and have the guts to fix it.
In fact, there are two problems. In no particular order, they are that 1) the performance benchmarks set by No Child Left Behind are clearly ridiculous and 2) Tukeva and Company are shockingly poor managers and motivators of people.
I have often lamented the waste of human capital at CHEC and the team that could be created there if the administration would give up only a little bit of control. I have suggested that principals should be evaluated partially on teacher retention. It is extremely expensive to recruit, hire and train new teachers; and, last but not least, there must be a cost to students of constant teacher turnover at CHEC and around the country.
CHEC hires extremely smart, creative people with hearts in the right place. But the only quality truly valued at Team CHEC is OBEDIENCE. Smart, creative people do not thrive on that and their hearts are not filled. They move on to other teams or, sadly, other sports entirely because their experience on Team CHEC has been both deeply unpleasant and fatally formative.
You can write me off as a disgruntled former employee. I don’t mind and, in fact, it’s true. But the numbers speak for themselves: 3 years; 85 teaching positions; 235 teachers. Nobody working in that sort of environment has time to worry about “The Team”. They are just trying to survive. I’m told there are 53 new teachers starting at CHEC this week. And so they roll on…