Teachbad and Jay Mathews: Part 2
To fully appreciate this post, you should probably take a quick look at the last post if you have not already. This is the continuation of a dialogue between myself and Jay Mathews, education writer at the Washington Post, about the school where I formerly taught, Columbia Heights Education Campus(CHEC).
(I promise the next post in this blog will mark a return to the offensive silliness at which it most excels.)
Jay Mathews: Thanks Peter. This makes some sense in isolation. You make a case that the school could be run in a different way and have less turnover and better results, except for your statement about AYP. If you look at the latest results, the school made AYP in reading, math and graduation.
Mr. Teachbad (aka “Peter”): I’ll look back at the AYP data. Seems I may have misread something. As far as graduation goes, I know that many kids are put into credit recovery at the last minute and that credit recovery is a joke. It simply provides a plausible argument that a student has done this work and should graduate.[Editor's note: CHEC made safe harbor in both reading and math in 2011. That means it made significant gains from last year. However, its 49% proficiency in math and 43% proficiency in reading fell far short of the AYP proficiency targets of 70% and 72%, respectively.]
Mathews: But as I pointed out in one of my comments, parents want to know how a school compares to others to which they have access. On that score, looking at schools with similar demographics in DC, CHEC does very well. Its AP system also adds something unique that parents and students told me they were very happy with. Any thoughts on that?
Teachbad: [Note: CHEC forces all students to take AP English. AP is the only English option.] I have a lot to say about AP, but I’ll be brief. The most frustrated people in that building are probably the high school English teachers. I have talked to nearly all of them (dozens) in the past three years about AP. They all say virtually the same thing. “We are not really teaching AP classes.” You either have to stop and explain the difference between anonymous and unanimous or you don’t. At CHEC, you do. Every time.
“This school takes a giant dump on AP” was one of the more colorful quotes from an English teacher. She went on to say that this is unfair primarily to the African American students who are truly ready for an AP class and are not getting it. Some other kids are ready, as well, but she singled out African Americans as especially harmed. I believe that CHEC could pass two or three times as many AP tests if they were really teaching AP classes to the right students. As I know you know, the College Board says that students should be “academically prepared and willing” in order to take AP. Most students at CHEC are neither…and that’s probably the case at Wilson and Banneker as well. ADVANCED placement. How can everybody be advanced? I’m from Minnesota and I know that Lake Wobegon doesn’t really exist.
AP English for all is so transparently not working. But any discussion of this; any dissent, question or suggestion for modification is strictly forbidden. I remember one meeting so clearly toward the end of last year. An 11th grade English teacher was talking about next year. She asked one of the most carefully crafted questions I have ever heard. The gist of it was whether it would be possible to continue with AP for all, but possibly have the classes arranged such that kids with similar strengths and weaknesses could be put in the same sections so that teachers would be better able to target these specific things in instruction. The room fell silent. The assistant principal shook her head sort of sadly and said “Well, that would be tracking.” And that was simply the end of the discussion, even though it was a practical idea worthy of examination and everybody in the room knew that that is not what tracking is. That sort of interaction is what gets teachers talking and understanding that they were not hired to think or be creative.
If the baseball GM model is to work and be fair at CHEC, Tukeva should tell all new hires that they are entering a world of pure dogma and make-believe.
Mathews: Spend a few days at Dunbar or Eastern and tell me if you would choose them over CHEC. You notice they change principals every year or two. I would take a tough if often tone deaf principal who sticks it out and has plan to what happens at those schools.
Teachbad: Right. She keeps the place quite and gets left alone. As long as there are no deaths and we force everybody to apply to UDC so that everybody is “accepted” to college and force everybody to take AP tests so we get the challenge index award; it all looks great. If she is so amazing, she should go turn Dunbar around. How fast do you think Tukeva would retire if [DC Schools Chancellor] Henderson told her that the children of DCPS really needed her to do that?
Mathews: One thing I am curious about—how does CHEC do by your lights on safety and atmosphere? Is it chaotic in the halls like other DCPS high schools?
Teachbad: I have never felt unsafe and I think I’ve only seen one fight in the school. Sometimes there is stuff after school off campus. Having taught on both the middle and high school sides of the building, I would say the middle school is chaotic in the hallways. There is a lot of running, shoving, cursing, kids wandering around, etc.
As far as general atmosphere, I think there is an intangible that is probably significant but overlooked. Teachers overwhelmingly do not like being there. It is not because of the kids, but it must impact them. And it creates inefficiencies because there is only a slim chance that your 10th grade teacher will be around to write you a recommendation in 12th grade. Teaching seniors, I have had many kids complain to me that they don’t really get to know their teachers because everybody leaves. I think that is important. This is genuinely heartbreaking for teachers and I have seen it many times. Teachers really like the kids or they wouldn’t be teaching. But the hostility, disrespect and silliness they have to put up with from the admin is just too much. Again, 53 new teachers starting today. Could that possibly be an indication of organizational health and success?
But ultimately the issue for me is not Tukeva, CHEC or DCPS. I think the real issue here is what is happening to the profession of teaching. Increasingly I fear that teachers are expected to simply adapt to a program rather than use their judgment. It’s getting more like line work. CHEC is a particularly aggressive, front-edge manifestation of this, but probably nothing more. I think that is unfortunate and probably not a good thing.
Jay: Thanks Peter. Well said. Just one more question. The teachers I talked to at CHEC, NOT including Tukeva, said they tried other ways to reach the kids that you say, rightly, are not ready for AP and none of those methods produced much progress. This, they say, produces some progress for those kids. What would you do with the kids not ready for AP and how do you know that would work?
Teachbad: Sorry…could I ask you to rephrase that?
When you say ‘method’ I think differentiation strategies, reading strategies, etc. But it sounds like you are saying that compulsory AP is itself a method. I’m not sure I agree. It sounds like you might also be suggesting that, regardless of readiness and ability, kids taking AP get more out of their AP classes than regular classes? That’s possible, but I’m not sure how we would know. And that still leaves the issue of the fundamental dishonesty of not really teaching AP classes anyway and cheating the qualified students of that experience. This is what upsets me the most.
A system like DC has to spend so many resources on trying to bring up the bottom that those at the top, who are still kids and deserve our support just as much, are often neglected and left on their own because they are not causing trouble and have mastered our dumbed down lesson. Meanwhile, I’m on the other side of the room explaining the difference between federalism and the Federalist Papers, again. I know a great teacher would have everything differentiated just so that everybody is constantly challenged and successful. But how many reading levels and motivation levels in one room should a teacher be expected to differentiate for?
For the other part, I am never certain that anything will work. I experiment. I talk to my colleagues. I get to know my students. This cuts down on uncertainty. Another argument for trying to keep your teaching staff a little happy. There is no team with 40-60% annual turnover. That affects teachers as well. I have to believe that if Valerie and Bill and their replacements left every other year that you would be sad and annoyed.
Mathews: One of the best AP teachers I know, Frazier O’Leary at Cardozo, rarely gets kids up to 3 level, but he still teaches a rich course that gets kids much readier for college. That is what I am thinking of when I see what some teachers at CHEC, whom I have watched at work, are doing.
Teachbad: I would love to sit down with you and O’Leary together to talk about this. Maybe observe a lesson or two with you. My experience in DCPS is deep, but only in two places. (The other school I worked at was Noyes, before the scandal.) I would really like to see something with you and hear what you think about it. What do you think?
Mathews: Let’s stay in touch. I want to know what you do next, and how that works out.
Teachbad: [paraphrased] I’m pretty curious about that as well. I’ll keep you posted.