DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee unveiled a new set of expectations for DCPS teachers last week, codified in a 200+ document and announced to teachers last week, a.k.a. a week before students arrive. Some examples from the Washington Post story:
A highly skilled teacher should never have more than five instances of “inappropriate or off-task behavior” by students within a half-hour of class time. At least three times in that span, an instructor should respond to students’ correct answers by “probing for higher-level understanding” of the idea being discussed. And no more than three minutes of teaching time should be lost to poor organization or planning.
These attributes are included in a strikingly detailed set of guidelines and strategies presented to District teachers last week. The 200-plus-page document, the “DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework,” is part of a wave of change about to hit students, instructors and parents when classes begin Monday.
Reaction has been underwhelming, to say the least.
In fact, only Vulcans need apply to teach in Rhee’s school district. Some of the qualities she insists on in good school teachers don’t really even apply to the instructors. Have you ever met schoolchildren? They are savages. Teachers should consider themselves lucky if they’re assigned students who limit their savagery to “off-task behavior.”
Rhee’s 200-some-odd-page “DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework” sounds like the sort of thing that gets delivered on Mount Sinai: a document that doesn’t merely clarify the aspects of the job that need clarifying but instead signals a shift in the company’s direction.
From the aptly named blog, “The Frustrated Teacher”:
The thing about these kinds of prescriptions is that they are not really in the control of the teacher. Sure, sometimes the teacher can control all aspects of a child’s behavior (I don’t really believe that) but sometimes, a kid is just going to freak out, be off task, and there’s not one thing the teacher can do about it. And Rhee will ding that teacher!
The scope of change that Rhee is attempting to make at DCPS is admirable and daunting, and it is true that some of Rhee’s detractors will find fault with any new changes she and her department attempt to institute.
However, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the Fenty/Rhee DCPS administration is fighting two battles:
- Raising student expectations, achievement, attendance, and reputation; and
- Second, in selling their reforms to the stakeholders who will pass judgment
Per the second battle, this document represents another misstep for Rhee and DCPS leadership in telling their story. Producing a new set of expectations is great, and clearly needed, as are many of the steps being undertaken to improve the quality of teaching in the district. (And as $500 million of Gates Foundation money has made clear, teacher quality is the new most important thing for schools to chase).
But two major mistakes could have been easily fixed, and one effective addition made, to turn this latest attempt from a punchline into a promising development.
Length - Surely, this summer’s health care debate have shown that the optics of an official document numbering in the three digits are not very good, to say the least. There is most assuredly a lot of important material contained in this document, but the simple assertion of a “framework” numbering more than 200 pages makes one wonder, “how long is the fleshed-out version?”
Timing - The beginning of the school year is a great time to set a new tone, but students hit the schools today, and the framework went to teachers last week. It is highly improbable that a teacher prepping for the new school year would have the opportunity to read, nevermind digest and apply, the tenets/suggestions contained within.
Context - This is the most important issue at play here. It is possible that the framework itself is filled with great examples of DC teachers who exemplify the quality teaching traits—this would be a great place to highlight them. The framework could also employ the voices of DCPS students talking about excellent teachers and how their skills impacted student achievement. All of that information may be in the framework, but given the reports thus far, there is no evidence of that context, that personal story.
And without that critical story being told, the public is given what appears to be another onerous set of rules, from an administration that is, yes, ambitious to create change, but also often described as out of touch with the realities of the classroom.
We have seen Ms. Rhee adapt before, and her administration’s approach to the press and the public has notably softened since the low points of last summer and fall. I have confidence that they will learn some lessons from this incident as well. But for the moment this latest rollout remains, if not a huge mistake, a big missed opportunity. (And with the only other DCPS story being Mayor Fenty placing his children in an out-of-neighborhood school, it’s not the most promising PR start to what should be a promising year).