Saturday, September 13, 2008


Regular readers of this blog know that I teach in an underperforming school in the typically well respected state of Connecticut. My interests in teaching are moving slightly towards an even greater interest in change we can believe in for the student population.
In my last post, I wondered what needs to change in order to change the negativity, both from students and faculty, to positivity. Today, I am wondering what needs to change in order for both students and faculty to perform better.
CNN's profile of Chancellor Rhee, the District of Columbia's latest head honcho, raises many important questions about a system that is failing. And before someone reports me to the defender of public education, Dennis Fermoyle at From the Trenches, let me make it clear that I believe public education still works for the strong majority of today's students.

Question One: How Can we Spend Education Money Better?
Rhee closed 23 schools in her first year as the head of the District of Columbia's public schools, fired 36 principals and cut 15 percent -- about 121 jobs -- from the central office staff. And she's making no apologies.
Great leaders in organizations that exist to make a profit understand the need for systems that don't slow the company's growth to a crawl. Often, districts that underperform lack the system wide structure to reach peak performance. With so many Directors and Assistant Directors, information and vision is not streamlined. I liken it to the convuluted nature of information sharing between government agencies like the CIA, FBI, and local police.
By reducing the central office staff and eliminating empty schools, Rhee is striving for a more fluid organization. Yes, it comes at the expense of people's jobs, but if we are really about the kids, it means we might lose our job for their success.

Question Two: How Can We Create Buy-in From the Teachers?
The plan focuses on top-down accountability, quantitative results like standardized test scores...
Here's where Rhee may be off mark as a leader--that is if I am reading her plan correctly: top-down accountability is rarely effective, as demonstrated by a teacher's comments: "I think the people who view her aggressive actions as a positive thing, I think they are missing the boat because if it results in more chaos and more dysfunction, it's not the solution that we need," said Kerry Sylvia, a teacher at Cardozo Senior High School in her ninth year.
Yet, Ms. Sylvia is also off the mark by taking aim at Rhee's style. Both are quoted in the piece as caring for the students. For both sides to create assumptions in their heads about what the other side is doing or motivated by, reeks of immaturity and insecurity. Rhee's immaturity and insecurity demonstrated in her top-down model, Sylvia's immaturity and insecurity visible in her baseless assumption the Rhee will fail.

Question Three: How Can We React Better to the Urgent Nature of Failure?

One of the ways which failing schools react to their own failure is to turn inward. Embarrassed by our own failure, we try to protect our interests and people. A second reaction to failure is to turn outward. Weakened by our own failure, we willingly give control to an outside force. This prevents hostile takevoers, thus preserving our salary.
In both cases, failure is perpetuated. By turning inward, we lose sight of the vision necessary for success. We miss the chance to partner with the outside world for the sake of our students. Sometimes, the task is overwhelming. In so many underperforming schools, the failure is a result of school systems, student attitude, parent inabilities, and social injustice. In trying to cope with and fix all of these issues, we fail to adequately control what is in our control--our own skill level.
By turning outward and giving control away, we lose the ability to create vision based on our understanding of the community. Outside sources lack the intimate understanding of the community and prescribe a one size fits all system. It isn't to say that those systems lack any value, but they don't take into consideration the existing skills of a faculty. Instead, it assumes that every faculty member is a failure and therefore must follow the same lock-step approach.

Question Four: When will We Get Over Ourselves?
"She's pitting adults against children. She couches things in terms of 'I'm not here to keep jobs for adults. I'm not here to keep people's paychecks. I am here for the children,' " Sylvia said. "Well, guess what? I'm here for the children too."--Ms. Sylvia
I would love to work for someone who pits me and my colleagues against the children. The truth is that we teachers are soft and can't handle competition--as demonstrated by our insistence that all competitive games on the playground disappear.
Unions are necessary, but they currently serve to overprotect and reward those who should not be protected or rewarded. The latter, which means salary, is one area we need to examine and change. I will take my chances; and if I fail, maybe the high pressure world of education is not for me.


At 8:04 PM , Blogger The Science Goddess said...

You might also want to have a look at this article from last week's NYT. Lots of food for thought.

At 9:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. McNamar,

I wanted to correct you on your assumption that I am insecure and immature when it comes to education in DC, and that I have a "baseless assumption that Rhee will fail."

I don't need to assume anything. I am seeing her failures unfold right before my eyes. In my hour-long interview with the CNN reporter I shared some of the examples that were, unfortunately, not included in the piece. I explained how Rhee hired a consultant over the summer to do many of the city’s high school master schedules. As a result, the majority of students at my school had incorrect schedules. Many of the mistakes were basic—students were scheduled to take World History II first semester and World History I second. For the first 2 weeks of school the staff, including myself, had to fix the mess. Then, at the beginning of the third week our students were given new schedules. So, essentially 2 weeks of instruction were lost because Rhee's consultant could not do basic scheduling.

I could go on and give you other examples of how many schools across the city weren't ready on the first day because of poor planning at the central office level--no computers in merged schools, a school with only one phone in the entire building, student registration information from closed schools not reaching the new schools, etc.

You can also read recent Washington Post articles detailing how earlier this month U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman admonished Rhee and DCPS for failing to comply with a 2006 court order on special education in DCPS. His words: "My fundamental problem here is the lack of accountability, lack of coordination, lack of oversight, a lack of specific people who are rolling up their sleeves to get the job done."

So, as you can see my comments were far from baseless. I think it is really difficult to be on the outside and make judgments about what is going on in such a complex system. You should do some more research before making any more “baseless assumptions”.


Kerry Sylvia

At 4:54 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Ms. Sylvia,
First let me thank you for taking the time to visit my inconsequential blog.
I don't doubt that CNN did not air all of the interview, especially when the focus of such interview is the positive impacts of a hard-nosed leader.
Let me point out that based on what I had available to me, which is your quote about people who view Rhee's approach as positive are "missing the boat," I read into that an assumption that Rhee's approach will fail.
My school switched attendance and scheduling systems creating chaos. I don't pin that chaos on my leadership team; instead I pin the blame on the company hired as consultants.
To me, and I am not a saint when it comes to maturity, we as teachers need to do a better job of projecting a more professional and partnering image. My own blog is guilty of immaturity when I react out of emotion instead of problem solving.
The public view of teachers is one that needs mending. We need to be the leaders, and we need to ensure that the public sees us as working for the betterment of their schools.
Unfortunately, this article doesn't portray teachers in a positive light. Instead, and again--I believe you when you say CNN left out major portions of an hour long interview--we come out looking like we are against anything that makes us uncomfortable or scared to lose the safety of tenure or unions.
If you feel I have misrepresented you, then I only ask that you fully respond to the article--if you haven't already. Start a blog and write about the truth, as you see it. Then, I would think of you as wondefully secure.


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