May 31, 2015

A Young Teacher's Voice on the Devastating Effects of Education Reform

Written by Candi Peterson, WTU General Vice President

Recently, I received an email from a New York teacher blogger friend. He thought I'd be interested in a blog post from NY blogger, Carol Burris who writes Round the Inkwell. Burris, a high school principal and former Spanish teacher also guest blogs for Valerie Strauss' who writes The Answer sheet which is featured in The Washington Post. On Burris' blog, she shares a letter from one of her former students who became a teacher.

Presently, this young teacher works in a DC Public High School. In her poignant letter to her former principal, she describes the effects of what education reform has done to teachers and students with the advent of the teacher evaluation system known as IMPACT.

To give some context to how we arrived here post education reform, the DCPS IMPACT teacher evaluation got it's roots in our district in 2009 and linked teacher performance to student achievement on standardized test scores.  A single standardized test score is used as a means to determine teacher effectiveness and there are no controls for differences among students, such as socio-economic level, attendance, learning disabilities, or other factors that are beyond a teacher's control.  Student scores are used to either reward or punish teachers for gains their students have or have not made.

Post Michelle Rhee, the fear factor is alive and well in DC Public Schools. Teachers report that there are strong messages by school/district administrators that they shouldn't speak up, complain, or offer constructive criticism. They fear reprisal, and most are in survival mode. For this reason, Burris wanted to protect her former student's identify. She states, "I have protected her identify, because sadly, that is what must be done in times like these." - © Candi Peterson 2015

Read her story below (Cross-posted from Round the Inkwell blog) and share if you like.

Good Morning Dr. Burris,

"I am not sure if you remember me, but I was a student at SSHS.  I went on to become a teacher and started my career right out of college at a high school in Washington DC.  In the four years since, I have seen what education reform has done to teaching and learning.
While I did not have any experience as a teacher prior to the introduction of common core, I have seen enough to know that this used to be a different game.  My first year of teaching, I felt incredible.  I worked in a school for students who struggled in mainstream classroom environments due to emotional or behavioral issues, but I had managed to figure out a way to reach them and make them excited about learning.  I found texts that not only challenged them academically, but also encouraged them to change the way they looked at the world.  I taught them the foundation skills they were missing and maintained a level of rigor throughout each lesson.

I was evaluated by my principal, assistant principal, and two “master educators” (unknown persons who show up in your classroom unannounced whenever they please).  I received a score of highly effective, which was to come with great recognition and a cash bonus. I was beyond elated.  My students were learning.  My students were excited.  I was learning and excited.  This seemed like great success, right?  Wrong.

After my students, who arrived reading at 2nd and 3rd grade levels, took the 9th grade DC CAS exams, my evaluation score dropped significantly.  No longer was I considered highly effective.  Their success in my classroom, while great, did not directly translate to the formulaic nature of the test; therefore, we were both unsuccessful. This didn’t just happen to me; it happened to all teachers in “testing grades.” For some teachers, this drop in scores meant that they were placed on probation, their pay was frozen at its current step value, or that they were simply pushed out of the system altogether.

My principal, though she worked SO hard to help us to improve the school culture and learning environment in our building, was soon under fire.  She was let go and replaced.  Under her replacement, the school culture/safety suffered, but teachers continued working.  Miraculously, we managed to improve our test scores.  Imagine my surprise when that still somehow negatively affected my overall evaluation score.

The teacher evaluation system in DC is a direct product of the damage that education reform is doing to real education.   Master educators and principals are encouraged not to give out too many “highly effective ratings.” Our value is based largely on test scores and our overall scores are calculated using a combination of a rubric and an “Individual Value Added” formula that we do not have access to.   It’s a process that I think fosters a culture of “teaching to the test” rather than really teaching young people to think and be curious, innovative forces in the world.

So many teachers are so frustrated, but so many administrators are following along because this is the mandate that has been given.  I have since moved schools, but common core hasn’t gotten any better.  The PARCC exam left many of my students frazzled and discouraged.  As teachers, we are struggling to keep up with what is required of us, both according to that test and our high stakes evaluation systems.  It is clear to both us and the students that this just isn’t working, but it’s not a truth that many want to hear and/or face.

I first heard about your work on this front when a coworker asked me if I had ever heard of you.  I was confused at first because I wasn’t sure if the Carol Burris everyone was buzzing about was really Dr. Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School.  Sure enough, after some quick research, I realized it really was you.  I said of course I had heard of you and that I had actually been a student of yours.  My coworker said, “your school must have been amazing.  She’s standing up for all of us.”  I told her that she was right: that it was, and that you are.

I may have been a bratty kid.  I may not have always understood you when I was a teenager.  However, when I tell you that I am so proud to have gone to high school with you as my principal, it is the truth.  You had our backs then, as students (even though we may not have always realized it), and you have our backs now, as teachers.  I am so grateful to you for taking the position you have and for standing on the front lines defending teaching and learning as it should be. From RVC to DC, your voice is heard and appreciated.  Thank you for all that you do."


May 25, 2015

Principal Bullying in DC Public Schools: Our Hidden Little Secret

Principal Bullying in DC Public Schools

By Candi Peterson, WTU General Vice President

A great deal of attention has been given to bullying in schools since the inception of Bullying Prevention month which was first initiated in 2006. According to the American Psychological Association, "40% to 80% of school-age children experience bullying at some point during their school careers."

Many say that bullying in our schools has reached epidemic proportions, but what many don’t under- stand is that bullying is not limited to just students.

Just last year at Largo Public High School former employees filed legal action against Principal Angelique Simpson-Marcus stating that she routinely belittled, berated teachers and staff and made inappropriate comments about white teachers.

A former Largo High School English teacher, Jon Everhart won a discrimination case and was awarded $350,000 by a US District Court jury. Other teachers filed similar claims citing they were fired for supporting Mr. Everhart.

Despite this court victory, Principal Simpson-Marcus remained the administrator at Largo High School and the Board of Education continued to defend this principal as an effective leader. No surprise there.

A 2014 National Survey on workplace bullying defined bullying as repeated mistreatment; and abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse. This is consistent with the definition used in the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Even with this high threshold, workplace bullying remains an American epidemic. Bullied individuals pay dearly with the loss of their economic livelihood to stop it. In the absence of legal prohibitions against it, employers are failing to take responsibility for its prevention and correction.

As the Washington Teachers' Union (WTU)  General Vice President, I hear countless stories of DC Public Schools teachers being bullied by their own local school principals. Like spousal abuse, this is our dirty little secret.

The extent to which our teachers suffer at the hands of cruel administrators is a hidden fact of school life.  AT TES Connect, an education website based in the UK, reports that one out of three teachers says he or she has experienced bullying at work.

Some of the workplace bullying complaints that have been alleged right here on our doorsteps have occurred at Jefferson MS, Lafayette ES, Orr ES (2014), Truesdell EC, Watkins ES (2014), and West EC. Out of all of the complaints I have received on workplace bullying; only one teacher was willing to come forward. 

Not unlike the School Board in Prince George's County Public Schools, our central office district administrators often look the other way and decry that they won't investigate unless teachers come forward individually to make complaints directly to them.

Why would teachers come forward especially when there is an imbalance of power between them and their perpetrator principal? Many teachers that I speak to feel that if they come forward they will loose their jobs or will have their Impact performance evaluations lowered by retaliatory administrators.

Last year a former DCPS teacher from one of our elementary schools launched an anonymous survey among her teacher colleagues and provided data that showed that 71% of the teachers would leave the school if a comparable job was available elsewhere due to workplace bullying.

When this information was presented by WTU to our district central office requesting an investigation into the complaints, DCPS refused to investigate the allegations and only agreed to speak to the principal.

R. March, a former 41 year educator summed it up this way- "The role of the principal is too often seen as one of monarchy by those who attain the rank. To these bullies, their school is their fiefdom and they behave accordingly. The public schools system is a perfect structure for the proliferation of the tyrant."

One might ask what is the affect on students when workplace bullying goes unchecked? Many of our teachers quit or voluntarily transfer to other schools, which contributes to the high turnover/teacher churn in many of our schools.

Teacher churn contributes to the lack of stability in our schools and contributes to lower student achievement.DC Public Schools administrators should treat principal/administrator bullying as a serious threat.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center states on their blog, "It behooves school leadership to protect the entire educational community from bullying-teachers included."

If you know of a workplace bullying story in DC Public Schools, please feel free to share it with me @  Confidentiality assured.

- © Candi Peterson 2015