A School’s Budget Matters

The purpose of this open letter is to strongly advocate for budget assistance for Jefferson MS Academy’s 2017-2018 school year. As a Jefferson teacher, I can verify that the entire Jefferson Academy community is extremely hard-working and talented. In fact, Jefferson MS Academy is often described as one of the fastest improving schools in the District of Columbia.

But, you don’t have to take my word for it. Even the new DC Public Schools’ Chancellor recognizes Jefferson’s great work. Following his recent visit, Chancellor Antwan Wilson said the “teaching and learning at Jefferson will put our students on a path to college, successful careers, and beyond. I see that. Our teachers see that. Our students see that. Our parents see that.”

While Jefferson’s success is undeniable, that work is being threatened by a budget that simply cannot accommodate the basic needs of our school community. For example, Jefferson’s budget allocation was based on a projected number of enrolled students (277), prior to the start of this school year (2016-2017).  Currently, Jefferson has 30 more students than the original enrollment projections (277).  However, more students didn’t equate to more funds, which defies some degree of logic.

Unfortunately, this pattern – do more with less – seems likely to happen again, for the coming school year (2017-2018). In fact, Jefferson’s 2017-2018 budget is nearly identical to last school year’s budget, despite an enrollment projection that is 33 students higher than the original projection of 277.  The current budget will result in a reduction of $1600 per pupil spending as compared to the FY17 budget. If Jefferson wanted to simply maintain its current staffing model, then they would have a deficit of nearly $300,000 to start the coming school year.

Without assistance of approximately $300,000, Jefferson will be forced to cut several teaching positions, all of which are essential to the quality of the academic program and compliance with legal and district mandates. For example, this budget shortfall would put Jefferson out of compliance with IDEA, the D.C. Healthy Schools Acts, the Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) contract, and several other district mandates. Positions that will be cut without budget assistance include:

  • A special education teacher: With a special education population of 25% and a self-contained Specific Learning Disability (SLD) program that services students from around the district, the loss of a special education teacher would be devastating. Jefferson would be incapable of servicing the Individualized Education Program (IEP) hours of countless students and providing the consistent support that ensures their academic success.
  • A Reading Intervention teacher: Nearly two-thirds of Jefferson students enter 6th grade below grade level in Reading. Jefferson’s Reading Intervention teacher supports approximately 100 students each year, and these students consistently make multiple grade levels of growth on the Reading Inventory (RI) assessment. This cut would eliminate Reading Intervention as an option for nearly all of Jefferson’s students.
  • A PE/Health teacher: This cut would put Jefferson out of compliance with the D.C. Healthy Schools Act. In order to provide required PE hours for 310 students, Jefferson must have two PE/Health teachers. This cut would also increase class sizes of other elective courses to 35-40 students.
  • A STEM teacher: A hallmark of Jefferson’s academic program – and a major recruiting tool – is its commitment to Advanced and enrichment courses. Our STEM teacher provides a course in robotics and design for hundreds of students each year. This cut would also increase class sizes of other elective courses to 35-40 students.

As a middle school on the rise, Jefferson and its students deserve the resources and staff to maintain the quality of its program. To be clear, Jefferson MS isn’t for anything extra; it’s simply asking to maintain current staffing and non-personnel allocations as enrollment increases and Jefferson’s success grows. The Jefferson Academy community requests and deserves the support of DC Public Schools, the D.C. City Council, and the Mayor’s Office. The district regularly points to Jefferson as a model for schools around the district. It would seem to be in everyone’s best interest – most importantly Jefferson students and families – to help Jefferson maintain the quality of its rich, rigorous academic program.

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DCPS and the WTU: A Negotiation Showdown or an Opportunity to Repair?

During the coming negotiation rounds between DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson and the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) President, Elizabeth “Liz” Davis, the following issues need further elaboration: How has IMPACT 2.0 faired in the 40 lowest performing schools? What is the teacher turnover rate within these schools, especially for Group 1 teachers? Is the current classroom observations’ model helping to develop teachers? What are the shortcomings of IMPACT 2.0? What “software upgrades” are essential for encouraging “out-of-the-box” teacher risks and innovation? How can the system prevent teachers from “burning out” or leaving the District, altogether? If these questions, and more, are “on the negotiation table,” then, perhaps, IMPACT version 3.0 will be worth the wait.

Background

During the Fall of 2008, DCPS created the “Effective Schools Framework,” an overarching education reform policy designed to ensure quality education within all DCPS schools. This “framework” consists of six core elements: Teaching and Learning; Leadership; Job-Embedded Professional Development; Resources; Safe and Effective Learning Environment; and, Family and Community Engagement. According to DCPS, the Teaching and Learning Element, which focuses on strong classroom instruction, is the primary focus of the overall framework. Moreover, the Teaching and Learning Element has three main purposes: provide clear expectations for teachers; align professional development and support; and, support a fair and transparent educator assessment system (IMPACT).

IMPACT: The Teacher Evaluation System

The IMPACT Teacher Evaluation System was first introduced in 2009. This evaluation system seeks to provide DCPS educators with the tools necessary for becoming more “effective.” Its three main purposes are: Clarifying Expectations; Providing Feedback and Support; and, Retaining Great People. At the center of the IMPACT Teacher Evaluation System are the “Guidebooks,” which consists of twenty differentiated evaluation rubrics based on an employee’s specific job title, or “group.” For example, mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) teachers belong to “Group 1,” which is the only group subject to test-based accountability, vis-à-vis a student’s performance on the annual high-stakes test (DC CAS). General education teachers, such as science and electives teachers, belong to “Group 2.” Special Education teachers belong to “Group 3” teachers, which is further differentiated for Autism programs (Group 3a) and Early Childhood Education (Group 3b).

Concerns and Considerations

Although differentiating between teachers, i.e. “groups,” sounds ideal, it actually creates more wedges. If the aim is to hold all teachers accountable for student learning, then we must reassess the “grouping” effect from a ground-level perspective. In my experience, both as a Group 1 and Group 2 teacher, I find the Group 1 rubric more rigid than Groups 2 and 3. Why is this the case? This differentiated accountability is wholly unfair to Group 1 teachers, especially within the 40 lowest performing schools. If our collective aim is to educate every child, then we need to implement the same accountability standards across the board.

Another challenge with differentiated teacher accountability is its tendency to stifle interdisciplinary collaboration. Due to DC CAS related pressures, Group 1 teachers often collaborate in isolation, and understandably so. Of all IMPACT “teacher-groups,” Group 1 teachers definitely carry the most burdens. Again, why is this the case? Is differentiated teacher accountability a best practice? Does it produce a positive effect throughout a low-performing public school? Does it create higher rates of teacher turnover or movers, particularly Group 1 teachers within these targeted public schools? If so, then this issue needs serious consideration, pronto!

The Teaching and Learning Framework: Classroom Observations

Another critical aspect to the Teaching and Learning Element is classroom, or teacher, observations. According to DCPS’ website, “three observations are conducted by teachers’ administrators and two are conducted by independent, expert practitioners called “master educators.” DCPS administrators and master educators use this scoring rubric during an official classroom. Although “teacher-groups” are differentiated (i.e. Group 1, 2, 3, etc.), the classroom observation rubric is not differentiated. In other words, it’s a one-size-fits-all scoring checklist.

Concerns and Considerations

When it comes to the Teaching and Learning Framework (TLF), my fundamental question is this: what’s the objective of classroom observations? If the intent is to support and develop teachers, then conducting four-to-five random observations isn’t an effective model. If the aim is simply to generate a numerical average based on a rubric, then the current system is ideal. Again, what’s the overarching objective? Is the District in the business of professionally developing its teachers, or professional chasing its vanity metrics?

The most damaging aspect of performing random classroom observations is its tendency to disincentives risk-taking. If teachers are walking around the school building in perpetual fear, then their performance will, undoubtedly, suffer. Classroom observations are critical to ensuring best practices, and providing meaningful, professional support. The current model, however, is neither “effective” nor “highly effective.” An issue I’ve expressed in more detail here. This development tools must encourage risk-taking, and incentives out-of-the-box innovation. The last thing teachers’ need is an evaluation system that stifles creativity, and sets a culture of “fear.”

Value Added Model (VAM)

A Value Added Model (VAM), which originated as a means to assess agricultural effectiveness, is a measure used to evaluate a DCPS Group 1 teacher’s performance vis-à-vis the DC CAS. According to DCPS, “Individual Value-Added (IVA) applies to English Language Arts teachers in (4th through 10thgrade), and to Math teachers (4th through 8th grade). Thus, Group 1 (ELA and Math) teachers, alone, fall prey to this evaluative component because “they are the only ones for which we have student DC CAS scores from both the prior and current year, a requirement for value-added.” For an explanation on how DCPS uses a VAM approach to assessing Group 1 teachers, please read this report. If you want a brief explanation on why the VAM approach is highly unreliable, please view this video.

Concerns and Considerations

Without question, VAMs have a definite design flaw. A teacher’s classroom student composition, vis-à-vis prior student achievement levels, can make or break his or her final IVA (Individual Added Value) score. VAM proponents often claim that this model captures student growth. Although VAMs do capture a student’s growth or decline on a standardized test, it fails to consider actual growth, which isn’t necessarily measured by grade level proficiency cut-off scores. An issue I’ve explained in more detail here and here. If a student, who’s multiple grade levels behind, randomly selects answers, then how’s this an adequate representation of a teacher’s ability to instruct? This isn’t a trick question. The simple answer: It’s not!

As a result, VAMs have a tendency to punish certain teachers and schools, in large part, because low-performing schools consist primarily of “low-performing” students. Thus, DCPS Group 1 teachers – ELA and Math – are extremely vulnerable to low IMPACT evaluation ratings, vis-à-vis their IVA score. So, is IMPACT 2.0 counterproductive? Well, if the aim is to recruit quality teachers into the most vulnerable, low performing schools, then, yes, this version falls well short of its intended aims.

According to this report, almost one-third (32.4%) of DCPS teachers, who work in high-poverty public schools, left the District. In contrast, only 13.2% of teachers who work in low-poverty DC public school, and 9.2% of teachers who work in a medium-poverty school left the District. This isn’t difficult to understand. The last thing a teacher needs is an evaluation system that punishes his or her decision to work in a low-performing school. On the contrary, the District needs a teacher evaluation system that encourages teachers to sign up for the most challenging assignments, and not avoid them.

Will DCPS Upgrade to IMPACT 3.0?

So, is IMPACT 3.0 up for negotiation? Let’s definitely hope so. Although IMPACT version 2.0 replaced the first product, it still needs reassessment and revision. In my professional opinion, the current version favors low-poverty public schools and teachers, which runs contrary to the District’s stated “40/40 Goal.” Therefore, it’s important to place all issues “on the negotiation table.” As a DCPS teacher, working within a high-poverty public middle school in Ward 8, I genuinely want an evaluation system that is fair and reasonable. DCPS and the WTU must guard against all unintended consequences. If DCPS and the WTU genuinely seek to improve the lowest-performing schools, then they must address the high turn over rates in high-poverty schools, as well as the unspoken desire for teachers to avoid teaching in high-needs schools due to IMPACT, especially under the Group 1 category. If the aim is to recruit and develop quality teachers for the most vulnerable schools, then DCPS and the WTU must have a system that encourages teachers to teach in challenging environments, and not avoid them. Or, worse still. We simply cannot afford a perpetual revolving door in our most vulnerable public schools. Hence, I truly hope ALL issues are “on the negotiation table.”

Raising the (Dun)Bar?

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(WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

Since August 2013, Dunbar Senior High School has received a great deal of public attention, and rightfully so. A historic DC high school with an important national legacy, Dunbar has long been a unique American institution. But, now that the new paint has dried, Dunbar is bracing for a new round of publicity. This time, however, the topic isn’t necessarily a pleasant one. The issue at stake: whether DCPS will grant Dunbar “application-only status” in the near future. This is, by no means, a simple decision. Yet, the final outcome, either way, has serious policy implications for DC neighborhood public high schools.

Historical Legacy

Dunbar, originally founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, is the focus of a recent proposal, which, in my opinion, has profound implications for how the District will address neighborhood public high schools. The nation’s first public high school for African-Americans, Dunbar faces a critical point in its historic legacy. What once was a beacon of African-American excellence, in academics and creativity, has become a thorn in the education reformer’s side. Although it boasts an impressive alumni list, which includes African-American leaders in various professions, it now struggles to combat the “unlucky” trifecta that plagues many DC non-application neighborhood public high schools: high-poverty, high truancy rates, and low graduation rates. In many ways, its academic decline is indicative of DC’s turbulent economic past. Fast-forwarding to the present, and taking into account the District’s economic resurgence and gentrification, Dunbar’s legacy, as a neighborhood public high school, is up for discussion.

Subpar Dunbar

Dunbar’s students’ academic performance, vis-à-vis DC CAS, has been anything but stellar. According to the chart below, the student majority, at least since 2006, has performed at, or below, the “Basic” threshold. Given its historical legacy, these “numbers” paint a dim picture. What once was a first-class academic institution has become DCPS’ greatest challenge.

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“The Friends of Bedford” to the Rescue?

Prior to Michelle Rhee’s chancellorship, Dunbar had a host of challenges. Whether you agree or disagree with the former DCPS Chancellor, she definitely faced a difficult question: how to resurrect Dunbar? So, what was her solution? Well, rather than seek remedies from within the system, Rhee awarded an outside operator, the “Friends of Bedford,” a lofty contract to “turn” Dunbar around. And. Turn it did. Unfortunately, however, it turned for the worse. According to a former Dunbar Geometry teacher, the “Friends of Bedford created a school culture of neglect, insecurity, zero accountability and poor communication.” In fact, the situation grew so dire that, in 2010, Kaya Henderson, as acting interim-chancellor, stated that Dunbar had “deteriorated significantly.” It’s a shame how little a $1.2 million dollar contract a year, or at least in 2010, yields such catastrophic results. Oh well, so much for that idea! So, I guess it’s time for a new solution, right? Hmmm… okay, what about a new school building?

Old wine in a new bottle?

In August 2013, the District unveiled the new and improved Dunbar Senior High School. This stunning new building cost a whopping $122 million dollars, which is definitely not “pocket change.” Although the “new” Dunbar is architecturally impressive, the core problems aren’t rooted in aesthetics alone. In fact, the problems Dunbar is facing, as well as several other DC neighborhood public schools, include high student truancy rates, low high school graduation rates, low parental involvement and/or poor school-home communication, massive academic gaps per grade level, and severe student misconduct. Unfortunately, sweeping the same old “dirt” under a new carpet isn’t a practical, long-term solution. Subsequently, now that Dunbar has relocated to a sparkling, state-of-the art facility, what are the next steps to reset the school culture within?

The proposal heard round DC

According to the Washington Post, a proposal to restructure Dunbar has recently emerged. This proposal includes granting Dunbar more autonomy, particularly in hiring staff, budgetary spending, and student selection. Regarding the second proposition, I’m all for granting neighborhood public schools more autonomy, especially regarding budgetary spending. The first request needs more clarification, so I’m reluctant to support granting Dunbar full autonomy over hiring policies. The last suggestion, however, is my greatest concern. I definitely question the effect of converting Dunbar, or any neighborhood public school for that matter, to an application-only institution. Since my biggest apprehension centers on the latter aspect, I wish to submit my perspective on the pros and cons of converting Dunbar to an application-only institution.

The Pros

Converting Dunbar into an application only institution, definitely, has at least one major benefit. Simply put, the selection process will undoubtedly allow Dunbar to separate the proverbial “wheat from the chaff.” Although this may sound harsh, let me explain – as a teacher in a high poverty public school – why this advantage is prudent. One problem that plagues several DC neighborhood public schools, especially within economically disadvantage wards, is the issue of chronic student misconduct. In fact, I’d be willing to say it’s the most prevalent, yet least publicized, issue across the DCPS system. With that said, application-only process allows Dunbar to “reset” its school culture. A culture marred by years of student disengagement and misbehavior. So, for this benefit alone, this request is definitely worth serious consideration.

The Cons

However, granting Dunbar “application-only” status means some other public school, in this particular case Cardozo, will inherit the non-accepted or rejected students. To say this is unfair to Cardozo is a colossal understatement. Yes, the students accepted into a “new” Dunbar will have a better chance of attending a safe, learning environment. But, students who aren’t accepted into “application-only” public schools have to attend a non-application-only neighborhood public school. Consequently, this piece meal approach will invariably create a diverged public school system. In addition, reshuffling non-accepted students to other public schools creates school-wide management challenges. A more damaging effect, in my professional opinion, is it will also create zero incentive for quality teachers to sign up for, or remain within, non-application-only public schools. Simply put, it will create a new “old” Dunbar, and, thus, lead us back to square one.

A Tough Decision, Indeed

Will Dunbar Senior High School’s conversion to an “application-only” institution raise the bar? Without question, DCPS, vis-à-vis Chancellor Henderson, has a difficult decision to make regarding the “new” Dunbar Senior High School. Granting Dunbar application-only status will definitely offer students a more productive learning environment? But, does the perceived benefit outweigh the potential risk? Again, this isn’t an easy decision, by far, but it’s a critical one, to say the least. I definitely don’t envy the chancellor on this one.

Student Slang 101

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Slang has been around for decades. Although it’s common among teenagers, it has evolved since my generation. As a teacher, I hear student slang throughout the entire school day. As a result, I’ve complied a short list of high frequency words and phrases used this year:

 

bob: Although it’s real name, in the traditional sense, it’s a generic term used to address anyone – male or female.

Example:

Student-to-student: “Come on bob, we’re gonna be late,” or “bob, let me borrow that pencil.”

 

guh: This term is a “verb.” It’s often used to describe “frustration or embarrassment.”

Example:

Student-to-teacher: “Do we have school next _________________?”

Teacher-to-student: “Yes.”

Student-to-student: “Ha, you(‘re) guh.”

 

kill: This term describes something that’s boring or too much work.

Example:

Teacher-to-class: “I want everyone to study for this Friday’s chapter ______ exam.”

Random student: “kill!” or “kill, bob!

 

mo: This is another generic term used to address anyone – male or female.

Example:

Student-to-student: “mo, stop tapping on your desk!” or “get out of my way, mo!”

 

pressed: This term describes someone who is eager for, or excited about, something.

Example:

Student-to-teacher: “Mr./Ms./Mrs. _____________ here’s my homework.”

Student-to-student: “Damn, you(‘re) pressed to turn that in.”

 

that’s dead: Similar to kill, this term describes something this seems boring or too much work.

Example:

Teacher-to-class: “Make sure to pick up your homework before you leave today.”

Random student: “that’s dead!”

 

thought it wa(s): This phrase, via Chief Keef, is a “comeback line” to anyone who expects an outcome.

Example:

Teacher-to-student: “_________________ I need you to take off that headband.”

Student-to-teacher: “you thought it wa(s).”

 

wellin’: This term is like “pressed.” It’s used to describe someone who is expecting an outcome.

Example:

Teacher-to-student: “_________________, it’s against school policy to have a cellphone in school.”

Student-to-teacher: “Ya teachers be wellin’.”

 

ya doin’ too much: Students often use this phrase.

Example:

Teacher: “________________, I need you to turn to page ______.”

Student: “Ya teachers be doin’ too much!”

 

Although this list of words or phrases isn’t exhaustive, it represents the most commonly used terms. In fact, not a single day goes by without hearing any, or all, of these words or phrases. A lot has changed since I was in middle school, but slang definitely tops the list. It goes to show, as people – and generations – evolve, so too does the use of slang.