Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A teacher's story: Why the DC Impact system Bloomberg wants NYC schools to emulate caused me to leave teaching

There is huge pressure from all sides – the federal government, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor Bloomberg – on the UFT, the NYC teachers union, to agree to a test-based teacher evaluation and compensation system in NYC. Similar pressures are being exerted on teachers throughout the US, as a result of "Race to the Top" and the corporate reform agenda being promoted by the Gates Foundation and the other members of the Billionaire Boys Club.  In his State of the City address, Bloomberg also proposed that teachers rated highly through such a system should  get a salary increase of $20,000 a year. 
Merit pay has been tried in many cities, including NYC, and has never worked to improve student outcomes.  When challenged about the evidence for such a policy, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson tweeted a link to a recent NY Times puff piece about DC’s Impact system, in which a couple of teachers who had received bonuses after being rated “highly effective” were interviewed as saying that this extra pay might persuade them to stay teaching longer.  
 Stephanie Black is a former teacher in Washington DC.  In both 2010 and 2011 she was rated “effective” by the DCPS evaluation system.  She is now living in Chicago where she tutors math and coaches in an after school program.  Here is her story.
From 2007 until 2011, I taught in the same DC Public School.  My first year, like many teachers' first years, was a stressful learning experience full of trial and error, but a disproportionate amount of error.  In my second year, I believe I got fantastically lucky. Since I was picked to teach a newly formed fifth-sixth grade combination class, I was allowed to have a much smaller class than most – only about 17 students – as we figured out how the combination would work.  My second year was wonderful.  My students and I formed magnificent bonds, and since I was still relatively new to education and no test-based evaluations yet existed, I was blissfully ignorant of any sort of need to teach to the test. 
That year, I planned standards-based lessons, but also incorporated time for projects, field trips and even journaling.  Gasp – journaling.  We actually called it “Freaky Friday Free-write,” but it was a 20-minute block for students to write about whatever they wanted to, after which, students who wanted to could share.  Like many of the things we did that year, the students loved this time, and so did I.  Thinking back, though, I can only laugh at how bold I was to take 30 minutes of my school day, even just once a week, for such an activity. 
That was, without doubt, the year I realized how much I love teaching, and that I was actually pretty good at it; I realized I had a knack for helping kids learn and making them laugh at the same time, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Moreover, despite all the giggles coming from my classroom, I was never considered the easy or lax teacher, because I absolutely wasn’t.  We learned many untested skills and concepts, but we also learned the tested ones; I just didn’t give much thought to which ones we were focusing more on.
Anyway, that year now seems like a distant memory, perhaps even a dream.  The next year, DCPS implemented their new evaluation system, IMPACT.  IMPACT is the (non-opt-in) evaluation system which is used to classify teachers as either ineffective (meaning you get let go at the end of the year); minimally effective (meaning your salary is frozen, and if you are minimally effective two years in a row you are let go); effective (meaning you get your step increase, but no recognition); and highly effective (meaning you get a step increase, the option of accepting a bonus in return for losing future job security, and a night of celebration called “The Standing Ovation”).  The system is set up so that most teachers fall into the (non-recognized) effective category.
During IMPACT’s first year, I was pretty ignorant to all the changes.  My school got a new principal; I started teaching a new grade; and, overall, I still didn’t really care that much about whether I was considered a good teacher or a great teacher.  Furthermore, I welcomed a system of more accountability, as I didn’t really think I had that much to worry about – I was (pardon my confidence here) a good teacher who was willing to go above and beyond for my students and my school, I already had extremely high expectations for my students, and I was already borderline obsessed with figuring out how to become an even better teacher.  At that point, I naively believed that a merit-based system would recognize that while perhaps I wasn’t yet a great teacher, I was on my way.  So, I bumbled through that first year, pretty unaware of how the new system was about to change pretty much everything – how it was about to take NCLB and put it on steroids.  I focused on my testing game that year, and I still continued to let my life get consumed by work, but I never felt defeated or like I was falling off the path towards becoming a great teacher.
The summer after that year, however, everything changed.  Before the test scores were even back, the district sent out ranges to all the teachers that predicted what our final score would be (the range was based on all possible testing outcomes).  In wide-eyed amazement, I looked at my predicted range to see that, depending on the test results, I could get rated anywhere from minimally effective to highly effective.  Oh, yes; without the test scores that made up 55% of my final score, they had no idea whether I was one of their least valuable or most valuable teachers.  Up until that point, I hadn’t “got it”; I had naively thought I could keep teaching well, with attention to the tests, but without a narrow and all-consuming focus on them,  and that I would be fine.  Apparently, as my predicted range showed me, that was not the case.
Then, the scores came back.  Thankfully, they were good enough to secure me an “effective” rating, but they weren’t good enough to help my school make AYP, something that, as one of the two lead math teachers at my elementary school, I felt unduly responsible for. 
Come the school year 2010-2011, I had a much better understanding of how the new evaluation system worked.  I knew what I needed to do for both my school and myself to be considered a success – I needed to get those test scores up, and I needed to get them up a lot.  My naivety about the system was gone, and I somehow, perhaps because I realized I had no other option, became willing to have my worth and value as a teacher judged by little more than my students’ test scores. 
Students who had me in 2009 would hardly have recognized the teacher I was last year.  The new teacher-me was a warped version of my former teacher-self; I still brought the rigor and expectations I had previously brought, but there was no Happy Birthday singing hamster, no Freaky Friday Free-write, and no partnerships with the American Ballet Theater.  And it wasn’t that I stopped caring about these things, I just found myself so consumed with trying to survive within the new system that they fell by the wayside.  I had to choose my priorities, and even though supporters of accountability systems based on test scores will try to convince you that this doesn’t have to be the case, I had little time or energy to think about anything other than test data and how to get my students’ scores higher.
By the end of last year, my students had made tremendous gains in math.  Here are the graphs, straight from the DCPS site to prove it:
Before last school year, I had worked crazy hours and given up much of my life for work, but only because I loved my job and really believed in what I was doing.  Last year, my mindset was completely different.  I started doing everything I was doing because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t do those things.  I was no longer motivated by a passion for teaching and learning, nor was I trying to develop myself into the great teacher I had once dreamed of becoming; I was motivated by a fear of being stigmatized a loser, and I was trying to do whatever it would take not to be considered one.
Not to give away the ending to my story, but in this process I burnt out and lost faith in what I was doing in teaching.  I grew tired of caring so much about a test that I didn’t really care that much about.  I became frustrated with having to pass up opportunities to teach skills and concepts that I really thought my students needed to learn in order to teach them things I knew they were going to be tested on.  I couldn’t stand the taskmaster role I had to take on as a teacher.  Basically, I became sick of caring too much about all of the wrong things, and not enough about the things that really mattered.
In my quest to prove my worth and value, I started to feel worthless and easily replaceable.  Even worse, I felt like I was being told at every opportunity possible by the district to do this or that better.  And they weren’t telling me to do the things I knew I should be doing – if anything, the system seemed to be encouraging my worst behaviors, and seemingly suggesting I might even want to do them more intensely.  At every turn, I was presented with more data, more practice test scores, and more suggestions for how I might do things differently in order to get those test scores even further up. 
And with each spreadsheet that came back to analyze, each one attached to an invisible memo that said, “Please, teach better,” my dreams of becoming the fun, loving, and rigorous teacher who could inspire her students to think critically and compassionately slipping further and further away.  I often heard that great teachers didn’t need to worry about the tests - that if they just did their great teacher thing their students would do well.  I knew this wasn’t true; if it were true, I would have tried it.  There were just too many things to master, too little room for error; we couldn’t take our eye off the testing ball.
The thing is that while I still don’t think I know exactly what it means to be a great teacher, I do think I know a couple things.  Great teachers teach many subjects – tested subjects and untested subjects.  Great teachers don’t worry about whether or not their students can recognize question types; they worry about whether or not their students understand skills and concepts so thoroughly that they could apply them in multiple contexts.  Great teachers don’t worry constantly about whether or not their students will master every single concept that is discussed within their classroom, because they know that at times students must get confused and seek out clarity in order to truly understand things.  Great teachers understand the difference between holding their students to high expectations and undermining their confidence so that they believe they are dumb or that they will never be as good as other students.  Great teachers realize that while their primary role in their students’ lives is to teach, it is also important for them to be mentors and sources of compassion and love.
Last year, as I ate up the data and strategically planned the path to success in a system based on test scores and quantifiable data, I realized that I couldn’t have my cake and eat it, too.  The measures of success – for both my students and for me – were too narrow.  There was no time to even think about trying to play the World Peace Game; there was no time to learn about programs like Scratch; and there was certainly no time to read The Lemonade War and plan our own lemonade wars.  None of these things – international relations, computer programming, or entrepreneurial skills – would be tested, and every minute spent doing one of these things was a minute I could have been using to help lead my students through the laundry list of standards they were responsible for knowing come test time.
I had chosen to give the new system a try and play by its rules.  Of course, the joke was on me.  I gave up my life, and played the game as well as I knew how - I planned lessons that were IMPACT-friendly, and I got my students’ math scores to go up dramatically (at the end of third grade, only 23 percent of my fourth graders had been proficient, and by the end of fourth grade, 64 percent of them were proficient or advanced).
Unfortunately, since I had failed to factor into my quest for success the fact that I would be dealing with an imperfect evaluation system – as all teacher evaluation systems are right now – I failed to predict that even if I did everything I was seemingly being asked to do, I might still fall short of “success.”  Come the end of the school year, one of the rubrics – the one used to score elementary math teachers – was so flawed (it didn’t account for student growth at all) that I somehow managed to barely squeeze into the “minimally effective” category (meaning I was very close to being considered “ineffective”).  Imagine that – my students made some of the most dramatic math gains in the district, and, yet, somehow according to the rubric used to score math teachers, I was only slightly better than ineffective! 
After giving this “merit”-based system of ranking and sorting a real chance, last spring I made the excruciating decision to hand in my resignation letter.  I still loved the idea of teaching, and I absolutely adored my school community, but for all the reasons I describe above, I was frustrated, exhausted and felt beaten up by an evaluation system in which I couldn’t win for losing.  And even though I decided not to return several months before our final evaluations came out, I knew that no matter what the results were, they wouldn’t make me proud.  If I did manage to be considered highly effective, it would have been because I had figured out how to play the testing game, and had abandoned my dreams of becoming the teacher I wanted to be.  If I wasn’t rated highly effective, I knew it would feel like I had been slapped in the face by a district I had given up so much for.
Now, as NYC considers implementing their own merit pay system similar to the one in DCPS, I warn parents, educators and community members not to let it happen.  These systems set up perverse incentives for schools and teachers to stop considering what students really need or what really constitutes a great education, and start trying to do whatever it takes to be considered successful, which usually involves playing a test-score and data game that narrows the curricula and turns students into data points. 
There are other ways to improve schools and create systems of accountability that don’t create these perverse incentives.  These are usually systems that focus more on what and how students are learning, and less on ranking and sorting teachers.  The goal of any education system should never be to set up a Where’s Waldo culture of seeking out and paying great teachers; it should be to create a system that is so powerful and supportive that almost all teachers can be considered great and where all students, rich and poor, are receiving educations that will allow them to flourish intellectually, emotionally and socially.


james boutin said...

Well said. Perfect explanation. Really hard to help people on the outside see this sometimes. Now if only we could do this constantly and more concisely EVERYWHERE education reform comes up, we might start to sway some opinions.

Mike said...

Wow. I remember your Freaky Friday Free Writes, and my SpEd kids who normally loved to get pulled out of the regular classroom for any reason (not anything against your class, just the thrill of leaving class) just refused to go if it was FFFW.

It's a damn shame that there's still such a glaring disparity in the schools in DCPS, based on neighborhood. I've got a friend in a cushy school in NW who is just in love with the new system, but then, her kids were never the ones falling behind in the first place.

I've been seriously thinking about going back to DCPS, this is something to really consider...

-Mike V

jaylen watkins said...

Thanks for sharing the experiences. This is very touching one certainly.

Government Teacher’s Education and job Requirements

Joel said...

A great article,right to the point. The political hacks, who know nothing about education, don't realize what they are requesting. They care little about what the children need. Under their plans creativity and individualization are gone. Test Prep is the main subject,teacher sharing is eliminated and teacher bickering begins about who really deserves merit pay.,principals will be forced to find teachers, many times unfairly, to give poor ratings to show they are doing their job.
The joy of teaching and learning for teachers and children is gone.
Paperwork takes over from teaching.
How Sad!

Tom Forbes said...

An amazing post. I could feel it as I read it.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. But you know who doesn't know this and will never read this article: all the policy makers and people in power. Teachers must be the ones to change the system, they are the ones in the classrooms, they are ones with the power. Teachers must speak up for themselves and not be afraid to stand up to the policy makers who have never set foot in a classroom.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I fear that this will become the story of many others, including myself (a NY state public school teacher), in the very near future... it is indescribably frustrating.

Anonymous said...

It's more than heart-breaking when teachers who are trying to make a difference must either compromise their morals or leave. Would you ever consider teaching in a Montessori school?

Anonymous said...

As a NYC teacher for 12 years, I've seen the steady destruction of the teaching profession in the city. Gone are the magical classroom moments that captivated my heart as a young boy and energized me at the beginning of my teaching career to now settling for doing activity sheets because the text books and test preps say I need to do so. I seen the new teachers who come in with so much energy, enthusiasm, and vigor leave crying because, according to the test scores, they were "good" enough in the first 3 months... one of them was my sister.

Politicians have no idea what it is to educate, to hear the stories of children who live in shelters and can't find a way to do their homework, to hear how some kids come to an empty home because mom or dad are working or worse,

I hope my colleagues can stay united and stop this merit system, all it does is turn our beloved profession into a factory of mindless children.

AmyinDC said...

I've done really well in this flawed system because i was in a grade that didn't have a "big test" (second). All I had to do was teach well during each of my observations -- I did, and got a $20,000 raise plus bonuses since no one can retire early anyway. But I have really had a problem with the fact that some of my colleagues can't be highly effective too. It almost tore our school apart when some of them got fed up with their evaluation being 55% derived from test scores. THe whole staff got shifted around to try to achieve momentary equity.

Now we have FIVE tests a year to prepare for the "big test" and in my 18th year of teaching, I cry from the stress. We are teaching new Common Core standards with NO CURRICULUM. NO CURRICULUM!!!!! We cobble each day together.

This is THE TRUTH.

Anonymous said...

As a DCPS teacher I can certainly confirm this story. At my school droves of overqualified energetic young teachers like the author are quitting the profession. They are interested in working in an environment where they feel trusted, valued, and treated as professionals. It will not work. Who will replace them?

Anonymous said...

If you want to subvert and destroy public education this sounds like a useful tool for that purpose. Will private schools receiving public education funds work like this also?

ReesFan said...

BS. That's what this is, a raft of it. This is simply a story of burnout by an average person who came to realize how excrutiatingly HARD teaching kids IS. Period. You can't make the system"so powerful, that all teachers become great". This is earth, remember?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ahmad Jamal said...

Per the DC teachers’ own comments math scores went up dramatically (at the end of third grade, only 23percent of my fourth graders had been proficient, and by the end of fourth grade, 64 percent of them were proficient or advanced).

Isn't it a bit selfish to focus on her problems with the "new way" when her kids clearly benefited? Her example should not represent the whole system rather that the system should be tweaked so that scores are not so important and there's a firmer public discussion on what matters in public education- art, culture, physical education. Fortunately, in NY test scores will only be about 40% max. It's always disingenuous when advocates support the teacher, but never the kids who advance under a revamped system OR WHO DROP OUT BECAUSE THE SYSTEM
SUCKS FOR THEM. The people united will never be defeated. The unions united will always take more money for their members and advocate allies without expecting better results and without benefiting the citizenry.

Anonymous said...

This is a story that needs to get out. I also left DCPS because of IMPACT. My 20+ years of teaching experience and success (a former student is an adjunct History prof with a PhD, another has a successful consulting business, others still look me up to say hi and thanks and this is from a Middle/JHS school population) doesn't count for squat. An Master Educator who observed me tried to tell and explain to me how to game the system and score better. That was the final straw. Education is not a game. I had to be true to my principals. After all, when you say its for the children, I take it to heart. My philosophy was to teach them as if they were my own. DC's plan is to test and test and test and kill creativity, and it killed my creative spirit. I hope that this to will pass. If not, we're in a heap of trouble.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Maryland teacher in a school system piloting a new evaluation system that measures the growth of students, which is better than just looking at test scores. I have to say that this DC teacher doesn't seem to recognize the fact that curricula is developed to be sequential so that each grade level is responsible for teaching certain objectives that society, not she, had determined to be important. The topics she chose to teach might be covered in a later grade. It's not for her to decide what is important. We can teach creatively to the standards. We can engage students in high-interest activities while addressing the proscibed objectives.
I know that many factors involving the differences between students and classroom are accounted for in the measurement. What has not been addressed by evaluators is the impact of teaching in a school built in the 1950's with rooms that are too hot or too cold (to extremes), have mold problems due to leaks impacting the health of students, some classrooms that are too small, and then there's lead pipes, asbestos, etc. etc. Some students don't get much sleep due to crowded housing conditions. Some don't have food at home and suffer from stomach pain. Buses bring some students late to school. In other words, we are always comparing apples and oranges when we compare teacher data.
Worst of all, a culture of competition develops to replace the culture of cooperation among teachers.

Anonymous said...

On this Teacher Appreciation/Mental Health passing, I wish to acknowledge the hard work, devotion, and love that doesn't fit easily measured into formal evaluation systems: the constant caring that never ceases, the extra unseen mile, the thankless and unnoticed tasks, etc.
May all the banal, anti-intellectual, unthinking, mean-spirited hypocritical bashing of public servants boomerang back to the privatizing promoters, boomerang back with a venomous vengeance. Yes, it is said, do not repay evil with evil. Take the hurt away from my heart, let
the truth and justice do their work. Peace to all thinking, feeling, human beings.

Sandrine said...

I checked the IMPACT Guide a few years ago. The 6 "Core Beliefs" that used to be on the front page of IMPACT were repeated over and over in a creepy, brainwashing fashion. But I took particular umbrage with the first stated "belief." (They still are in IMPACT, just listed once now instead of shown in the initial repetitive fashion.)

It goes like this:

IMPACT: "What We Believe

Our work toward these overarching goals is fueled by a set of Core Beliefs. We expect every adult in the system to act in accordance with these beliefs every day.

We believe that:

1) All children, regardless of background or circumstance, can achieve at the highest levels."

That, belief #1, is such a denial of reality, not subjective reality, not changeable reality, but REAL reality, it makes me ill. I think it pretty well sums up the ridiculously unrealistic demands being put on teachers under IMPACT, including the horrendous evaluation system (students test scores/VAM), which does not and cannot help teachers to teach better or students to learn better. High stakes testing is as ridiculous and unrealistic a way to measure teacher effectiveness as is Core Belief #1.