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Thompson: The Tragic Endings of "180 Days" (Plus DCPS Response)

RUFUSViewers had been warned, but the tragic conclusion of PBS's 180 Days was more excruciating than anticipated.  The first two hours balanced the sorrows that students had endured with their concrete displays of grief and coping.   Delaunte was covered in tattoos in a way that could terrify outsiders. They are tributes to his deceased mother, Viola. His "FOE" tat is not a gang symbol; it means "Family over Everything." Raven shows us her private shrine for deceased loved ones, as well as symbols of triumph.

Similarly, the educators at D.C. Met alternative school prepared conscientiously for the best practices of demonstrating abstract concepts in concrete and understandable ways. Sports and the music program (which was destined to be cut) played essential roles.

Early in part two, the educators' efforts to keep Rufus in school died when his mother transferred him.  It was the only scene that I could not watch, forcing me to twice leave the room.  The goodbyes were interminable because everyone knew what the future would be for the kid with that captivating personality. Rufus was in a daze, a doomed student walking, not noticing a classmate he bumped into.  As Rufus exited his last loving sanctuary, he looked to be preparing for his cruel fate.

D.C. Met did the opposite when trying to avoid its predestined outcome.  In panic, a helter-skelter approach to test prep was thrown together.  Hands-on instruction became a parody of itself as the rush to remediate morphed into the syndrome known as "lost in activity."  Students were forced to drink from a firehose with only a desperate hope that enough disembodied facts would stick in their brains until testing concluded.

D.C. Met had one last great triumph, its homemade prom.  The staff pulled together to fund it.  They again proved that, over everything, school must be family. As D.C. Met, once again, wrenched dignity and inspiration from adversity, the stage for the final heartbreak was set. 

Principal Tanishia Williams-Minor was fired.  The central office did not even wait for the test scores to come in.  PBS was not allowed into the meeting where the dismissal was announced.  But, viewers were allowed to hear the impassioned protests by teachers in support of their leader. 

I have no doubt that the true believers of test-driven "reform" had the best of intentions when they rolled the dice and imposed rushed accountability-driven reform.  These well-meaning ideologues seem unable to face up to what their risky gamble has wrought.  Now, they seem vested only in justifying themselves.

In the aftermath, NPR's Talk of the Nation received a response from the D.C. Public Schools to the film. It read:

180 Days accurately shows what we've long known at DCPS — many of our students face tremendous barriers well before the school day begins. It's why we work to ensure our schools are not only rigorous academics environments, but also supportive to meet our students' social and emotional needs. Schools like Washington Met, while not typical American high schools, were specifically designed to address these challenges. We believe there is a fascinating story to be told about the lives of students at Washington Met but unfortunately, even given unprecedented access, the movie fails to show the real role that the school plays in educating these students. Rather than focus on teaching and learning, the movie spends a significant amount of time on personnel matters on which DCPS does not comment.-JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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Thanks for this post. As a NYC teacher, what I like about 180 Days; Frontline's profile of Sharpstown High in Houston that aired last fall; This American Life's profile of Harper High; and Blackboard War's portrayal of John McDonogh High is that they get inside the schools and show what it really takes to help kids graduate.

Those who fired Williams-Minor, who have the power to disrupt and alter students' lives with the stoke of a pen, like DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, are most decidedly not in the classroom, and have blessedly little control over what goes on there. This is profoundly frustrating to them, as it is to other like-minded reformers, but they know secretly that if they were forced to lead or teach in a school like DC Met they'd have to scratch all their presuppositions about what being a building leader or teacher in a DC Met-kind of environment is all about.

And the final, incontrovertible truth is that they couldn't do it: they couldn't actually deliver lessons from jump at at school such as DC Met that were "highly effective" or "distinguished," with all the multiple points of entry and groupings and high-level questioning and choice and project-based/experiential units and lessons that are required to prove DCPS's idea of "rigorous academics [sic] environments" much less "supportive to [sic again; I know] meet our students' social and emotional needs."

In all of these matters, it is hard not to make it personal. But a good, fair leader doesn’t ask someone under them to do what they cannot do themselves. Henderson, like Rhee before her and like many other school-district leaders and superintendents who want to make political hay while the sun is shining, are asking teachers and building leaders to do every day what they themselves could not possibly do. Rhee famously taught for just three years in Baltimore. It has been many, many years since Henderson has been in the classroom (she was TFA-Spanish in the South Bronx), working each night to prep for the next day and trying to stay one step ahead of her middle school students. She taught for just a few years, then went on to policy and organizing and edu-jobs that keep her far from having to pass through the same classroom door day in and day out.

Henderson could never have "turned around" DC Met in a year. Rhee could never have "turned around" Anacostia High School in year, a school that was featured in the Frontline documentary about her this past January (in the program, John Merrow asked Rhee, straight up, "Does she [the principal] have the year?" Rhee winced like a little girl, shrugged, and then said (still smiling, as if it were all a game to her), "Maybe not?")

Based on Henderson and Rhee's rambling, unfocused answers given to questions and non sequiturs in their speech (lack of planning, lack of clear objective) it's highly doubtful they could even be rated "highly effective" under IMPACT, their vaunted and "rigorous" "effectiveness assessment system" for DC teachers.

If you want a painfully honest idea of what someone like Henderson does all day (as opposed to teaching or leading a building), and want to listen to her go on about "gains" and "growth" and "rigor" and "transformation," watch this panel discussion, held on a school day, Tuesday, February 12, at the American Enterprise Institute, on “cage-busting” (sorry, I know) leadership: http://www.aei.org/events/2013/02/12/cage-busting-leadership-in-k12-education/

Listen carefully to what Henderson says, droning on about "vision" and “gains” and the fact that her own two kids go to DCPS (congratulations and nice job), and then think about what it really has to do with improving the kids' lives at DC Met. It's as if she is saying nothing at all.

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