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Thompson: @TheChalkface Is A Must-Read [Last Call For JT@TWIE!]

[Editor's note: After something like 8 years as a contributor here, John Thompson (@drjohnthompson) is taking his talents to Diane Ravitch's blog. This is his last post, officially. For an archive go here. You can read his latest post hereMany many thanks for your prolific writing, teacher-based insights, and willingness to work with those with whom you don't necessarily agree. It's been an inspiration.] 

Washington D.C. teacher/blogger Dr. Shaun Johnson has restarted @ The Chalkface, this time offering nuggets of school reality. Johnson, who left academia for the kindergarten classroom in Ward Eight, may not have the time to teach school and write the detailed and thoughtful posts that he used to publish, but he provides frequent reality checks. 

Johnson's observations are especially timely as D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson spins the attrition rate for her district's teachers and principals. As the Washington Post's Michael Alison Chandler reports, in Kaya Henderson Addresses Teacher and Principal Turnover in Annual Event, Henderson claims a new fellowship program "teaches leaders ... how to support, develop and retain a staff." And, "'If every year you are replacing a third of your staff, something is wrong,' she said. 'We look at that, we have conversations. . . . Or if they are not the right leader for DCPS, they move on.'”

Before non-educators lend credence to Henderson's claims about her district's leadership and the effectiveness of their top-down "teacher quality" campaign, they should follow Johnson's brief and timely observations on how they are implemented in schools. 

Not surprisingly, the first post of the school year began with a discussion of the anxiety caused by the IMPACT teacher evaluation program. It was followed by an observation about how the district's observers create a "audit culture" in public schools. Johnson explains:

Whenever we have our walk throughs, and being in a “failing” school they are frequent, the onus is always on the teacher. What are YOU doing to improve achievement? But the audit never goes the other way. Do I ever get a chance to check off a list of things I need, in return asking what YOU ALL are doing? What are you doing to get that paycheck?

Output-driven reformers would have to actually teach in a high-challenge school before they could understand the predictable, negative results of this micromanaging. Its not just in D.C., however, where "people from District offices around the country do rounds in classrooms and schools to tick boxes on a checklist. Do we have the right things hanging on our walls?"

I suspect most urban districts have their names for "Count Day," and face a variety of distortions and damage done by the surreal process, but D.C.'s sounds more obsessive in its processes. True believers in charters, who even deny that they "push out" high-challenge students, might ask why "For a few weeks after 'Count Day,' more or less, we brace ourselves for an influx of new students. Some years it’s been more, others less. But it’s the craziest thing, just new students coming one at a time, maybe in small groups, after this very specific date." Regardless, these transitions call into further question the claims that some successful schools serve the "same" students. Real world, given such mobility, how would bureaucrats or researchers know who those "same" students are?  

Johnson's latest, Teachers Will Give Inches that End Up Miles, is my favorite, and its a must-read for teachers. Johnson concludes:

Few things in any given teacher’s career will make the ceding of ground more obvious than new administration. We’ve had three principals in as many years. Our school has struggled mightily all three of those years. Each new regime promises to turn the screws on us teachers by adding new meetings or initiatives, most of which are new ways of doing the same things as before.

Johnson explains how his school voted the extended day down because their questions couldn't be answered. It has been clearly established that lengthening the day by an hour and adding to the teachers' workload does not help students unless there is a carefully planned, properly funded, and coordinated effort to improve the quality of the schooling provided. But, this year, "With new administration, suddenly we are an extended day school. Funny how that happens."

Being a classroom teacher, Johnson is able to conclude:

I get it. Teachers are very reluctant to say no, especially with how easily it is to suggest we don’t give a sh*t about our students if we don’t do a million extra things every day. So we keep giving, and giving, until pretty soon, all those inches added up to a mile. And we wonder why teachers, especially those in struggling schools, are walking zombies.

And, that brings us back to the question why 500 or so D.C. teachers left their jobs last year. It also explains why teachers should heed Johnson's advice, "No matter how small, watch how many inches you give. That ground is very hard to get back." - JT (@drjohnthompson)

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