"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When Will WaPo Move Jay Mathews to the Opinion Pages?

Every Monday, testing industry lackey, Jay Mathews, gets paid by his patron, Kaplan, Inc, to offer a steamy pile of propaganda under the wildly-inaccurate rubric of "News." If Mathews's cheerleading for corporate welfare schools for the poor, union busting, and more testing is, indeed, news, we must wonder which of the Washington Post's education news we should believe: the Mathews rendition or the one reported by the journalists at WaPo who earn their salaries by the stories they file, rather than which side they take in the stories they file.

Mathews's piece yesterday was aimed principally at praising the Queen of Hearts, Michelle Rhee, for her attempt to bring down tenure and due process for teachers in D. C. schools, all for the sake of, yes, the children. Only secondarily was yesterday's piece aimed at praising the KIPP chain gang schools as the final solution to tenure, to achievement, and to every other shortcoming of the public schools that may be as yet devised. The opening salvo:

Sarah Hayes, principal of the KIPP DC:KEY Academy, realized that two new teachers were not working out. Their résumés and recommendations had been good. They were nice people. But their classes were disorganized, their standards low. Efforts to help them improve had little effect.

If KEY were a traditional school, Hayes's only reasonable option would have been to mentor the teachers, note her dissatisfaction on their evaluations and recommend that they not be kept after a two-year probation. That is the way it goes in most school systems. Staffing rules, tenure agreements and low expectations tend to favor weak teachers unless they do something awful.

But KEY is a public charter school, one of many in the District that do not have such rules. Hayes was able to get the teachers out of her middle school by Christmas and replace them with proven talents, who were freed from other duties at KEY because of flexibility allowed such schools. . . .

The only problem for the Washington Post and for a fact-challenged Jay Mathews is that one of the Post's real reporters, Bill Turque, was filing a story yesterday, too, on the facts surrounding the shortfall of teachers in D.C. classroom five weeks into the first term.

Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker said the high number of vacancies at this point in the school year is a consequence of Rhee's decision to fire 270 teachers over the summer. About 70 were on probation, meaning they had less than two years' experience and could be terminated at any time under District rules. About 200 others were let go after failing to meet a June 30 deadline to obtain certification.
Whoops! Did Mathews just tell an intentional lie or is he so out of touch that he knows not of what he speaks? It's a problem for the Washington Post, either way you look at it.

What I really enjoyed in yesterday's WaPo, however, was the skewering of Mathews by a couple of readers, who commented thusly:

qaz2 wrote:
You have the facts wrong. In the first two years in DCPS teachers are on probation and are easy to dismiss. Teachers become challenging to fire after they have passed the probation period when they shouldn't have been retained if they weren't performing, that is the current standard. I also notice in your example the principal at Key didn't just let them go after a few days of failure, it took months to find replacements, during which I'm sure they tried to train these teachers up in the mean time. With Rhee's strategy only the charters have this option now. We in DCPS now are starving for teachers. Lots of teachers took the buyout seeing this woman is gunning for them. Now we don't have enough teachers to go around. A DCPS school principal with an incompetent teacher on probation can't let them go, because no competent teacher wants to enter the green tier. Not with the Queen of Hearts who is clear that she doesn't have to justify any firings she makes. I would not take a job anywhere that she had the authority to fire me. Job descriptions and employee evaluations are niceties she has made clear she cannot be bothered with.

There is another big problem with this example. Ms Rhee is suggesting we hire lots of inexperienced teachers. Most teachers take a few years to learn the ropes, and depend on mentoring from good experienced teachers. A good principal knows new teachers with just a degree in education and a license to teach are a management challenge. They may have the book knowledge on teaching but they haven't learned practical classroom skills. Let alone the Teach for America folk that Rhee is a big booster of, who come with enthusiasm and little training at all. The problem with her model is it takes the teaching team at each school and tells them not to play together. You are in it for your bonus and retention. Time you spend helping your colleagues is time you could be investing just in your classroom making sure you get the big bonus. Good schools are like a sports team, to be successful they need to work together. Yes sometimes you have to replace people, but more often you succeed by giving your existing players what they need to succeed. The Green tier does away with that. You are in it for your bonus, not the school, not your colleagues, and educating kids is not the end, it is a means to gain the end of the big payout. Talk about creating incentives to cheat on tests!
And then came this smackdown on Mathews's unceasing crowing about the test score accomplishments of the KIPPsters, who put in 12 hour weekdays and every other Saturday grinding away at test prep:
AttorneyDC wrote:
As always, people lauding charter schools and their teachers fail to mention the one very critical difference between charter and public schools: admission and retention of their students.

Schools like KIPP take only those students who apply, and whose families agree to abide by all the extra strictures of the KIPP schools. Note that the great proficiency numbers posted in this article for KIPP only apply to those students who remain at KIPP for all four years. Of the students who are motivated enough to apply to KIPP, many drop out before 8th grade.

It's not surprising that a school which hand-selects its students from a pool of those motivated enough to apply, and then can expel students who do not live up to the rules and expectations, would be left with relatively high-achieving students at the end of the day.

The success of some charter schools to post successes with the subset of their pre-selected students who are not expelled or asked to leave has NO bearing on firing DC public school teachers. Mathews should know better than to make this kind of specious cause and effect argument.


  1. Anonymous6:49 PM

    It's so simple:
    Challenging families.
    Challenging children.
    Little or no materials.
    NO support for furthering my education.
    NO STAFF DEVELOPMENT during extra vacation week children were off in January 2008. (Hope you found daycare, parents!)
    Years to become really good.
    And I and my colleagues ARE really good. We met AYP, and will again.
    No idea HOW you are judging my performance, other than test scores --
    my grade doesn't test.
    I'm leaving and you'll have some cute little girl who can't manage a fly, knows nothing about African-American culture, and can't yet teach take my place. Good luck, DC!

  2. Anonymous5:05 PM

    In Mathews' April 13, 2009, WPost column, he reveals that his child attends or attended "a highly respected private middle school." So now we learn that the Washington Post's lead "education columnist writing about DC public schools (including public charter schools) does not send his child to a public school. Can we be surprised that about his pro-charter school bias?