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One Mouth, Two Sides

Last Friday, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee sent a letter to DC educators outlining the principles she claims are guiding her contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers Union and her efforts to reform education in the District.  The Top 10 list of questions and answers appended to the letter has been interpreted by some pundits as an apology of sorts.  “But I now see that we may have pushed on too many different fronts all at the same time,” she wrote. 

Cynics and true believers alike can find rich material in Rhee’s letter.  Count skoolboy in the skeptic camp.  As an outsider, this late-in-the-day effort to charm DC educators by acknowledging their concerns about working conditions, professional development, salary and job security, teacher evaluation, and other topics near and dear to their hearts sounds inauthentic.  “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” skoolboy heard growing up.

What’s too good to be true?  The notion that Chancellor Rhee has an adequate approach to evaluating teacher performance.  “As for accountability,” she writes, “please know that I will always focus on growth, not absolute achievement, when assessing your performance.  If your students start the year at the 5th percentile and you move them to the 20th percentile, you’ve done something incredible!”

Well, that certainly sounds good—as much concern for supporting the learning of low achievers as for those who are on the cusp of proficiency or who are already achieving District proficiency standards.  I’m sure that the District’s policies and programs match this broad concern for supporting all children’s learning—and the teachers of low-achieving students.

Like the Saturday Scholars program, for example.  This is a program to prepare students for the spring administration of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) test.  For three months, a select group of students is invited to come to school on Saturdays to work on their reading, math and test prep skills.  (And “instill lifelong testing competence.”  This is a quote from Chancellor Rhee right from the press release—you can’t make this stuff up.)  This year, 5,200 District students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 were invited to participate.

But skoolboy estimates that there are more than 19,000 students who took the DC-CAS in 2008 and did not achieve the proficiency standard in reading or math.  How did the District decide who to invite to participate?  Michelle Rhee’s letter to DC principals describes the program as addressing “the academic and testing needs of students on the cusp of proficiency in reading and math as tested on the DC CAS.”

 So this program is not for everyone.  It’s not for the students who start the year at the 5th percentile, or the 20th percentile, or even the 30th percentile.  They’re not on the cusp.  (Nor, of course, are the students who are well above the threshold for proficiency on the DC-CAS.)  And teachers who are teaching these students won’t get the benefit of a program to which Chancellor Rhee and Mayor Fenty attribute achievement gains in DC between 2007 and 2008. 

 “If your students start the year at the 5th percentile and you move them to the 20th percentile, you’ve done something incredible!”  Especially if you “move them” without the support that the District provides for teachers whose students are on the cusp of proficiency.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.