Jay Matthews Puts Me On Blast; Maria Tukeva and Peggy O'Brien Respond; I Say WHAT?!

In his blog, "Class Struggle," Jay Matthews said here in July he'd never talked to any teacher at Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC) who had problems with the administration.  Some alert readers caught this and emailed me.  I was more than happy to provide Matthews with a detailed account of my time at CHEC, and I posted that account here.

After emailing my account to the administration at CHEC and gathering their feedback, Matthews posted his take on the situation today over at his blog.

In his post, Matthews quotes Maria Tukeva as saying that I did receive support from my content-area administrator and there were curricular documents for AP US History and AP US Government.  I don't know what to say except for that's not true.  I'll assume she's been misinformed by my content-area administrator.  Also, Tukeva apparently said most of what I said was incorrect and that I did not show any indication that I diagnosed my English language learner's ability to read my AP textbook.  I did, and I admitted I felt unprepared to help them make meaning of the text.  I asked for help; I received none.

Jay goes on to quote me as saying that my administrators had little classroom experience.  That's certainly what it felt like, but apparently I was misinformed about the classroom experience of my grade-level administrator.  As a result, I posted an edited letter to Jay and apologized for that mistake.  It's certainly not my intention to spread falsehoods; it defeats my objective.

The next point that comes up in Jay's blog post is the teacher attrition rate, which I honestly didn't even make a big deal out of in my original letter, although I should have, so I'm glad Ms. O'Brien brought it up.  According to her, CHEC lost 40% of its teachers in the summer of '07, 20% in '08, 37% in '09, and 36% in '10.  Keep in mind that the staff at CHEC is over 100 teachers, so 36% is probably a little over 36 teachers.  She says teachers are leaving because they're finishing their Teach for America stints, they're ineffective, they're moving, health reasons, retirement, and career change.  She should have included administrative harassment, but I don't think she really knows anything about what it's like to work at CHEC, so I guess I can't blame her for leaving that off the list.  In any case, I think most teachers would tell you that when your turnover rate is that high, there's something wrong.  You can chalk it up to TFA, health reasons, career change, or whatever you like, but it needs to be fixed.  It's not healthy.

The issues I really wanted Jay to highlight were essentially these:

- There is an administrator at CHEC who is extremely abusive and is responsible, to one degree or another, for many teachers leaving, myself included.  Letters have been sent to Michelle Rhee, Adrian Fenty, and Jim Graham.  Nothing has been done.

- The reliance on Teach for America types who believe students equate to data points and will leave education in a few years to advance up the career latter is not a model for sustained quality education.  Teacher experience matters.  Mary Levy has found that nearly 1 in 5 DCPS teachers are in their first year.  Few teachers I worked with at CHEC had been around longer than 3 years, and if they had, they were considered a veteran.

- CHEC plays the numbers to make it appear as if it has a silver-bullet solution to urban education, and it doesn't.  It treats teachers poorly, expects them to work much harder and longer than many others, and has a high degree of burnout.  I suspect the drop it saw in test scores this past year may have something to do with this flawed model.

- Finally, teachers should be observed to help them grow, not to be vindictive and not in order to fire them. Unfortunately, that's not how CHEC's administration sees it.

Unfortunately, Jay Matthews is naturally more interested in focusing on AP coursework, as its legitimacy has an impact on the legitimacy of his school rating system.  Yea, I loved the one AP conference I attended and have received great ideas from colleagues who have attended others.  But, as I told Jay in a private email, a good course is a good course, and just calling a course "AP" doesn't magically improve the likelihood that students will achieve.  In fact, if you have an inexperienced teacher attempting to teach kids way behind grade-level college material, I think it's likely they'd be negatively impacted by the course, as it would probably disengage them fairly quickly.  A good class has a lot more to do with the school and teacher than it does with the title.

For the past year, this blog has attempted to shed some light on what I now perceive to be the highly political and highly corrupt system that is DCPS.  I feel the following posts express my views on the problems in DCPS in much more detail.

It's Over
Checking Out
Abused Teachers Syndrome?
What Makes a Great Teacher?
It's All Been Done Before
Columbia Heights: A Case for Teachers Unions  <---- see this post for details on harassment by admins

But, for some insight on what I perceive to be the biggest problem with the reform implemented by Fenty and Rhee (aside from a gross disregard for stakeholder input, particularly from the most needy communities), I'll leave you with a paragraph from a piece I recently read by Sue Hemberger.  I couldn't have said it any better myself:

"Often, the attempt to idiot-proof a process involves imposing a formula designed to produce a consistent result.  When this approach is successful, that result is reliably better than incompetence but generally far short of excellence.  And the task has become sufficiently de-skilled that no one who aspires to excellence wants any part of it."

Unfortunately, this is what DCPS is doing to teaching, and CHEC epitomizes it.  And that, Peggy O'Brien, is why good teachers are leaving.


  1. Thanks for taking this on. I do feel that soon you and the other teachers at CHEC will be vindicated. Once Rhee is gone and this torture-the-teacher mentality ends - which I believe it will with a new mayor -- the truth will out.

  2. I am getting flamed as well over there as well, but then again I am in that non-progressive group of people that think that a student taking an AP class should have at least 2 of....

    1) The prerequisite skills
    2) A desire to take the course
    3) A good support system in place to help if they are struggling.

    I can live with 2 and 3. If a kid wants to try to get through an AP exam, I'll help them even if they aren't ready, but the student needs to know it is going to be a struggle.

    I guess I'm just frustrated that Jay seems to think that CHEC is the greatest place in the world because they make kids take AP exams... that isn't the measure of a good school.

  3. Wrym1 - I do believe that Jay is in some form of denial. Either that, or he's an awful person, and I prefer to believe the former.

    He's staked his professional identity on "AP for All" making it rough to back down. I like to think he doesn't realize how harmful this is to the children.

  4. I think it's really pathetic and sad that Tukeva would blatantly lie about providing curricular materials and the quality of the summer institute/training. Or she has her head so deep in the sand that she believes every word that her minion administrators say to her. Apparently, teachers can't be trusted or believed.

    In my years at CHEC, I only attended a few days each summer of the summer institute because I found that it was 2 weeks of filling a lot of time talking about doing work and not really getting much done. The dedicated teachers went off on their own and got their prep work done on their own time off the $35/hour clock.

    I wonder what the administrators do over the summer each year because they always seem endlessly unprepared for the school year? How is it that the beginning of each year is a copy and paste version of the beginning of every other dysfunctional school year start: student schedules are a mess, decisions about school-wide policies have yet to be made (or implemented or thought through), many teachers still have their schedules and class assignments up in the air, computer labs aren't set up and ready to go, etc...

    Regarding teachers who have left for the reasons of: "finishing their Teach for America stints, they're ineffective, they're moving, health reasons, retirement, and career change."

    CHEC pushes great educators away from the school, the profession, and DCPS. CHEC has lost lawyers, engineers, PHDs, artists, musicians, nationally board certified teachers, awarded teachers of the year (DC and National), highly respected department chairs, dedicated athletic directors, etc... Most of those who left barely got any acknowledgment or thank you... just a cold shoulder. It's sickeningly unprofessional and pathetic.

  5. I agree. It is sickening. When I left, nobody said a word to me. My administrators did not even acknowledge I was leaving, except to give me a very poor IMPACT rating on my last day (with the exception of Tukeva, who gave me an exit interview). Strickland and Aguilar never acknowledged I was leaving or asked why. But that was no surprise, since I don't think they smiled at me once either.

  6. Efavorite at 554: thanks for the encouragement - I wish I shared your optimism. I think we have a long way to go before we get through this wave of destructive "reform." It seems they're just now launching a major push.

  7. No comments here from Chrome1?

    Anyway, I do appreciate your efforts and honesty ReflectiveEducator and I wish you well and hope you find a place where the administrators value you as much as your students.
    Nowadays, that might mean going to a private school, (but not one of those exclusive expensive ones where tuition is $30,000 a year.)

  8. Another perspective on AP tests as a yardstick. I work at a very high achieving school in a well-to-do suburb. Our AP problem is students who take too many APs. They generally have the skills and support, but their desire is not about learning, it's just about college applications and GPA boosts. The result is that they stress themselves out to an unhealthy degree, boost the general stress level in the school, and create crowding in some of the classes, possibly even taking seats from students who might want the class for more intrinsic reasons. Part of my teaching assignment is to serve as an academic advisor, helping students select their courses. According to Jay Matthews, every time I talk a kid into taking two AP classes instead of four, I decrease the quality of my school. I've emailed him about that - not because I care about our ranking staying high, but just to point out the problem. He counsels against reading the rankings that closely (does it matter if you're #70 or #125 or whatever), but he continues to publish the rankings with that kind of precision, down to the thousandths place if memory serves. Pretty ridiculous.

  9. Of course he will publish the rankings and treat them like gold, they are why he is sort of famous and probably make him a significant amount of money.

    I just think it is sad that schools allow themselves to be forced into cramming kids into classes they are not prepared for in order to look good on some index.

    For all my criticism of DCCAS, and I have a lot of criticisms, at least that is measuring something that is sort of useful, specifically, is the kid "proficient" in the standards, as opposed to warm bodies in seats.

  10. Ex CHEC teacher's take on CHEC:

    I think it's fair to characterize the administration at CHEC (minus one obvious example) as good people who are working hard in the best interest of the students. I also think it's fair to characterize their overall body of work as unimpressive. There are a few major issues they seem unwilling or unable to resolve. These issues present major challenges for all parties (students, teachers, administrators, parents) and reflect negatively on the school as a whole.

    1. They failed to develop any sort of coherent policy on tardiness. It is left for teachers to determine how to handle students coming late. Something clear cut, such as 3 lates = detention and 6 lates = suspension could improve the situation greatly.
    2. They failed to make the mandatory everyday meetings useful and meaningful. If you are going to take the last half hour before students arrive from teachers, possibly the most important half hour of the day, it better be for something meaningful It should not be spent sitting in meetings listening to things that could easily be emailed or doing activities that are clearly just time fillers.
    3. They are unable to retain the most respected, effective, and experienced teachers. This needs no explanation.
    4. The norm at CHEC is to change teachers assignments days before the semester starts. This often includes placing people in areas where they lack expertise, experience, and certification. They do not see the value of having a teacher teach a course repeatedly, which may be the single most important factor in developing great courses.
    5. Because they do not retain teachers, in most cases they failed to develop curriculum that can be passed on.
    6. They failed to develop a positive relationship with their teachers by demonstrating trust.

    Despite these issues I believe CHEC to be a good school that does really wonderful things, and probably is one of the better schools in DC. Had it not been for circumstances beyond my control I'd still be there. The issues mentioned it above are what holds it back from being a GREAT school, a true model for other schools to follow. Hopefully the administration can resolve these issues and lead the school to greatness.

  11. Anon at 548: I think you make some great points. However, I think there are more administrators than the one at CHEC who are harming education. I felt like I dealt with a few corporate edudrone admins there. Rather than help me improve, they just kept pointing out what I was doing wrong according to their TFA handbook. When I asked how to improve, they'd avoid the question. The culture that believes all of education's failings can be attributed to bad teachers prevails there, and I think they revel in making sure teachers know how bad they are.

    But I'd agree the school is better than most DCPS schools. It could be A LOT better though. And I also agree that those morning meetings were an egregious waste of time. I think Tukeva made the staff do them because it's something she can point to as evidence that the school allows for close collaboration. But the way they work in practice is overburdened admins slapping some worthless activity together at the last minute.


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