What's Wrong With CHEC (Edited)
Many may have noticed that I recently removed a letter I sent to Jay Matthews that I posted a few weeks ago. Jay sent my letter to the administration at CHEC and received a response from both Principal Tukeva and DCPS’s Peggy O’Brien. They said that I was factually incorrect in some of my claims. Because it is certainly not my intention to mislead anyone or spread falsehoods, as that compromises my objective, I’ve edited the portions they said I was wrong about.
Here is the edited letter:
Hi Jay, thanks for allowing me to tell you about my experiences at Columbia Heights Educational Campus. Before I talk about CHEC, though, I think it’s appropriate to provide you with some background:
I moved to DC in the fall of 2009 to work in DCPS after having taught for three years elsewhere because I thought Michele Rhee was taking DCPS in the right direction (I’ve since changed my mind). I taught at CHEC for only a semester. I quit in January of this year with a number of teachers because I truly detested working there. I found it to be an awfully unhealthy work environment.
Before I explain why it was an unhealthy environment for me, I’d like to note that I know the school receives a lot of good press for a lot of the amazing achievements that Maria Tukeva has worked tirelessly for. She certainly deserves recognition for demanding that all students be held to high standards, for organizing funds to build one of the nicest facilities in all of DCPS, and for recruiting some amazing people to work at that school. There are a number of negative things that aren’t being reported in the press, however. Some of them are specific to CHEC’s administrative team, and some of them are reflective of what I believe is going on across the District under the Rhee administration. I’ve tried to separate the challenges I dealt with as a teacher at Columbia Heights into these two categories.
Problems Specific to CHEC
Fake AP and Poor Scheduling
When I was hired at CHEC in June of 2009, I was told that I would be teaching world history. That sounded good to me since I had experience with the course in both of the prior schools I’d worked at. However, when I arrived to begin work at CHEC in the third week of August, I was told a few days before school started that I would also be teaching AP US History. This came as a shock to me because I had never taught US History, much less AP US History. I had never worked at a school in which teachers were allowed to teach an AP course without first having taught the non-AP version. I’d also never worked at a school where AP teachers weren’t required to attend the AP conference for the course. AP courses are especially rigorous enterprises, not only for students, but also for teachers, especially first-year AP teachers. You don’t exactly have time to plan a quality AP course in a few days.
Although I was told I would be sent to the AP training for US History in October, by the time the conference rolled around, I (along with every other AP teacher in the same boat as me - i.e. they’d never been trained in AP) was told that the money wasn’t available and that we might have an opportunity to go the following year. On top of that, I was told by the administration two days into teaching my “AP US History course” that I would also be responsible for teaching AP US Government to the same group of students, and that they would all need to pass both exams at the end of the year. Again, I was shocked. Here was another AP course I’d never taught nor been trained for. I had never taken either of the AP tests and wasn’t even sure that I could pass them myself. So, how was I supposed to ensure my students would?
I asked my social studies administrator, Admin Y, for help in developing the curriculum. I was told that the school apparently had no curriculum in place for either AP US History, AP US Government, or the sections of World History II I was supposed to be teaching. Although I sent my AP syllabus draft into Admin Y for feedback, I never received any. As a result, the syllabus was never sent to the college board by me. If the administration sent the syllabus in, it was either a draft I submitted or something else they came up with. Either way, I was never made aware it was sent in. On top of that, Admin Y was not able to find more than two students to take the AP US courses for the first five weeks of the semester. Five weeks in, seven more students were literally pushed into my AP US classroom while complaining they didn’t belong there. I wasn’t sure how to handle that. Was I supposed to start over from scratch with all the material I’d attempted to cover in the previous five weeks? The students that had been added were clearly not in a position to be reading the AP textbooks I’d been assigned. Many of them struggled with English, and I certainly had no clue how to teach English language learners how to pass two AP tests that I had never taken and passed myself. Again, I contacted the administration for help. Each time I received an email back telling me they would meet with me to discuss the challenge. Those meetings never occurred. I would go to meet Admin Y and he wouldn’t be where he said he would be. He would tell me he’d come to my room to work on curriculum and then never show up. Nobody ever observed my AP US courses, and I never received feedback on how to improve them.
After nine weeks of this, I was told that, due to lack of enrollment and the fact that an English teacher was quitting, I would no longer be teaching the AP US courses. They were closed and the students received no credit for that quarter. Instead, I would be taking over an AP Senior English class from the teacher who was quitting. This was another class that I’d never taught, never taken the AP test in, or attended the AP training for. I taught that class for a week before it was taken from me and given to a man who’d previously been working as a special education aid and had no teaching credentials, much less AP English experience. He told me his only experience that could possibly have made him qualified to teach the three AP English courses he was assigned was that he once taught interior design at the Seattle Art Institute.
In place of the AP Senior English class, I was given a senior capstone class that had been taught by another teacher for three weeks before I took over. Again, I was provided with no support, no curriculum, and no instruction on how to teach a senior capstone class. By the beginning of November, I’d given up asking for help with my courses. I’d met with Ms Tukeva about the lack of support from Admin Y (who was both my content-area administrator and my assigned mentor), I’d emailed Admin Y and Admin Q (my grade-level) administrator numerous times and received little feedback (none of it useful), and I’d reached out to other teachers who’d been at CHEC the previous year (it’s very difficult to find anyone at the school who’s been around longer than two or three years), but found little to no help and ended up attempting to navigate foreign courses on my own. I know my students suffered from the lack of support I received and the constant teacher turnover going on around them.
Too Many Strategies and Worthless Observations
I came to CHEC believing DC was doing the right thing. Even more, I believed CHEC was doing the right thing. It seemed like an amazing school after the two weeks I spent there during the summer orientation. They had all kinds of great mission statements, strategies, and presentations. I drank the kool-aid quickly, and I really believed I’d ended up at a dream school. Yes, the workload would be big, but I was ready for that because I wanted to be an amazing teacher. By November, however, it became clear that the school lacked focus. One colleague said it felt like the administration just kept throwing things at the wall without even waiting to see if they stuck. The administration would harp on a different group of “research-based” teaching strategies every week, but always claim to have the authority to hold you accountable for anything they’d ever mentioned, which is what observations turned out to be: a list of every strategy they’d ever mentioned that they didn’t see you do in the classroom in the fifteen minutes they watched you. This is why I never felt like the observations were helpful. They were just a litany of things you did wrong as a teacher without helping you become better. Once in my post-observation with Admin Y, he told me that he thought I was making strategies up. I responded that I most certainly was not and explained why I did what I did. He told me what I was doing wasn’t effective. I asked why not and what I could to improve. He ignored my question and told me we needed to move on with the post-observation. On a different occasion, a colleague of mine asked Admin Y why were working in a fashion that seemed counter-productive. Instead of explaining, he told us we were doing it that way because he said so. He then asked if that satisfied our curiosity.
Why didn’t the administration wait to see if any of the strategies were actually good for the students?
My guess would be that most of the long list of “research-based” strategies were being done for money. CHEC receives a lot of money from non-profit organizations who want to see schools use particular “research-based” strategies successfully. Fight for Children awarded CHEC $100,000 last year for implementing a number of things it sees as contributing to an overall positive school climate. I suspect this money makes CHEC beholden to doing what will earn it money over what works best for its kids.
Possibly the largest of CHEC’s problems is Admin Y. By many staff members I talked to, he is believed to constantly skirt his responsibilities, verbally abuse staff and students, refer to students with racial slurs, ditch administrative meetings, engage in physical altercations with students, sexually harass staff members, and lie on teachers’ evaluations. One staff member I spoke to even told me Admin Y called him a “pussy” to his face, and a few other colleagues corroborated that story. During the 2008-2009 school year, the staff brought something like a 32-page document of allegations against Admin Y, which Michele Baskin still has if you’d like to contact her. It’s generally believed that he’s unfit to work in a school. The few staff members I spoke to who’d actually worked at the school for longer than Admin Y (all of whom quit this year) told me they believed Bell was a much better place to work before Admin Y arrived. I suspect his bipolar, egomaniacal personality has led to numerous staff quitting. The social studies department (the department he oversees) will have only one teacher who’s been at CHEC for two full years beginning this fall (out of something like nine or ten total).
Problems at CHEC and Throughout DPCS
Distrust of Administration
The relations between the faculty and administration at CHEC were the worst I’d ever seen in my short career. While I think this phenomenon is widespread across the District, I believe it is particularly bad at CHEC. The faculty believed the administration were out to play the gotcha game. Nobody I talked to believed the observations conducted by the administration were being done to support teaching. Rather, people felt observations were being done as a means of hiring and firing the school’s way to great teaching. Additionally, many teachers felt they would be fired if they stepped out of line in any way. Michele Baskin, a science teacher, was fired at the end of the 2008-2009 school year ostensibly because she was an ineffective teacher. However, Michele managed to provide enough evidence to DCPS to prove that she was an effective teacher and DCPS allowed her to come back to DCPS. It was widely believed that Michele was fired because of her involvement with the WTU. As a result of all this, teachers made up data, lied about teaching, and generally said whatever they thought the administration wanted to hear in order to receive a good rating and not get fired at the end of the year.
Lack of Classroom Expertise
I think one of the big reasons relationships were so strained and observations were so meaningless is because few of the administrators had real expertise in the classroom. They were all very well-versed in contemporary educational jargon and talking points, but they were all hard-pressed to go beyond them. All of the administrators that I worked closely with began their careers with Teach For America. This program is very clear about the beliefs it holds about education: the only purpose of a teacher is to raise student achievement (read: raise test scores). It seemed to me that very few of my administrators had much classroom experience. The District of Columbia Public Schools claims that all of the administrators I worked with taught for longer than I’d been led to believe during my time at CHEC. Unfortunately, I don’t think whatever experience they did have allowed them to truly support my efforts in the classroom, and I don’t think that was their goal anyway. Rather than supporting teachers, their aim was to identify teachers who they believed should be fired. This, and a significant lack of experience, is a trend across the district. Just this summer at School Without Walls, a twenty-six-year-old counselor was promoted to assistant principal despite the fact that she has no teaching experience. Nevertheless she will be responsible for conducting IMPACT evaluations and somehow providing teachers feedback they’re supposed to use to improve.
When teachers are being observed by people who are able to give very little actionable feedback and often have no experience in my particular area of teaching (secondary social studies/English for me), problems are bound to arise. My superiors may have had some good suggestions for me every now and then, but I often found myself being directed to do things that I believed to be contrary to what was good for the students. Admin Y would regularly give me projects for the kids to do without any consultation with me as to how to make them meaningful. He would hand these to me at the last minute and expect me to implement them the next day. That’s not really how quality teaching works. Admin Q would often suggest I try this strategy or that, but then when I ran into difficulties implementing them, Admin Q would be at a loss as to what to do. There is a lot of lip-service paid to supporting teachers in the District and at CHEC, and a lot of superficial support is provided - primarily geared toward helping teachers understand IMPACT. However, when it came time to deal with the real and often substantial challenges of teaching in DC, administrators who have little to no classroom experience are not in a position to provide any meaningful support to their staff.
Rhee, Tukeva, and like-minded reformers seem to be under the impression that experience in the classroom is one of the least important factors in improving education. I don’t think I taught with more than four or five people at CHEC who had more than five years of experience in the classroom. And I don’t believe that more than one or two of the administrators had more than five years experience in the classroom. I couldn’t disagree with this approach more. I think there’s absolutely something to be said for a person’s intrinsic ability and energy when it comes to being a great teacher, but there is no substitute for time spent in the classroom. As someone who’s only been teaching for four years, I’m confident that I’m three times the teacher now than I was when I began. As someone who’s always striving to improve, I’m positive I will only be better four years from now.
Juking the Stats
Across DCPS, data is being manipulated to suggest things are going better than they really are. Guy Brandenburg and Chris Bergfaulk have pointed this out numerous times. I believe you’re familiar with their work. I was pressured on a number of occasions to pass students who rarely or never attended class. When I chose to fail a handful of students who skipped more than forty days of school in a single semester, Admin Q lowered my IMPACT score for failing to reach those students. If I had simply passed them, I would have kept a good score and nobody would have checked to see if those students actually deserved to pass. There was an unspoken understanding that all students should be passing every class, regardless of whether they were actually achieving or not. I never talked to a teacher of senior students who believed a majority of their students were actually prepared to graduate and go to college.
I recognize that it may be easy to ascribe CHEC’s high teacher attrition rate to the administration holding them to higher expectations, but I’m afraid that would be a misinterpretation. Teachers leave that school at a high rate because they were never interested in making a career out of education, because they’re provided with little to no support, and because they’ve been abused by the administration.
I also know that CHEC was recently ranked very highly by your Newsweek rankings. I’d ask you to simply visit the school on a random day without announcing your visit. Go sometime in the spring. Ask to see a list of the senior English teachers and randomly select a few of them to visit. Talk to the teachers without the administration watching and ask them what they really think about working there. Ask them how many of their students are chronically absent, and ask them how many of their students are really ready to go to college. Then talk to some random students. Don’t let the administration choose them for you. Ask them to write a few simple paragraphs on a given topic. Ask them to solve a few algebra problems. Gather your own impressions. But don’t let the numbers fool you. CHEC is not what its PR machine makes it seem.