Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To fix Washington's troubled schools, try combat pay

By DeWayne Wickham

What would think if the person tapped to replace Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus announced he was firing scores of officers, in a part of that bedeviled country where the fighting is fiercest, for poor performance on the battlefield?

How would you react if he said he’s giving medals to officers in another part of Afghanistan , where the fighting was never as intense, for doing an outstanding job – but rejects the idea of sending some of these medal winners to replace those who were sacked?

What would you say if I told you such a scenario is actually unfolding in Washington , D.C. , not Kandahar and Kabul ?

A few days ago, the school system in the nation’s capital announced it fired 206 teachers for poor performance, using an evaluation system that had the biggest negative impact on teachers at schools in the city’s most poverty-ridden neighborhoods.

And disproportionately those teachers who were recognized for being “highly effective” in the classroom were in schools located in the toniest sections of Washington , according to The Washington Post.

While “good” teachers are allowed to transfer out of low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods, The Post reported back in November, reassignment to those troubled schools in the past has been used as a way of punishing some teachers.

Maybe that’s true; maybe not. What’s certain is this: the fight in Washington – and other urban school districts – to educate children needs our best field commanders in those places where the problems are most intense.

But Kaya Henderson, the head of Washington ’s school system said she won’t reassign top performing teachers against their will to troubled schools.

The battle plan Henderson is using to reward some teachers and punish others was written by Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who preceded her in the job. Rhee, the darling of a long list of right-wing Republican governors and education reformers who believe the increases in student performance on standardized tests during her stormy tenure at the helm of Washington ’s schools is proof that her tactics work.

Far less attention has been paid to a USA TODAY investigation of the rise of those test scores on Rhee’s watch. More than half of Washington ’s schools had an abnormally high “erasure rate “resulting in answers being changed from wrong to right. “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance,” statisticians told this paper.

Instead of clinging to Rhee’s questionable strategy – and results – Henderson needs a better war plan.

She should reward good teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools in much the same way the military gives combat pay to soldiers who serve in war zones. While bonuses up to $25,000 are paid to “highly effective” teachers, too few of them teach in the neediest schools.

The incentive pay should go to those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifice – to good teachers who are willing to brave the toughest assignments. Teachers who excel in schools where the job of educating students is not negatively affected by external factors are simply earning their pay.

Those good teachers who take on the job of educating young people in neighborhoods where the body count of underachieving students rivals that of Afghanistan ’s killing fields deserve combat pay.

As their commander, Henderson has to find a way to get her best troops into the fight, or risk defeat in her part of a war America can ill afford to lose.


BigmacInPittsburgh said...

While I appreciate your bringing this story to the forefront,nothing will change until the people affected by this plantation style educational system wake up to the smell of the coffee being brewed by our so called educational leaders.

Constructive Feedback said...

Mr Wikcham:

Why is it not more logical to gather up all of the adult "Equal Human Beings" in the neighborhood in question and convince them of the need for their cooperation in the education of those who will could one day serve as their community:

* Physicians
* Business Owners
* Librarians
* Judges
* and plain old husbands and housewives?

From there they can pull out a time sheet and figure out who is available to engage in every classroom in the school for 3 hours each week - staggered throughout the days of the week.

This is a worthy investment, no?