Winerip: Another Missed Diss

The New York Times’ education columnist Michael Winerip spoiled another good story yesterday.  Instead of giving us a profile of a great teacher evaluation program, he turns Jerry Weast’s Peer Assessment Review system in Montgomery County, Maryland, into another excuse to throw punches at the school reform movement.  One need not have to reject Jay Greene’s interesting contention that “organizations are incapable of innovating” in order to believe that education reform is possible in traditional school systems. But can’t we at least applaud what Weast is doing in his 145,000-student district without having to follow Winerip down a somewhat slippery trail to conclude that Weast’s success is Race to the Top’s failure?

As Winerip rightly points out, the PAR program is a wide-ranging professional development system (invented, says Harvard Ed, in the early 1980s by teacher union leader Dal Lawrence in Toledo)  that includes lots of mentoring by senior teachers and a “panel” of teachers and administrators that actually votes to fire teachers. According to Weast, who has run the Maryland district since 1999, it took several years “to build the trust” in teachers that “we weren’t playing gotcha.”  But in the 11 years since Montgomery County introduced PAR, reports Winerip, its panels have fired 200 teachers and persuaded another 300 to leave voluntarily – this compared to just five teachers fired the previous ten years.

Sounds promising.  And Weast has been justly praised by many people for his successes — which he is rightly proud of.  And when he said thanks but no thanks to the RTTT funds dangled by the feds, it was because he had the proof that he had a better program. The lost money, $12 million,  as he wrote in the Baltimore Sun last year represents just five-tenths of one percent of the district’s budget and is “hardly worth unraveling years of successful reforms” for.  That nuance, however, was lost on Winerip, who doesn’t mention the five-tenths business or Weast’s shrug, but who does spend the last half of his story trying to make Weast into the newest poster child for the campaign against RTTTs incentives to tie teacher evaluations to student performance. Once again (see here) Winerip is making a mountain out of the wrong molehill – using a premier school district, that does many good things well, to make a case against modest reform efforts to fix bad school districts.

Just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating about Winerip’s story, I checked in with my friend Harold Kwalwasser, chief counsel to the Los Angeles Unified School District under Roy Romer. Hal has just finished a terrific book about successful school improvement programs all over the United States (full disclosure: I helped edit it), including Mr. Weast’s Montgomery County.  In an early morning email from California Hal writes,

Winerip has overreached…. Montgomery County is in fact a high functioning district.  It has in place a system that evaluates teachers effectively.  Although it does not necessarily use “student achievement data,” its method of following kids’ mastery of subjects gives them a good idea of how well a teacher is doing – and to that is added the observations and collaborations that are fully built into its system.

Most districts do not come close to that system.  They don’t have data, they don’t have PAR, they don’t have close collaboration of teachers in planning interventions or professional development.  They don’t have all the things that allow Montgomery County to make careful evaluations of teachers.  For these other districts, student achievement data is one of the few points of information they might have around which to base an evaluation.  Over time, it might turn out that other districts can evolve into Montgomery County-like operations.  If they do, and if they don’t want to use data in the way prescribed by Race to the Top, one would hope that the SEA would have the sense to let them do what works for them, too.

Hal’s book should be out early next year — and I hope Winerip reads it. In the meantime, I urge him to check in with Fordham’s Reform Realism archive.  We need to get our kids educated – any way we can.

–Peter Meyer

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