‘Creative … motivating’ and fired

Sarah Wysocki struggled in her first year of teaching fifth-grade at a Washington D.C. middle school, but she earned excellent evaluations in her second year. Then she was fired for low value-added scores, reports the Washington Post.

A majority of her students took the fourth-grade test at a feeder school suspected of cheating. Some who’d tested as “advanced” could barely read when they started fifth grade, she said.  When their scores slipped, her value-added score took the hit. With a low score from her first year of teaching, Wysocki was out.

In classroom observations in her second year, Wysocki’s teaching won praise.

“It is a pleasure to visit a classroom in which the elements of sound teaching, motivated students and a positive learning environment are so effectively combined,” Assistant Principal Kennard Branch wrote in her May 2011 evaluation.

Branch asked her to share her ideas with her colleagues. He also praised her ability to engage parents.

After Wysocki was fired, Principal Andre Samuels wrote a glowing recommendation describing her as  “enthusiastic, creative, visionary, flexible, motivating and encouraging.” She was hired immediately by a Fairfax,  Virginia elementary school, where she’s again teaching fifth grade.

Most teachers with low value-added scores also score poorly on classroom observations, says an architect of D.C.’s system for teacher evaluation. But there doesn’t seem to be a way to apply common sense when the system goes wrong.

After years of very low performance, D.C. needs to stress reading and math scores in teacher evaluations, Rick Hess writes.

In response to MetLife’s survey, which found teachers’ satisfaction has declined, he wonders who is unhappy. “If a teacher is lousy or doing lousy work, they should have lousy morale. Hopefully it’ll encourage them to leave sooner.”

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  1. Rick Hess doesn’t sound like he’s attuned to reality. The problem isn’t that mediocre and bad teachers have low morale and might quit. It’s that the joy is being drained from the profession for good teachers, and the constant attacks on the teaching profession along with the mediocre salaries associated with the profession steer a lot of would-be teachers into other, more lucrative fields.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      My wife tells me I “don’t get out enough” but where are these “constant attacks on the teaching profession?” I see lots of attacks on unnamed “bad teachers” but nothing on teachers in general.

      All this hoo-ha about evaluating teachers and getting rid of bad teachers wouldn’t make any sense if people thought we were all bad.

      • Roger, though people may preface their comments with “bad teachers” relatively often, it definitely is demoralizing to repeatedly hear that I work a part-time job and get paid too much. After a 12 hour day, it frankly sucks to hear that! In my state, this is compounded by my fear (which I think is a real fear, though I’m not sure of the legal ramifications of this) that my pension is at risk, which means that a good chunk of retirement I’m expecting won’t come through. I am definitely not a “bad teacher” by my administrators’ estimation, or by test scores, or by my students’ and parents’ estimations. And though I do realize that people may not be talking about me personally when they say teachers have it easy, don’t work very hard, aren’t very bright, can’t get the job done…it still is demoralizing to hear frequently.

        I don’t say this to ask for sympathy on any front – I love teaching and I realize that most professional jobs require plenty of hours and hard work. I’m happy to count mine among them. I agree with Aaron on this one – Hess is out of touch if he believes that the only demoralized teachers are the “bad ones.”

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          If I heard that all the time, I’d be demoralized too. Maybe we work in different places, or we notice different things. Even as they cut, our school committee tells us how much they appreciate us and how much they hate to do it.

          It is a tragedy that for years we assumed rates of population growth and rates of economic growth that simply are not going to happen. We made retirement promises based on those assumptions and are now finding that the numbers just don’t work out. It’s a problem for all “defined benefit” plans, including Social Security. Crunch time is coming and I fear it’s going to be very, very unpleasant.

  2. Ponderosa says:

    I think most lay people reasonably assume that our schools’ lackluster performance is due to lackluster teachers. Hence reformers’ fixation on new modes of evaluating teachers, and eliminating the bars to removing teachers. We teachers pick up on this no-confidence vibe, and internalize it. Especially because even WE can’t put our finger on what’s wrong –maybe it IS us. To me the main problem is content-lite curriculum and the progressive-ed bias that ed schools have drilled into us. We’re working hard but we’re using bad curricula and operating on bad pedagogical principles. Nothing is more demoralizing than to work your butt off and still get lackluster results. But that’s what happens when you have bad curricula and the wrong pedagogical principles. To the extent that our profession doesn’t recognize the bad curricula and bad principles, then I guess we ARE at fault.

    • dangermom says:

      I would agree with that last statement, and add (very strongly) that IME parents are losing trust in a system that protects those bad teachers at the expense of children. Apathetic, or cruel, or bullying, or downright abusive teachers do exist–my good friend (a teacher herself) finally pulled her child out to homeschool last week after trying to work with the principal and the system. That particular teacher has been bullying children for years, with nothing done about the constant complaints except an anger management course and a transfer to a *younger* grade. You’d call CPS on her if she was a parent, but as a teacher she is protected. This case is in a small magnet school, one of the ‘best’ in the district, so I shudder to think what they must put up with in the inner-city part of that district.

      You can’t expect to have that kind of thing happen and still have parents trust the system and think well of teachers in general. When schools protect the proverbial bad apples, the whole barrel is poisoned. It doesn’t take many truly awful teachers to make people think badly of the profession when nothing is done about them.

      • dangermom says:

        I should add that the friend I mention is just the latest in a fairly long list of friends who have tried to work within the system for years, but who have eventually given up in the face of the brick wall of the school. It’s not an isolated case, though it’s one of the worst I’ve seen. But over time, watching my friends work and fail, I’ve come to believe that the inability to fire the worst teachers is a huge problem. Teachers are shooting themselves in the foot with it, and losing a tremendous amount of trust and goodwill. *Every* profession will have some incompetents or bad apples, even teachers. Pretending they don’t exist makes it worse.

        • ms_teacher says:

          Dangermom, the likelihood is that most of the teachers who work at the school site with this bully teacher know that there is a problem & are mortified that the administration has failed in its duties to remove this teacher. I was in that situation working with a teacher who was not only a bully, but had a substance abuse problem. I remember talking to my principal about it & his response was that there was really nothing he could do. This from the same principal who had me do my own evaluation in my second year of teaching because “he just knew I was doing such a good job.”

          Teachers aren’t responsible for removing bad and/or ineffective teachers from the classroom. Administrators are & they get paid a lot better than teachers do. I don’t understand why people cannot understand that good administrators can & do get rid of bad and/or ineffective teachers. Those who use the excuse that they can’t are lazy and most likely bad an/or ineffective themselves.

  3. Obi-Wandreas says:

    Personally, I see grounds for a wrongful termination suit here. It seems clear that the criteria used to judge her was based on fraudulent pretenses.

    The worst attacks on our profession, I must say, are coming from within. There are far too many who can’t tell the difference between working within the system to do what you can for those you can help, and being a part of the problem by enabling the system. If we want to be taken seriously, we need to get rid of the clowns.

  4. How is a “value added” evaluation made? That’s just something that I’m curious about.

    “A majority of her students took the fourth-grade test at a feeder school suspected of cheating. Some who’d tested as “advanced” could barely read when they started fifth grade, she said.”

    This quote indicates two things. #1 Some of her students should have definitely been immediately retained since they could barely read when they started 5th grade. #2 Apart of Ms. Wysocki’s evaluation should have been on how much improvement she has led her new students towards. But, I guess that evaluation is inherently flawed if several of her students were the byproduct of cheating. In which case, those students would need to be retested if there is good reason to believe that their feeder school was cheating.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “Value added” tries to tell you how much students have improved in a year. If they begin 4th grade reading at a “beginning of 2nd grade” level, and end the year reading at a “beginning of 4th grade” level, they have gained two years. That is a fantastic accomplishment, even though they are still a year behind.

      Some old systems said the 4th grade teacher should be penalized because the students are reading “below grade level.” “Value added” says she should be rewarded because they improved so much.

      Of course, we need honest testing to see where the students start and where the students end the year. It looks like there was cheating here, and the students began at a much lower level than their recorded scores indicated.

  5. Re: the bully teacher with the substance abuse problem. In an instance like that, doesn’t a fellow teacher have the option of calling the professional standards board? I think in our state you can even make an anonymous report about something like that. My impression is that you have an obligation to report a clear breach of standards like being impaired on the job.

  6. I had really high hope for Value Added measures when I first learned about them. They seemed to be the way to accomplish so many things: reward teachers whose students consistently seemed to learn more, filter out student demographic factors to level the playing field and only compare kids’ performance to their own previous performance, tip the rewards system toward teachers who were teaching hard to reach kids because they’d be likely to show greater gains.

    But the more I see them implemented, I realize how silly I was to think that states would use decent tests that would allow a student to show meaningful gains or that state educational bureaucracy could be trusted to develop valid formulas to measure meaningful growth. The fact that some states rating teachers won’t even disclose the formula is creepy. ( Even if only advanced statisticians could make sense of the formula, this is the kind of information that should be transparent and replicable.)

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I feel the same way. I think there’s a deep problem here. We don’t really know what we want students to accomplish. And when we do, we don’t have good ways to measure whether they have or not. Okay, that’s two.

  7. Supersub says:

    A question –
    Are schools REQUIRED to fire teachers who have low performance for two years running, or does this simply give them the ability to? It seems that if schools aren’t required to, the school in this case could have retained the teacher if they wanted to. Or, perhaps, they didn’t want to possibly be known as employing a low-performance teacher despite their knowledge otherwise.

    Well, this is what we have unions for, oh wait, they’re still on their knees genuflecting in front of our President.

  8. Curious. Has there ever been a newspaper story with a counter-narrative? Presumably it must exist. That is, teacher with low evaluations by observers “saved” by high gains by the kids on tests.

    • For many years, my school had a horrific principal. She was intimidated by competent teachers. Those who had high value-added scores were often demoted, while teachers who sucked up to her received promotions in spite of abysmal performance. She actually fired the 4th grade teacher who had the highest value-added scores. It was a charter school, so the teachers had no job protections. After 5 years of mismanagement, the board finally got rid of her.

      I believe that value-added could be a valuable tool in protecting teachers.

  9. Peggy Brubaker says:

    Why is it assumed that only “bad” teachers are demoralized? 100% of my third grade students pass their state achievement test in math last year and I feel very demoralized. In my state we have been publicly blamed for the state’s economic woes. I took an 11% cut in pay for the next three years. A nice thank you for working my 60-hour weeks to make sure my students received the very best instruction I could offer them. And if anyone is out their questioning my results from last year due to the teachers nationally that have succumb to pressure to deliver student achievement, please know that I am not going to jeopardize my livelihood for test scores. That is simply ridiculous and unethical. After 11 years as an educator, a second career, I am seriously considering changing professions and finding one where my efforts are more respected and rewarded. It makes me sad because, I used to love my job and have worked with urban students my whole career and they desperately need dedicated teachers.