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Test scores won't count on teacher performance reviews next year as DCPS switches to new standardized tests. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

The District’s public-school teachers are about to see a big change in how their employer evaluates their performances, thanks to the introduction of a new standardized testing regime. Over the past several years, student test scores have accounted for up to half of teachers’ end-of-year performance reviews, but DC Public Schools plans to suspend that metric, and will replace it with a new Common Core test next year.

District schools will drop the longstanding DC Comprehensive Assessment System in favor of a test developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a coalition of state education officials. The new tests are designed to fit the the more rigorous set of academic guidelines known as Common Core, which most state education agencies have adopted and is backed by the White House.

The new test will be administered during the 2014-15 school year, but won’t be counted, giving teachers and the school system time to adjust to the new tests. That logic also follows the advice of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which heavily promotes the adoption of Common Core standards but is advising school systems to wait two years before using new tests to evaluate teachers.

“We firmly believe that student learning is a key indicator of teacher performance—and value-added is one of the best ways to measure that,” DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says in a press release. “But we also know that new assessments always bring delays and unexpected complications.”

Test scores have been a major part of DC’s teacher evaluations since 2009, when Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle Rhee, started pegging educators’ job security to their students’ test performance. About 400 teachers have been fired since then. Connecting teacher evaluations to test scores has also led to widespread allegations of cheating. A report issued in April 2013 by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the DC agency that oversees academic standards, found evidence of cheating in 18 classrooms since student tests became a crucial part of evaluations.

The portion of evaluations currently made up by test scores will be replaced by classroom observation during the one-year layover, DCPS says. Results of the new PARCC tests will start counting for or against teachers—the most successful of whom earn bonuses of up to $20,000—in the 2015-16 school year.

Posted at 04:55 PM/ET, 06/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Sorry, kids. You can’t tweet your way to a snow day. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.

Since the beginning of the contemporary public education system, winter weather patterns bring youthful eagerness for a snow day. But in 2013, students can air such hopes on the Internet, and like many things that teenagers do, it gets out of hand pretty quickly.

Joshua Starr, the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, issued an open letter to the parents of his system’s 151,000 students last week in response to a flurry of harassing tweets and emails he received urging him to close the county’s schools for a pair of recent wintry storms.

“Some of these ‘tweets’ were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework,” Starr wrote. “Many of these tweets, however, were offensive and disturbing. Some were threatening to me and others.”

Among the nastier messages, according to the Washington Post, were now-deleted tweets such as “i dont think your kids would be too happy with you if you didnt cancel school tomorrow” and “People go to hell for things like this.” (For the record, Montgomery County did have a two-hour delay last Monday, and closed all-day last Tuesday for a storm that dumped just a little bit of rain on most of the Washington area.)

DC Public Schools doesn’t have the same problem as its suburban neighbor, spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz says. Although DCPS got plenty of tweets about last week’s weather, many expressed incredulity about canceling a full day of classes for light rain instead of outrageous demands to close.

And, as Salmanowitz says, while DCPS observes its students’ social media, no flurry of tweets is going to compel the department into declaring a snow day. “We’re happy to hear from them, but we leave the decisions to the experts,” she says.

Posted at 12:41 PM/ET, 12/17/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The school is made possible by a record gift from Frank McCourt Jr. By Carol Ross Joynt
The ceremony for the launch of the McCourt School of Public Policy in the courtyard of Georgetown University's Old North Building. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

Frank McCourt Jr., the colorful, often controversial former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was at Georgetown University Tuesday to celebrate the fruits of his record $100 million gift to the school. The elaborate ceremony of music and speeches brought him nearly to tears, especially when he addressed family members in the audience during his remarks. “I make this gift in gratitude to my family, especially to you, Mom, and to my dad,” he said. “I remain deeply indebted to you all.” He noted the timeliness of the occasion as well—launching a public policy school in a moment of extreme government dysfunction. The school, he said, will try to provide solutions to problems such as the current federal shutdown.

McCourt’s gift surpasses the university’s last record donation of $87 million, given by Harry Toulmin Jr. in 2010. The money funds Georgetown’s ninth school, joining law, business, medicine, and foreign service, to name only some of them. The public policy school in particular will dedicate itself to the analysis of the expanding and deepening government body of data files.

Three generations of McCourts have attended Georgetown over the past 80 years. Frank McCourt Jr. graduated in the class of 1975. A Boston native, he made his fortune in business, mainly commercial real estate projects and parking lots, and eventually bought the Dodgers, Dodger Stadium, and the operating rights to the LA Marathon. In the midst of volatile divorce proceedings in 2011, he put the Dodgers into bankruptcy, and the team was sold for $2 billion to a group that included Magic Johnson and former Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten.

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Posted at 10:29 AM/ET, 10/09/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Research by a George Washington University professor suggests that being overly optimistic and goal-oriented can actually keep you from success. By Michael Gaynor
Did Colin Powell’s team think too positive in the Iraq War? Photograph by Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images.

Even if you can dream it, you still probably can’t do it. And even if you build it, they probably won’t come. That’s the takeaway from research by Christopher Kayes, associate professor of management at George Washington University, who has spent years studying how positive thinking and goal-setting in business and politics can lead to failure.

The idea came to him after witnessing the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mount Everest—15 people dead in one spring, events chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Kayes saw that climbers were ignoring risks in pursuit of their idealistic goal. “Most mountain-climbing accidents happen on the way down,” says Kayes. “The climbers may get to the summit, but they didn’t notice this storm coming in. There are unintended consequences that can result in anything from injury to death.”

By thinking positively and concentrating on an aspiration, a person narrows his or her focus and becomes detached from reality.

In politics, several characteristics mark a relentlessly upbeat pursuit that’s doomed for disaster. Most notable is what Kayes calls “face-saving behavior”—the tendency for people to become so absorbed in their goals that the pursuit becomes a part of their identity, making it harder to give up when things go awry. He points to the GOP platform on immigration reform before the 2012 election—fences, self-deportation—that had been the party’s aim for so long. Republicans became incapable of abandoning it, even in the face of election-altering demographics. Kayes saw the same fixation in Everest expedition leaders who had promised clients they’d get them to the summit—and then didn’t give up when the weather turned, for fear of ruining their reputation. Says Kayes: “When we set a goal, we engage in this behavior that says, ‘I’ve got to accomplish this or I’m a failure.’ ”

His new book, The Breakdown and Rebuilding of Learning in Organizations—due later this year—looks at similar failures in the intelligence community’s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “They called it a ‘slam-dunk,’ ” Kayes says. “They told everyone that they knew it so well, they didn’t even need to open it up to criticism.”

The power of negative thinking comes in when an organization can challenge prevailing beliefs like that one and adapt to potential pitfalls. That was the case ten years later when that same intelligence community chose to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound. Inside accounts have depicted the process leading to the raid as a constant battle of second-guessing and worst-case-scenario planning.

“Fast-forward a decade and a lot of those people are still in play in this decision to go after bin Laden, but they took a very different approach to how they assessed the information,” Kayes says. “It’s an improvement in learning—and how to make more intelligent decisions.”

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:15 AM/ET, 03/25/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
New numbers released today show increases—mostly for charter schools. By Harry Jaffe

More families are trusting their children to DC public schools, according to numbers released today, but a deeper look shows promising trends, raises questions about the future of public schooling, and points out troubling numbers for the traditional public schools.

The base numbers would warrant happy days for public school officials: For the first time in more than a decade, the number of students enrolled in public schools topped 80,000, according to preliminary figures provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

In 2002 that number was 76,427, representing a trend of families fleeing the deteriorating public schools. Now the renovation of many decrepit school buildings and the drive to reform is drawing students back to public schools. The latest head count is 80,854.

New population figures show that younger people are moving into the city. Many are staying to start families, and they are sending their offspring to public schools.

Most of the increase went to public charter schools, from preschool to high school. The charters, funded with public dollars but operated independently of DCPS, gained 11 percent compared with the last school year. Traditional public schools gained 1 percent, a number that might drop to 0 when auditors review the preliminary figures.

“The trend of the past 16 years is continuing apace, at rates none of us could have anticipated” says Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS, a charter school advocacy group.

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Posted at 04:50 PM/ET, 10/25/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()
After just 22 months, Sullivan has been sacked. What do you think of the decision? By Carol Ross Joynt
Teresa Sullivan. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Miller_Center.

Updated June 26, 4:40 PM: Needless to say, it's been an odd and bumpy June on the otherwise tranquil Charlottesville, Virginia, campus of the University of Virginia. Today the school's board voted unanimously to reinstate president Teresa Sullivan, 16 days after she was ousted. The action comes after Virginia governor Bob McDonnell said that if the school did not reinstate her, he would seek resignations of the board members. Half of them are appointed by the governor. According to reports, the meeting was called to order by Rector Helen Dragas, who led the move to have Sullivan ousted, at that time without a vote. She apologized for the way the matter was handled. Sullivan, for her turn, said, "I want to partner with you in bringing about what's best for the university." 

The original story begins below.

Though the substance of the attention is different in nature, for the second time this year the University of Virginia is making national headlines, and not for the kinds of reasons that bolster a school’s image or endear students and parents. In the winter, UVA senior George Huguely V was found guilty of the murder of his girlfriend, Yeardley Love, who was also a senior. This week the campus reportedly is in turmoil over the June 10 ousting of university president Teresa Sullivan, who held the job for only 22 months. She claims the issue is that she didn’t bring “sweeping action” to change the campus, preferring a measured pace for economic reasons.

The members of the school board, who sought Sullivan’s resignation, picked a new interim president, but as if to underscore the internal unrest, the vote for Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the university’s school of commerce, was not unanimous. In a statement to the school community, the board’s chair, Helen E. Dragas, made reference to the controversial decision. “We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community,” the statement said. “You deserved better from this board.”

Sullivan spoke to the board in her own defense on Monday. We have paraphrased the remarks below and ask you to read them and give us your opinion. What do you think of the actions of the University of Virginia? Did the board act in haste? Was this political? Should the board itself be overhauled? Or was it a prudent decision and Sullivan’s time to go? Let us know in the comments.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 06/19/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()
Lawsuit claims "severe emotional distress" caused by alleged affair between a staff psychologist and the married mother of a student he was treating. By Sommer Mathis

The father of a 5-year-old Sidwell Friends School student has filed a $10 million suit against the school for allegedly allowing its staff psychologist to carry on an affair with his wife.

In court filings, Arthur Newmyer claims he and his daughter suffered "severe emotional distress" when then-school psychologist James Huntington carried on a lengthy affair with his wife, Tara Newmyer. Huntington was treating Newmyer's daughter at the time, and the suit alleges that the girl was routinely present when he and Tara Newmyer would meet to spend time together.

Arthur Newmyer is accusing Sidwell of being aware of the affair and doing "nothing to stop it." The lawsuit, posted below (warning, it contains extremely graphic language), is based mostly on a large volume of e-mails Huntington sent Tara Newmyer from his Sidwell e-mail address over the course of their affair. In one of the more outlandish examples, Huntington appears to joke about contemplating mentioning his sexual desire for Tara Newmyer while in a private professional session with her young daughter. 

One other potentially salacious tidbit to come out of the suit, as the Examiner points out: Huntington, who has since been dismissed from the school, taught sexual education to sixth-graders in 2009-2010, the same year that President Obama's daughter Malia was in the sixth-grade at Sidwell.

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Posted at 02:10 PM/ET, 05/12/2011 | Permalink | Comments ()