Friday, May 22, 2015

Up in Smoke

The fate of all levels of teacher evaluations.
Main entrance, APS Central Office.
May 20, 2015.
[Click to enlarge]
           A day after a large group of Albuquerque teachers made bold statements before burning their evaluations at Central Office, the Albuquerque Journal published an article about a local teacher who was retiring.  He was retiring in part because, in less than a year, the Public Education Department (PED) dropped him from "highly effective" to "minimally effective" on his annual evaluation.  The article, written by editorial board member D'Val Westphal (aka the Road Warrior:  self professed expert on asphalt, potholes, and traffic jams) turned out to be more about Ellen Hur, the chief of staff of Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, than the retiring teacher.  Ms. Westphal (505-823-3858) had contacted Ms. Hur in an effort to explain to readers the discrepancy between the teacher's 2014 and 2015 evaluations.  Her effort was minimally effective, at best.
           In the article, Ms. Westphal states that Ms. Hur "is also a teacher."  Given the fact that Ms. Hur works full time for the PED, I felt this was a dubious assertion.  So I called Ms. Hur (505-827-3817) and asked her myself.  As it turns out, Ms. Hur is not a teacher.  Her entire teaching experience consists of three years in a private school in Colorado between 2001-2004.  What's more, she is a product of disgraced former Washington D. C. school commissioner Michelle Rhee's TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project).  She also worked for McKinsey & Company, the same global management consulting firm that brought us David Coleman, the main author of the Common Core language arts standards and, by extension, PARCC testing.   Finally, although Hur has a masters in education, she quickly followed that with an MBA. Guess which degree got her the job  at the PED? 
         I wrote to Ms. Westphal and urged her to issue a retraction or correction to her story.  Unfortunately, she had already left town for the Memorial Day weekend.  So I wrote to Kent Walz (505-823-3802) the editor of the Albuquerque Journal (or Jurinal, if you prefer).  He responded, and what ensued was a short exchange of e-mails.  What follows is that exchange.  Read to the very end.

Dear Mr. Walz:

I am writing to ask you to issue a retraction or correction to the article Ms. Westphal wrote recently about the middle school teacher who received an evaluation of minimally effective after receiving highly effective last year.  I have written to Ms. Westphal regarding this matter.  Unfortunately, I received an automated response explaining that she was out of town.

In your retraction or correction, please state that, contrary to what Ms. Westphal stated in her article, Ms. Hur, chief of staff of Ed Sect’y Skandera, is not a teacher.  If you state that she was once a teacher, be sure to include the fact that she taught for only three years, from 2001-2004.  In the state of NM, a teacher with only 3 years experience is considered a beginning, relatively inexperienced teacher, still in her probationary period.  

Please also include the fact that her three years of teaching experience were in a private school, not a public school, and that she was therefore never subject to the high teaching standards historically applied to public school teachers.  Include the fact that she has never been evaluated by NMTeach and has never taught under the requirements of NCLB and RTTT.   

It would also be forthright of you to point out that Ms. Hur has never been certified to teach in the state of New Mexico and may also no longer be certified to teach in Colorado.  

Finally, you might consider mentioning that Ms. Hur worked for Michelle Rhee’s The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and for David Coleman's McKinsey & Co., two private organizations that continue to work feverishly to undermine America’s public schools by discrediting and demonizing public school teachers, privatizing our public institutions, and turning our students into perpetual test takers.   

I urge you do have Ms. Westphal write a follow up article in which she investigates the extent of teaching experience and pedagogical knowledge of other PED staff, specifically those who are instrumental in developing and implementing Skandera’s education “reforms.”  This is what a true American newspaper would do.  Ms. Westphal might also divulge her own lack of experience in education and explain why her alter ego, The Road Warrior—an apparent expert on asphalt, traffic, and potholes—is suddenly an expert on education. 

As for future articles, I recommend you have Ms. Westphal write her pieces with full disclosure regarding her views on education and how they echo those of the editorial board at the Journal.  Ask her to state that, in addition to being a reporter, she is also an assistant editor who sits on the editorial board and that, consequently, her views on education are consistent with the anti teacher, anti public education views the rest of the board regularly promotes in its editorials.  


David A. Wilson, MA
APS Teacher and PhD Candidate at UNM
28 years of continuous classroom teaching

Mr. Wilson, 
Thank you for your letter. Ms. Westphal will respond to you when she returns.
Meanwhile, having reviewed your communication, I do not agree a retraction is in order. You are free to submit a letter for consideration challenging Ms. Hur's credentials.
Nor do I agree with your characterization of the Journal's editorial position as being anti-teacher and anti-public education. We view our positions as pro student and pro student success during a challenging time when many students drop out and many who graduate are woefully unprepared for either college or the workforce.
That is not assigning blame, it is stating fact.
Have a good weekend.

Kent Walz

Mr. Walz:

Thanks for responding.

You and I know we will always disagree on issues related to education.  This is due to primarily to the fact that I have dedicated my life and career to education; you, to journalism.  Thousands of educators in New Mexico and I know what we’re talking about.  Unfortunately, those with money, political power, and disproportional control of the media, do not.  Considering your access to Ms. Skandera and others in the PED, you have all three.  This explains much of what is “wrong” with education:  Those who don't know what we know, nor can do what we do, have the audacity to tell us what to do and how to do it.  This is indeed a shameful state of affairs.

As for Ms. Westphal, well, she is a member of the editorial staff.  She is therefore obligated to toe the editorial line. What’s more, it’s not so much Ms. Hur’s credentials that must be called into question, as you suggest; it is Ms. Westphal’s reporting.  If Ms. Westphal had asked Ms. Hur the same questions I asked Ms. Hur this morning, she would have received the same answers.  Ms. Hur was unabashed about admitting to me that she taught for only three years in a private school in Colorado between 2001-2004; that she never taught under NCLB or RTTT; and that she was never subject to any statewide, quantitative and punitive teacher evaluation system.  Investigating the credentials of the people Ms. Westphal interviews is not my job; it is hers.  And in that, she failed.  Willingly, I suppose.  I would say "minimally effective” would be an apt descriptor for the quality of the reporting displayed in today’s article.

I know half a dozen of your news staff personally.  Their view on the inordinate control the editorial staff exercises over its reporters is not positive.  I know why [former Journal education reporter] left the paper, and I know why others are preparing to do so, too.  It won’t be long before the newsroom reflects the monolithic views of the editorial staff.  When this happens, the “crisis” New Mexicans will be talking about will be journalism, not education.

With all of this in mind, I challenge you, Mr. Herrera, and Ms. Westphal to print letters and op ed pieces that strongly challenge your views.  I have sent at least three letters to the Journal over the last 12 months that did just that.  None were published.  If I have time, I will send another, and perhaps resend others, then wait to see if they pass the test to be printed in your hallowed pages.

Finally, I feel obliged to respond to your assertion that the ABQ Journal is pro student and pro student success.  

The Journal is not pro student when it favors subjecting them to months of abusive and meaningless standardized tests that rob of them of hundreds of hours of the very instruction they will need in order to do well enough to not drop out and to succeed after graduation.  Furthermore, the Journal is not pro student when it abets the PED in its efforts to drive unprecedented numbers of NM’s best teachers out of the profession with its misguided and uninformed corporate education agenda.  Accomplished and dedicated veteran teachers, along with more hours of quality instruction, are what many of NM students need most.  Yet these are the very things you and the PED are attempting to take away from them.  This is unconscionable, Mr. Walz; and deep inside, you know it. 

The smoke from the burned evaluations on Wednesday floated from APS Central Office in a northwesterly direction.  We can only hope they reached the Journal so that at least some of your employees could catch a whiff of what is really wrong with education in New Mexico.

I hope you enjoy your weekend, too.


David A. Wilson
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Elevation:  5,220 feet

Mr. Wilson,

           I am well aware of your views.  I could not disagree more. Good night.

           [Kent Walz]


Steve Brügge said...


I am the teacher in the story. This whole thing began with a letter I sent to the Journal--pasted below. Like you, I have spent most of my life in public education. This letter was my little attempt to help explain my retirement. Instead of publishing the letter, the Journal transformed it into yesterday's front-page story. The minute this became a news story all control was lost. I would rather my letter have been published, but, perhaps, a few will see how absurd the evaluation system really is.

My unpublished letter:

25 Years in Middle School

Steve Brügge

In my decades of teaching middle-school science, I’ve developed many lessons to make science interesting and real. One of my favorite units is the two weeks my students and I spend exploring how the discovery of radioactivity has changed our world.

After reading a biography of Marie Curie, I show the students Madame Curie, the 1943 Greer Garson film. It’s truly a brilliant movie filled with subtle foreshadowing, wonderful symbolism, and some quite accurate science. There’s also the expected added Hollywood drama.

The movie has a wonderful, cryptic scene—completely made up—where Pierre proposes marriage to Marie. After bursting into her room, Pierre appeals to Marie’s love of science and explains that their marriage would be like the compound sodium chloride, a strong and stable union. This is based on a letter Pierre really did send to Marie while she was spending the summer in Poland .

After his movie proposal, Pierre leaves the room only to return seconds later where he says, “I’m sorry.” This scene puzzled me the first couple of times I watched it. It is, in fact, the deepest insight into Pierre in the movie. He was deeply conflicted by his love of Marie and his love of science; he realized that their marriage would not be easy, and, in fact, ends when Pierre is struck by a six-ton wagon and killed instantly.

As I leave my classroom after 25 years, I, too, am conflicted. Public education has been one of the great loves of my life. There have been dozens of wonderful colleagues who have taught me much and hundreds of students who have taught me even more. When the bell rings and it’s time to teach, I’m as energized as my first year in the classroom.

Alas, the forces from outside the classroom have become like that six-ton wagon. The first year of the new teacher evaluation system I was rated “Highly Effective.” This year I am, if one is to believe the data, “Minimally Effective.” Neither score leaves a good taste in my mouth. And yet my colleagues have many years ahead with the very real consequences of such evaluations.

To my colleagues and students, I thank you for all that you have given me. I also leave you with Pierre’s prescient phrase: I’m sorry.

David Wilson said...

Steve, this is powerful. I will do whatever I can, with your permission, to get this published in the Journal—or elsewhere—so that people know the truth about your retirement instead of the twisted "truth" presented by the Journal.