10/23/2011 03:03 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2011

Liberating Inner City Teachers

A truly brilliant idea for fixing America's inner city schools has come out of Washington. D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown seeks to recruit top teachers to low performing schools by freeing them for two or three years from the district's oppressive IMPACT evaluation system.

Former Chancellor Michelle Rhee had believed that the way to attract Type A personalities to urban schools, where they face far greater challenges and disrespect, was to impose a system where they had a much better chance of being fired. Her successor, Kaya Henderson, is supportive of Brown's new approach, although she says, "I think we need to ASK our high performing teachers what would make them consider teaching in a low-performing school, and what's holding them back. "

Except for adrenalin junkies, we already know what teachers will say. Almost any teacher worth his or her salt would jump at an opportunity to be freed from the nitpicking of IMPACT, and the stress that comes from knowing that your career could be destroyed simply due to a statistical model that does not adequately take poverty into account. We would have to be stupid to not recognize why IMPACT considered only 71 teachers in the 41 schools in high-poverty Wards 7 and 8 to be "Highly Effective", while the ten schools in in the affluent Ward 3 were judged to have 135 top educators.

Chairman Brown's proposal is the mirror image of Arne Duncan's NCLB "blueprint." Duncan wants to free around 90% of schools from the dysfunctional NCLB accountability system, while doubling down on its most destructive elements for the most challenging schools and for teachers. Such a policy is virtually guaranteed to produce an exodus of teaching talent from the inner city to schools where it is easier to raise test scores and where there would be less pressure to commit educational malpractice by teaching to primitive tests.

If Brown's idea went national, however, think of the incentive it would provide for teachers who want to actually teach (as opposed to just complying with top down micromanagement) to transfer to poor schools in order to do so. Before long, the suburbs would have lost so many teachers that they would be filling their classrooms with 23-year-old wonders trying to prove how hard they can work with no sleep and no peace of mind, while under the thumb of evaluators whose lack of knowledge just makes them more self-righteous.

Brown also wants incentives, such as housing subsidies, that otherwise would be useless. Only a mathematical illiterate would sign up for a thirty year mortgage, while also taking a job where, depending on the model, there is a 1/4th or 1/6th or 1/5th chance PER YEAR of having your career destroyed because of an algorithm that could not account for circumstances beyond your control, or a rubric in the hands of someone who is prohibited from taking reality into account.

Kwame Brown's vision, when paired with John Merrow's wise metaphor could transform our entire nation. Merrow asks us to imagine:

an old yellow clunker -- belching smoke, with its rear emergency door hanging open -- weaves toward you. The driver, a pint of whiskey in one hand, yells out an apology: "Sorry about being late. The damn thing keeps stalling on me." Before you can say anything, he adds, "I know this ain't the prettiest or the safest looking bus, but it's the best we got. Hop right in, kids." Then he grins and says, "Don't worry. You won't be late for school. I'll put the pedal to the metal and get this baby rolling."

Merrow says that our standardized testing regime is like that bus. We put our kids on it, Merrow says, because, "that's the system." He quotes a superintendent of a big city system who said, "it's the public that is test score crazy, ... even though we educators know the tests are horribly flawed, we have to give the public what it wants."

I am not convinced that it is the public that wants bubble-in mindlessness, especially for their own children. I suspect that the reason why Arne Duncan wants to free most schools from the tyranny of NCLB testing is because middle class voters might be willing to ignore poor children of color being put on that bus, but not their own.

So, let's play out the chess game if Chairman Brown's proposal becomes federal law. The best teachers would receive bonuses for getting off the bus. We would have to wait and see how many of the top students followed them all of the way into the inner city. The more likely prospect would be suburban parents signing up for lotteries in the hope that their children would have a lucky draw for a respectful education.

Before long, however, affluent parents would revolt. As Merrow wrote, "Of course you wouldn't let your child board the bus. Instead, you would snap photos with your phone, post them on Facebook, and begin organizing a campaign to fire the drunk driver." For that reason, I suspect that the public backlash would be so intense that before the two years of freedom from abusive evaluations ran out, IMPACT and its spawn would be abandoned.

I would worry, however, about a quirk in the personalities of the best inner city teachers. After all, we volunteered for the additional challenges, and the indignities that are dumped on us, for committing to urban schools. After seeing the damage the testing bus has done to our students, would we be willing to heap those abuses on other children? For that reason, I would add a friendly amendment to Brown's proposal. Every highly effective teacher who comes to the inner city to be liberated from test-driven micromanagement would get a voucher that freed another teacher in a less challenging school from those evaluations.

We could throw in a public service campaign that would juxtapose heartrending pictures of master teachers imposing drill and kill on equally miserable suburban kids with joyful images of urban teachers and students. Wouldn't that be a refreshing change from the market-driven "reforms" that help a fortunate few in charter schools while making things worse for those in neighborhood schools by creating greater concentrations of generational poverty? And that is where Kwame Brown's proposal is different. Liberating teachers who commit to the toughest schools would be the first step in liberating all teachers and students from excessive test prep, narrowing the curriculum and rote instruction.