By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Melanie Asmar
Miss P's first-graders stood on the stage at Bromwell Elementary School, before a packed house. With their teacher standing in the wings, out of view of a parent's camcorder, the children began to recite:
On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.
They were...until Yertle, the king of them all,
Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.
Over the next six minutes, they performed all 24 pages of Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle, about a little turtle named Mack who dared to stand up to the king. Under Miss P's tutelage, this class had memorized longer and longer poems, starting with The Owl and the Pussycat and moving on to Little Orphant Annie and the 52 lines of Casey at the Bat. Three weeks before their end-of-the-year performance, which also included a play and several dance numbers, they took on Yertle.
Watching the tape, Mary Pishney is "tickled pink," to use one of her favorite expressions as Miss P, first-grade teacher. "They love it," she says of the performances her classes put on every spring. "They're the stars. Parents have told me it teaches self-confidence and no fear of public speaking. And they remember those poems for years. To me, those are the things that make education joyful."
They're also the things that Pishney misses the most. Sitting in the living room of her whimsically decorated Denver loft, a three-ring binder with forty-eight tabs on her lap, Pishney sighs as she explains why there won't be a performance this year, her seventh at Bromwell. "I just keep thinking, 'This should be our play,'" she says.
Pishney hasn't been back to Bromwell since she left early for a doctor's appointment on Friday, February 26. The doctor told her she was suffering the effects of extreme work-related stress, which Pishney thinks was triggered by a hard-to-please principal siding with similarly hard-to-please parents, resulting in the first bad evaluation she's received in her decades-long, multi-state career.
Pishney's doctor referred her to another doctor, who wrote a two-page letter to Denver Public Schools detailing her situation and why he was recommending medical leave. "The intimidation, lying and overt threats Ms. Pishney has described are translating into fear and are compounded by visceral responses like hypertension, trembling and gasping for breath," he wrote. "Consequently, I do not see Ms. Pishney returning to work."
At least not for the rest of the school year, which ended two weeks ago. And if Pishney does return to work in the fall, this doctor recommended that she be supervised by someone other than the current principal, Jody Cohn, Bromwell's fifth in ten years.
"It's not personal," Cohn says of the evaluation process. "It's about the practice of teaching, not the personality of the teacher."
Pishney was one of 58 DPS teachers who failed their evaluations this past school year — more than twice as many as last year. According to Shayne Spalten, chief human resources officer at DPS, that number reflects a push for higher teacher standards. "We've really emphasized with principals the importance of addressing performance issues they're having with teachers," she says. "Teachers have a significant impact on how much kids are growing academically in classrooms. We're focusing on that."
Last week, Colorado applied for $175 million in round two of the federal Race to the Top education grant contest, after losing out in round one. The weakest part of Colorado's first application? Its plan to improve teacher quality. Colorado's chances this time could be helped by a controversial measure passed by the legislature last month that largely ties their fate to their students' achievement — but many teachers hate the plan.
Pishney is one of them. She doesn't feel there's anything wrong with the quality of most teachers, herself definitely included. The 63-year-old has always gone above and beyond: hosting after-school enrichment sessions, playing classical music in class, bringing her parakeet to school as a reward for her students. Every year, parents have requested that their children be placed in her class.
"Everything was going wonderfully well," she says.
Mary Pishney's case illustrates the difficulty of measuring a teacher's "effectiveness," which a new wave of education reformers including President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believe is key to raising student achievement. Good teachers should be rewarded, they say, and bad teachers should be rooted out.
That was the thrust behind Senate Bill 191, introduced in April by freshman state senator Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat and former alternative high-school principal who served as an education advisor to Obama during his campaign and on his transition team. SB191 called for tenured teachers to be evaluated every year rather than every three, and for half of that evaluation to be tied to student academic growth; if teachers failed two evaluations in a row, they'd be put on probation and risk losing their jobs.
The Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, vehemently opposed the proposal. Marti Houser, the CEA's general counsel, says the union was concerned that the bill removed a teacher's right to appeal dismissal decisions before a judge; the union was also worried about the cost of the bill and how it would be implemented. Under SB191, a fifteen-member council appointed by the governor would define what it means to be an "effective teacher."
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg testified in favor of Johnston's proposal. The bill, he says, "moved the ball very far forward on a couple of very important fronts." For one thing, it did away with the binary choice districts now face regarding teacher tenure: either fire a teacher after a probationary period of three years or give the teacher tenure and, in Boasberg's words, "a lifetime of employment." The superintendent also liked how the bill provided a way to retract tenure if a teacher is doing poorly.
After hours and hours of debate that reduced some lawmakers to tears, Johnston's bill, now carrying a multitude of amendments to make it more palatable to the unions, passed on the last day of the legislative session, and Ritter signed it into law three weeks ago. It gives the Governor's Council for Educator Effectiveness, which Ritter created back in January to devise a "high-quality educator evaluation system," until March 2011 to make its recommendations, and calls for a new system to be in place by the fall of 2013.
Although the new law could earn Colorado extra points in Race to the Top, which grades states' applications on a 500-point system that heavily values plans to foster "great teachers," that wasn't the motivation behind his proposal, Johnston says. "I believe the most important way for us to close the achievement gap and make sure all kids graduate high school ready for college and careers is to make sure you have the greatest number of great teachers and leaders as you can," he explains. "That being said, do I think it increases our chances to win Race to the Top?
Mary Pishney often refers to her classroom as her own little microcosm of positivity, her "sandcastle of happiness." The walls are a soft blue and decorated with characters she painted herself: birds with yellow feet taped to the cabinets, an alien wearing running shoes tacked to the bulletin board. Before she left this past winter, Pishney could often be found at the front of the room, sitting in a director's chair the shape of SpongeBob SquarePants.
At the start of every school year, Pishney takes the time to get to know her students — and to make sure they know her, too. "I tell my kids a lot of stories about my childhood: happy, funny stories about burying carrot cakes in the garden and getting caught with a mountain lion in the mountains and panicking, which you shouldn't do," she says. "It makes the kids realize you're a human being, and it develops this kind of family feeling. They have more trust in you. They come up and say, 'You know, Miss P, I really don't understand this,' and you go, 'Hey! Not a problem! We can survive this.'"
So the students know all about Sweet Pea, Pishney's talkative, long-tailed Alexandrine parakeet, who parrots back her compliments for him, including, "You're a good little toot!" They recognize her blue Volkswagen Beetle. And they become interested in the fate of her alma mater's football team, which she refers to as the "blessed Buckeyes."
"I have such an emotional tie with my kids," Pishney says. It's something she always wanted — but didn't always have — with her own teachers when she was a child.
"I remember as a kid thinking a teacher really cared," she recalls. "And then the next year, I was in somebody else's room and it was, 'Oh, you're last year's newspaper.' And that doesn't feel right. There should be that true, sincere interest that transcends the year."
Pishney grew up on twenty acres of farmland outside Columbus, Ohio. Her father had his own electronics business, and her mother stayed home. As a girl, she loved tending her family's ducks, chickens, goats and horses. The second of four children, she also helped care for her younger brother and sister and ran a booming babysitting business on the side. "I think that's where I got my love of working with kids," she says.
In fact, Pishney came to realize that she sometimes preferred children's company to that of adults. "With kids, you see the essence of the innocence," she says. "There's not biases. You can have such wonderful conversations...because they're so pure in heart."
After graduating high school, Pishney headed to Ohio State University, where she majored in elementary education. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college, and soon found a job teaching first grade at a high-performing school in Columbus. "I was about 23 when I got that job," Pishney remembers. "I loved it, loved my kids." The parents called her Mary Poppins because of the kind way she interacted with her students.
And then busing came. The school's population shrank as white families fearful of forced integration fled to the suburbs, and Pishney, still a new teacher, was transferred to an inner-city school. The building was filled with roaches. There was a brothel across the street, and the children often came to school without shoes. One day, two men who'd spent time in jail after the principal caught them selling drugs to students returned to the school and threatened the faculty. Pishney quit soon after. "I would have stuck it out and tried my best," she explains, "but when your physical safety is involved, I say, 'Time to go.'"
Pishney's husband got an engineering job in Denver, and the couple moved here. A talented seamstress with a love of cooking, Pishney began sewing and selling fancy aprons. Four years later, when they moved to Dallas, Pishney got back into teaching, working in both private and public schools.
After she and her husband divorced, Pishney moved back to Denver in 2002. She'd loved living here, and had her sights set on teaching at one school: Bromwell.
In a city school district plagued by city school district problems, Bromwell is a standout: a K-5 school known for having academic rigor, active parents, very bright students — and few of the challenges associated with large populations of at-risk students.
That's largely due to Bromwell's location, on the corner of East Fourth Avenue and Columbine Street in Cherry Creek, where old bungalows and ranch houses have given way to high-priced duplexes. Houses in the nearby Denver Country Club neighborhood and along Seventh Avenue Parkway sell for up to $2 million, and the area is populated by doctors, lawyers, CEOs and politicians like Michael Bennet, who was superintendent of Denver Public Schools until he was tapped by Ritter in January 2009 to take a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
"The people who live in this neighborhood have big homes," says one parent. "They're pretty successful, which means they're pretty smart. Eighty percent of the kids at Bromwell would be way above the average of the typical DPS student. Bromwell is like a mini private school."
Fewer than 10 percent of Bromwell's students were low-income and minority this past school year; the overall district stats are 70 percent poor, 75 percent minorities. Out of 161 schools, Bromwell is one of only nine rated "distinguished" by DPS; in 2008 it was chosen as a prestigious national Blue Ribbon School. Realtors selling houses within the Bromwell boundaries regularly list the school as an attribute on For Sale signs, and hordes of parents who live outside the boundaries request that their children be allowed to attend Bromwell through the district's choice policy.
Those parents whose children get to attend Bromwell are very involved, inside the classrooms and out. The school PTSA raises hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to help pay for a part-time dance teacher and full-time art and music teachers, as well as teachers' aides in every classroom — luxuries that most other Denver schools can't afford. One of Bromwell's biggest fundraisers is the annual auction, which this year included such items as a South African safari, a day of skiing with Olympian Michelle Roark, and Latisse eyelash-growing treatments.
"I ask the PTSA, I say, 'I need this,' and they make it happen," says Cohn.
That's partly what attracted Pishney to Bromwell.
"I wanted to teach at Bromwell because I'd heard it was wonderful," Pishney recalls. "It would afford me the opportunity to do my thing: to have my poetry, to be able to do rough drafts and use a dictionary and thesaurus, and play classical music and put on my plays. Not a lot of schools will let you do that."
Bromwell didn't have any openings, though, so Pishney took a job teaching a combination fourth- and fifth-grade class at Carson Elementary in the nearby Hilltop neighborhood. "I raised test scores," she says. "My kids' CSAP scores were phenomenal." Her students were also adept at writing poetry. On a whim, Pishney submitted nineteen students' poems to a national poetry anthology project; twelve were accepted, she notes.
Bromwell's then-principal, Dennis Thompson, happened to stop by Pishney's classroom on a tour of Carson, and asked her to apply when a first-grade teaching spot opened up. "I said, 'I'm tickled pink, because I love the little ones!'" she remembers.
Pishney's first years at Bromwell went well. Parents began requesting that their children be put in her class, many of them attracted by her emphasis on memorization. Pishney has her students memorize a poem a month, a practice that she thinks greatly increases intelligence. "All they have to do is, I repeat it in the morning and they practice it once at night," she says. "And that's it. And it's shown by many universities that this actually increases IQ."
Chuck Crowley's daughter was in Pishney's second Bromwell class. "The first time I saw her, I thought, 'Who is this little old lady who is going to get her ass kicked by these kids?'" he remembers. "And, boy, was I wrong. She had complete control of that classroom. She got so much out of those kids."
"She's so sweet," says Crowley's daughter, Alexandra, who will start seventh grade in the fall. "I don't know of a kid who said 'I hated her.'"
When Melissa Pace's family moved to Denver, she quickly realized her son "was at the bottom of the Bromwell barrel," she says. He couldn't read or write, unlike most of the other kindergartners. Although he caught up a bit that year, "he didn't love to read, because he was so far behind everybody," she recalls.
But Pishney, her son's first-grade teacher, changed all that. "She got him up to the end-of-second-grade reading level by the end of the year," Pace says. The poetry memorization also boosted his vocabulary. "His vocabulary was superior to any first-grader I had ever been around. He still speaks like an old man. We'll be at a family function and he says something, and it sounds like my Great Aunt Helen just spoke. I think that's great."
So last fall, when her daughter was entering first grade, Pace requested that she be assigned to Pishney's class. Her daughter was already a strong reader and writer; Pace just wanted her to have the same wonderful experience that her son had benefited from a few years earlier.
But this year was different. "It's a very divided class, unfortunately," Pace says. "I don't know what's wicked in the state of Denmark, but we do have parents that run the school behind the scenes."
At the end of the 2008-09 school year, Bromwell lost another principal, Jonathan Wolfer, in the wake of a scandal dubbed "Boundarygate." The flap started, Wolfer says, when "a large portion of families" complained to him that other parents were using work addresses or grandparents' addresses in order to get their children into Bromwell, and classrooms were becoming crowded as a result. The complaining families called it a matter of fairness. Other parents called it a "witch hunt."
Wolfer was replaced by Cohn, who had spent the previous decade as principal of Munroe Elementary in west Denver, a school where 92 percent of the kids are poor, 96 percent are minorities, and test scores are low. Cohn applied for the Bromwell job because she wanted something completely different. "With Bromwell, I was attracted to the parental involvement and the challenge of how to take a high-achieving school and make it even higher," she says.
Eleven of Bromwell's 25 teachers were up for formal evaluations this past year, and Pishney was one of them. (Until the new state law kicks in, tenured teachers will continue to be evaluated every three years, while non-tenured teachers are evaluated every year.) Pishney had never failed an evaluation. "When I was there, I thought Mary was doing well," says Thompson, the now-retired principal who'd hired her, declining to say more because of personnel confidentiality issues. But Pishney has a letter that Thompson gave her in 2005, describing a comment made by a visiting DPS assistant superintendent. "She remarked that your class was the finest first-grade classroom that she had visited in her career," he wrote.
Wolfer won't go into detail, either, but confirms that Pishney passed her evaluations. "Her review allowed her to receive tenure," he says.
Still, Pishney was a little nervous about this next evaluation. "I told my principal at the beginning of the year that I'm on formal this year and I'm kind of an over-achiever and that I would do anything she wanted me to, and if she saw something she wanted done differently — because every principal has a little different take on it — to just let me know," Pishney says. "I never heard."
In October, the first "parent letters of concern" hit Cohn's desk, from parents complaining about Pishney's math lessons. "There isn't enough math being taught," one e-mail said. Another parent worried that her gifted children, including one in Pishney's class, weren't being challenged. Yet another blasted the entire first-grade curriculum and both first-grade teachers: "Any changes in first grade are long overdue and would be welcomed."
"The curriculum isn't advanced enough," says Carolyn Joy-Fortino, whose child was not in Pishney's class. "I think there are many great things about Bromwell and there's progress at all grades. But in first grade, there isn't."
"I have tremendous respect for Mary," says another parent, whose two children have had Pishney. "She's a very sweet, nice woman and she's really good with the kids. She's very grandmotherly. She bakes cookies. She's like your old-fashioned first-grade teacher. But what I saw my first year is that she covers up a lot of what she's not doing in the classroom with her personality. She rides by on her personality. The principals before now didn't mind. She snookered all of them."
Right away, "I could tell she wasn't doing enough math," this parent says.
"The poetry memorization was great. That was Mary's strongest suit," another parent says. "What I was alarmed to discover...was how some of the other pieces were lacking." The math piece was weak, and "there didn't seem to be any clear idea of the levels the kids were at: which ones needed more help, which ones needed more challenge."
Parents also criticized Pishney's "Super Star Student of the Week" awards as a waste of time. They said she made the kids do too much paperwork, showed too many films and spent too much time on her computer during class. When Cohn mentioned these parental complaints to Pishney, she responded both in her weekly newsletters to students' homes and in a three-page memo to the principal, explaining that the awards are "highly motivational" and that she uses her computer to answer parent e-mails and type vocabulary sheets for her students.
As for math, Pishney says she recognized that the beginning of the curriculum, which teaches how to count, is too easy for her gifted students, especially since many of them were taught first-grade math concepts in kindergarten. "The kids at Bromwell are very enriched," she says. "I mean, when they say they've been to Paris, it's not Texas — it's France." But parents need to understand that this curriculum is a district-wide program that teachers are required to follow. "I am tied to the curriculum," Pishney says. "So I would try to do things like extensions that would broaden that out: a little base-ten work ahead of time and maybe charting problems with the use of a ruler so they get greater dexterity. Anything to kind of take it away from being drab."
It wasn't enough. When Pishney met with Cohn to discuss problems with the math curriculum, she says the principal asked her to decorate three floor-to-ceiling hallway bulletin boards with blurbs, photos and examples of student work explaining how she was enriching the curriculum; she told Pishney to write a letter to parents detailing the same thing. By the time she'd revised the letter several times at Cohn's request, Pishney says, she'd spent seventy hours on the project.
The letter went to students' homes on November 30. On December 8, Cohn sat in on one of Pishney's reading lessons for her formal observation. In a meeting later that afternoon, Cohn mentioned a few concerns: The beginning readers weren't reading fluidly enough, and the classroom didn't have a library or writing center. She did have a library, Pishney told the principal, and she would work on installing a writing center, which was optional, over the winter break.
According to Pishney, "I asked her, 'Was it a successful observation?' And she said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Well, that's a relief. I'm kind of a worrywart, and I want to do my best.'" Pishney says she left the meeting feeling good.
Pishney was sick over the break and unable to work on the writing center, which she envisioned as a desk stocked with writing supplies and tips. When she returned to Bromwell for a teacher work day on January 4, she asked Cohn for a copy of her formal evaluation document, a standard template that all DPS principals use. "She was angry, and she said, 'Well, you didn't pass that formal observation,'" Pishney recalls. "And I just almost passed out. I said, 'What?' She said, 'I have serious concerns about your reading program.'"
They set up a meeting for that afternoon, when Pishney says Cohn rattled off a litany of complaints, many of which echoed the parents' complaints from earlier in the year. She also criticized Pishney's reading instruction, saying that the students weren't grouped properly by level.
Pishney tried to defend herself but didn't get far: "Every time I would say, 'I am doing guided reading, my students are advancing,' any time I would defend myself, she would get enraged and yell and say, 'You're bucking me! I'm going to put you on a growth plan!'" To Pishney, that sounded like she would be "on the precipice of bye-bye."
By the end of the meeting, Pishney was sobbing. "All I'd accomplished was being twisted as being negative," she remembers. "It was just the most horrific experience I've had in my life."
Back in her classroom, Pishney began typing notes on what had just happened. The three single-spaced pages she wrote that day became one of many entries in her three-ring binder. "I don't normally do this because it's so time-intensive," she explains. "But when things started going down the tubes, I felt, Mary, you've got to start documenting."
Cohn was doing some documenting of her own. On January 29, she presented Pishney with the official evaluation document: Pishney had failed.
In addition to the issues they'd already discussed, it included two "peer teacher letters of concern" that Cohn had received after January 4. One said Pishney wasn't supervising her students. The second letter, which was unsigned, included complaints that the teacher had reportedly heard from parents: that the first-grade math, reading and writing lessons were subpar, that there was lots of "busy work," and that parents had commented on the "emotional status" of a certain unnamed first-grade teacher who appeared "frazzled" lately.
"None of those teachers ever asked me anything," Pishney says. "This was hearsay from parents."
On February 18, per DPS protocol, Cohn gave Pishney a "remediation plan" to help her improve. It required that Pishney turn in detailed weekly lesson plans that listed the ways in which she planned to differentiate her lessons, and also do weekly analyses of her students' progress in math and reading — even though she'd recently gotten mid-year scores showing that her students were making impressive gains in reading. The plan asked for too much, Pishney says; she felt it was "set up for failure."
So Pishney never started the remediation plan. Instead, on February 25, she filed a grievance against Cohn with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the DPS teachers' union, accusing Cohn of creating a hostile working environment and engaging in age discrimination. At 63, Pishney is the oldest teacher at Bromwell.
Pishney was a mess: She'd begun losing weight, her hair was falling out, her voice had developed a tremor and her hands wouldn't stop shaking. The day after she filed the grievance, she left school early to see a doctor. "My blood pressure was so high that I was on the edge of a stroke," she says. "He said, 'Mary, you've got to get away from that situation or it could kill you.'"
Both my husband and I trust the leadership," says Marcia Toll, whose daughter was in Pishney's first-grade class this past year and whose husband serves on the PTSA. "We have a strong principal who wants academic rigor at the school. She has a vision for the school that I support, and she has the best interest of the kids in mind. I trust whatever the principal needed to do."
Cohn says she can't discuss Pishney because of personnel confidentiality issues (neither can union officials or DPS administrators). But Cohn can talk about her goals for Bromwell. "We have so many gifted and talented students that we look at everything through a gifted and talented lens," Cohn explains. About 20 percent of Bromwell's students are considered gifted by district standards, and the school is home to one of DPS's twenty full-time GT teachers, whose job is to adapt lessons for those students. "We want to deepen their knowledge, not just push them to the next grade level," Cohn says.
Doing so with math has been especially tricky, she notes. That's why she pushed a handful of strategies, including pre-testing students and then only teaching concepts that the majority don't know. "Our first-graders may come out of kindergarten testing at a first-grade level," Cohn says. "To take them through the first-grade curriculum when they've already mastered it would not be in their best interest."
Bromwell also offered math projects and computer programs aimed at increasing math skills this year, and focused on teaching strategies to solve more complicated word problems. For some teachers, modifying lessons for students at different levels comes easily, Cohn says; others need a little help, which can be provided through professional development programs. "As long as you can see people moving in the right direction, that's an effective teacher," she says.
The problem comes when teachers refuse to move. "When I talk to teachers about concerns, it deserves attention," Cohn notes. "If my collaboration is not reciprocated but is invalidated and rejected, I'm very direct in calling teachers' attention to that behavior and lack of professionalism."
But a bad evaluation isn't necessarily a career-killer. "You can't just evaluate a teacher and say goodbye," Cohn points out. "There's a series of steps."
More DPS teachers are going through those steps than ever before. In the 2005-2006 school year, seven teachers were put on remediation plans. In 2007-2008, that number jumped to eighteen. This past year, seventy of the DPS's 4,555 teachers were subject to remediation plans, twelve of them holdovers from the previous year.
"They really have been ramping it up this year — some would call it cleaning house," says Houser, the lawyer for the CEA, the umbrella organization for the DPS classroom teachers' union. "Denver seems to operate in more of a business-model mode. It's like a big corporation. Their employees are more like numbers than employees."
But seventy teachers is still a "tiny fraction" of the district's workforce, superintendent Boasberg points out, adding that the increase in negative evaluations is due to a district-wide — as well as statewide and nationwide — recognition that fostering good teachers is essential to boosting student growth. "There is a focus top-to-bottom in the district on doing all that we can do to have the most effective teachers in the classroom," he says.
That focus isn't new. As proof, Boasberg cites the Denver Plan, a blueprint the district first adopted in 2005 and whose most recent iteration emphasizes teacher and principal effectiveness. There's also ProComp, the district's five-year-old merit-pay system, which rewards teachers for taking classes, teaching hard-to-serve students and earning satisfactory evaluations.
Theresa Peña, who has served on the DPS school board since 2003 and was twice elected its president, agrees that teacher effectiveness is key. "The superintendent and the board have been very clear that the status quo of student achievement is unacceptable," she says, especially given that only half of DPS third-graders are reading at grade level and only half of the district's students graduate high school.
Parents aren't the best gauge of good teachers, Peña says: "They love their first-grade teacher, but that doesn't mean they're an effective teacher." If a teacher isn't up to snuff, she says, "we have to help them move on to another profession."
But Jeannie Kaplan, who's served on the board since 2005, is confused by the increase in negative evaluations. "It bothers me that we're going ahead with so many more of these kinds of things when we're really close to having a good system in place," she says.
DPS has been working on revamping its teacher evaluation system since January, when it received a $10 million grant to do so from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest grant in the district's history. Administrators applied for that grant after reading a report by the New Teacher Project, which looked at DPS's system for training teachers, as well as a few others. The report found that between 2005 and 2008, 99 percent of DPS teachers passed their evaluations — but 70 percent of the principals reported that there were teachers at their schools who should be fired for poor performance. When asked why they weren't, principals said firing teachers took too much time and effort. The report also found that only one-third of DPS teachers thought their evaluations were helpful and accurate assessments of their abilities.
"I think the system has been a very troubled and inefficient system that has done poorly by kids," Boasberg says. "There are no positive consequences for being a strong performer, in terms of additional career ladders, leadership roles and compensation. Likewise, you have an extraordinarily cumbersome and time-consuming process in the very few cases where a teacher has an unsatisfactory rating."
Even before winning the Gates grant, DPS was trying to change that. Two years ago, the district restructured its human resources department, which Boasberg says used to be a "paperwork shop," to focus more on helping principals recruit and evaluate teachers. Now every school has a human resources partner who acts as "an expert and very skilled and thoughtful advisor for the principal to help coach and support the principal in dealing with employee performance matters," he says. Each HR partner is responsible for fifteen to twenty schools.
The district plans to have a new teacher-evaluation system in place by 2011. It's working with stakeholders, including the teachers' union, to come up with a more nuanced system that will provide richer feedback for teachers and could include observations from their peers, says Spalten, DPS's chief human resources officer. A major factor in those evaluations will be whether a teacher's students are learning, and if they're not, a principal can put a teacher on remediation. Under the current system, a principal has thirty to ninety days to evaluate whether the teacher follows the remediation plan and improves; if the teacher doesn't improve, the principal can recommend the teacher for dismissal. But the teacher can also challenge that recommendation and request a hearing in front of a judge. The judge then makes another recommendation, which is sent to the school board. The boardmembers have the final say.
Of the seventy teachers on remediation this year, 24 went forward with the plan — but so far, only three of those have satisfactorily completed it. Another fifteen teachers resigned or retired rather than go through the process. Seven are fighting the designation in court; six are in the process of being fired. While they weighed their options, 27 of the teachers went on some sort of voluntary leave.
Miss P was one of those.
While some Bromwell parents complained to Cohn about Pishney, others, including Rhonda Platten, have written loving letters of support.
"My opinion is she was fabulous," says Platten, whose son was in Pishney's most recent class. "My son was at kindergarten level when he came into first grade. Now he is at average first-grade level. It only took her two months to catch him up."
Platten and her family moved to the Bromwell neighborhood because they'd heard good things about the school — though they'd also heard a few warnings. "I had heard before I moved here that there was a strong parent group," Platten says. "I just blew that off, like 'Yeah, whatever.' My point is I wanted to be part of a community."
But when she heard that a handful of parents had complained to the principal about Pishney's boring math program and her poetry memorization, Platten grew frustrated. "It just breaks my heart that this person who has worked so hard for it and who loves education — this is her life — that these people are like, 'Next!'" she says. "It just makes me sick to see a lot of really good teachers go down the tubes."
A dozen parents contacted for this story did not return calls or refused to talk. (Several Bromwell teachers also declined interviews.) Even parents who did agree to speak admit they're afraid their comments may cause the school staff to "single out" their children or other Bromwell parents to ostracize them. "We have a lot more years at this school," says the parent of one first-grader. "We don't want to create problems for our daughter."
Jennifer Lindberg isn't afraid to speak, though. After hearing wonderful things about Pishney, she requested that her son be in her class this past year. "I asked the parents ahead of us a couple grades who they recommended for each grade level," she says. "It was hands down, they all said, 'You want Miss P.'"
Lindberg's son had struggled in kindergarten at Bromwell. "It was really intense. I actually referred to it as a pressure cooker," she says. As a result, her son hated school — but Pishney turned that around.
"From day one, I'd say, 'How's school?' He'd say, 'Oh, it's great!'" Lindberg remembers. "He'd talk about this bird she had, Sweet Pea. He'd say, 'Miss P is going to bring Sweet Pea!' You would have thought it was Santa Claus. She had such a connection with him."
Lindberg witnessed that connection firsthand when she volunteered in Pishney's class. "She was always very friendly," Lindberg says, "but I could just tell she was more interested in the kids than in talking to the adults."
And the adults were beginning to talk about Pishney. In January, Lindberg heard rumors that some parents had complained about the teacher; another parent asked her to write a letter of support. Pishney "looked horrible," she remembers. "The stress was immense. I'd say, 'Please let me know if there's anything I can do to help.' She'd say, 'Thank you, but I'm okay.' Then we saw her one afternoon at the grocery store, and she said her doctor told her she needed to take a break. She didn't come back."
After that, working with a permanent substitute the school brought in to teach Pishney's class the rest of the year, her son lost focus. "I was hoping that with her, he would really have a solid foundation to be in the middle of the class next year. That's been blown by the wayside," Lindberg says. "It feels like we're just kind of in a holding pattern."
It feels the same way to Pishney. Officially on sick leave, she's been asked by DPS to get a second opinion from a district-recommended doctor — but so far, the district has not made an appointment. In the meantime, the remediation process is on hold until Pishney returns to school. Her union grievance isn't moving any faster, and in March, Pishney hired an attorney to file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she was discriminated against by a "younger principal." Pishney's lawyer, Mark Bove, says that the complaint is likely to take more than a year to resolve. "Regardless of the finding," he notes, "Mary retains her right to sue individually."
Pishney isn't sure what to do next. If she leaves Bromwell and DPS, she worries that at her age, she'll have a hard time getting a teaching job, especially with a black mark on her record. Still, it pains her to think about not being in the classroom.
"I'm just seeing myself going from a situation of an idyllic, joyful, loving atmosphere, and it's all being destroyed," she says. "Because teaching isn't just teaching to me. It's a passion."
"I'm ruler," said Yertle, "of all that I see.
But I don't see enough. That's the trouble with me.
With this stone for a throne, I look down on my pond
But I cannot look down on the places beyond.
This throne that I sit on is too, too low down.
It ought to be higher!" he said with a frown.
"If I could sit high, how much greater I'd be!
What a king! I'd be ruler of all I could see!"