What is the value of having a *SUPERSTAR* teacher?

That’s a very good question. How much is an individual superstar teacher worth, as opposed to systematic reform?

Let’s look at DC’s own superstar teacher, Jason Kamras. Or, former teacher. (He’s an administrator now.)

Mr. Kamras apparently worked such miracles at Sousa JHS/MS that he was named United States Teacher of the Year (USTOTY)  in 2005. After that he was given a year off with pay to tour the country and disseminate his wisdom. After that, he went into the DC public school system’s central office for  instructional support, and is now special assistant to Chancellor Michelle Rhee. There he has been trying to enact and implement IMPACT, the policy of  micro-managing all of us other lazy, ignorant teachers who didn’t go to Princeton, Harvard, or Cornell and don’t know how to teach.

So what impact did Mr. Kamras have at Sousa MS? His USTOTY bio claims that all of *his* students always met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  I looked up got the AYP data for his school, Sousa, from the website http://www.nclb.osse.dc.gov.  Since Kamras won this award showing that he is a super-star teacher, one would think that:

(1) His contributions to teaching math (or other subjects) would already be legendary among other teachers in DCPS, and

(2) His influence at Sousa would be so profound that in 2005 – his last year – the AYP scores at Sousa should have peaked, especially since  only 142 students were tested at the entire school that year, which probably meant that he taught math to a very large fraction of them. (In earlier years there were over 380 students tested, and afterwards, the numbers were between 210 and 320 students.)

What are the facts, as measured by the (unreliable) SAT-9 and DC-CAS? (Sorry, but it’s all the data I have.)

Here is the test data:

or, if you prefer a graph,

The vertical line after the mark for 2005 is to show when Kamras stopped being a classroom teacher and essentially went into administration.

Hmm. In both reading and math, the scores at Sousa were mostly going down during his tenure. And the school definitely did NOT make AYP, despite what his bio says. In fact, only about 14% of the 143 students at Sousa scored Proficient or Advanced in math that year; that’s about 20 students. Were they all Kamras’ students? I don’t know. If he had 4 or 5 classes of 20 to 25 students each, which is a normal teaching load, then he had from 80 to 125 students.  Even if all of the ones who scored Proficient or Advanced were in Kamras’ classes, then 20 out of 80 is only 25% and 20 out of 125 is only 16%. Neither percentage would meet AYP in 2005. So, unless I am making some grave error, the claims being made about Kamras’ student’s AYP scores don’t measure up.

A couple of years after losing Mr. Kamras, the school finally rebounded, and now the percentage of students at Sousa scoring proficient appears to be … higher than ever.

So what exactly were Kamras’s contributions? Perhaps the other staff or parents at Sousa could help us out here. But what I see here doesn’t look so good for claim #2.

As for claim #1, I was totally surprised when I heard about his selection as USTOTY, because I often taught the same grade level and subject (Math 7) as he did, and to my knowledge, I had never met him at any of the meetings of the DC Council of Teachers of Mathematics (DCCTM), nor even heard his name. It also seemed that none of my math department colleagues had ever heard of him, either.

Kamras later spoke to the DCCTM and told us about why he was picked. You can read about them in his bio, as well. Here they are:

(A) He had re-arranged the math curriculum at his school because the one from DCPS didn’t make any sense. He is far from alone in thinking that the DCPS math curriculum needs serious revision (I strongly agree!), but usually lowly teachers get yelled at if they try revising it on their own – they don’t become USTOTY. But, if his plan was so wonderful, and if his (and Rhee’s) emphasis was on systematic reform, then after he became an administrator, his plan would have been shared with other math teachers, it would have been discussed two summers ago when this sort of realignment was going on at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and there would have been training on how to carry it out. But, to my knowledge, it has never been shared outside of Sousa.  So much for duplicating known successes (if it was in fact a success).

(B) He had an extra-curricular club after school, in digital photography, in which he showed connections to math; I presume he got funds from somewhere for cameras and other equipment. Not to be sarcastic, but lots of other teachers have done (and still do) clubs and activities like this, and they usually have to scrounge very hard for any supplies and equipment, or pay for them out of their own pocket. They don’t usually become USTOTY. What, exactly, made his contribution here so special? Rhee made the claim on PBS that it is the “union contract” that prevents her from funding such activities, which is simply not true. I know teachers who are right now finding that funding for other extracurricular activities are being cut out completely. Again, so much for systematic help in making learning fun and relevant.

(C) Kamras had somehow managed to obtain an LCD projector for his classroom computer; an interactive Smartboard; and an interactive remote polling device system which allows each student to immediately and remotely give feedback to the teacher, so that the teacher can instantly find out what every single person in the classroom does or doesn’t understand. These are all wonderful pieces of technology that can greatly improve teaching and learning, and I wish that I had had access to all of them when I was teaching. (I had one out of those three, which I got by winning a monetary math teaching award a few years ago; but I was supposed to share it with the rest of my department.)

Kamras says and writes that he thinks that having all three devices is the bare minimum amount of equipment each teacher should have. That might be right, and it certainly would be wonderful, but I don’t see any move on the part of the current DCPS administration to provide this “bare minimum” to classroom teachers. Instead, I hear accusations that there are more high-paid administrators in DCPS than ever, and so many new teachers were hired that the system was “forced” to lay off hundreds of employees.

Instead, Rhee (and Kamras) seem to think that reforming the public schools has practically nothing to do with improving the curriculum, nor providing better teaching equipment, nor providing real training for teachers, nor funding extra-curricular activities. Instead, the focus is all on the in-born qualities of individual teachers: are they a super-stars, or not? (Which probably means, did they go to the right college?) If they are, they will get huge bonuses. If not, then away with them!

So Rhee and Kamras have invested vast amounts of time and money into IMPACT, which is a way of evaluating every second of every teacher’s time each day, and using some complicated, unproved formula for measuring “value added” as measured by unreliable test scores. All of which simply serves to put more pressure on teachers to perform impossible, time-consuming tasks that may or may not have anything to do with student learning. (And many of us teachers feel that the single-minded devotion to publishers’ test scores is counter-productive in and of itself!)

Meanwhile, the charter school population keeps growing by leaps and bounds (even though they do no better than the public schools). DCPS teachers are liable to lose their job at any time, with no legal hearing whatsoever, and with unproven – and probably untrue -allegations on their competence being spread after the firing.  And my other posts show that nearly every claim that Rhee has made about her improving student test scores by mass firings is simply untrue.

If I were a mere mortal looking for a job teaching today, DCPS would be the very last place I would apply! And given Rhee’s incompetence and arrogance as a manager, and given the aspersions she has cast on DCPS teachers as a whole, I can understand why parents might prefer charter schools for their children.

I just hope that Rhee’s tenure doesn’t last too much longer, so that she won’t damage the educational paths of too many more children in DC and elsewhere. And that the myth that individual superstar teachers are the salvation of education is put safely to rest.

Published in: on November 21, 2009 at 10:35 pm  Comments (8)  

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  1. The lastest DCPS Community Forum was held this week at the HD Cooke Elementary School, the newly renovated 100 year old school in Adams Morgan. The two principals at the forum were HD Cooke’s and Harriet Tubman’s. Tubman was renovated over the summer.

    The subject of the forum was about how the school’s environment affect’s the learning ability and capacity of the students. Technology and up-to-date technological equipment was clearly mentioned as an important part of the equation.


  2. Well, given this information, it is no surprise that Kamras is so high on Rhee’s list. After all, the ability to inflate one’s resume and make claims of success out of mediocrity seems to be something they have in common. The Teacher of the Year award is a farce. Pretty much everyone who knows anything about it knows this to be true. You write an essay on why you should be teacher of the year, present it to the panel and they come and observe you teaching. Viola! Anyone who can put on a good dog-and-pony show can manage this. It is a process best suited to the self-promoters among us. After all, how long did Kamras stay in teaching after receiving the award?

    If we are going to have such awards how about the only way we get them is if the families of our students, our principal, and our colleagues nominate us and write the essay that makes the case for us as a Teacher of the Year. That would seem to me to be a more valid process than one of self-promotion. The way it works now Teacher of the Year should be called Teacher for a Year.

    To claim that all of your students met AYP while only 14% did so is bad enough. To have data show that your school steadily declined in math scores during your time there as a math teacher says even more. We all know and work with at least one teacher who keeps their ideas to themselves, only letting you in on what they are doing after their class has completed the work. This allows them to look good and cuts off competition. I guess collaboration is over-rated.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So much for duplicating known successes (if it was in fact a success).
    There’s a commentator over at eduwonk who argued this point with me.
    He (a biology teacher) didn’t believe that Miss Rhee’s Baltimore Miracle should have been replicated elsewhere nor that her success should be shared with TFAers.
    I would think, as a trainer of TFAers, you would want to say, “Wow, look at what Michelle Rhee did! If she did it, so can you!”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have always been suspicious as to how teacher awards are given out, especially when the higher ups are so intent on maintaining an image the way Michelle Rhee was intent on maintaining her image as a “reformer”. The data provided here is quite troubling, and, while I have no business judging somebodies teaching ability, I am sure Mr. Kamras was a decent teacher who worked really hard and cared about his kids, I scoff at the notion that these results, in a results-oriented environment, were deemed worthy of the recognition for being the best teacher in the nation!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. we were shown video a video of him to inspire us as teachers,,In his video he said he had one of his female students hop into the car and took her to the park because she needed to photograph a flower…Hello what idiot would transport a minor alone, later he said he took a student across a state line… ,

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] This was written by G.F. Brandenburg, retired DC teacher. His blog is skeptical of Rhee and her misguided fixes. Here he questions the claims of Jason Kamras, who was named US Teacher of the Year in 2005 and became a favorite of Michelle Rhee. He designed Rhee’s IMPACT system, which has thus far produced no test score gains and is still under construction. […]

    Liked by 1 person

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