Best hopes, worst fears in Harrison District 2 

Your Turn

Verna Penny sits in the teacher's lounge at Carmel Middle School, waiting for her cup of tea to brew. She is the picture of reflection and a self-assuredness tempered by bumps along life's road. Unfazed by my question, she calmly responds that this year has been the toughest year of her nine in District 2.

We both go off-script for the next half-hour as she describes her year and tells her story — a story of school and life, fears and hopes. I learn a little about the challenges of being a single mom and about a car accident that totaled her car. She tells me about the daily effort to instruct well and the pride of making a difference for her eighth-grade students.

She had feared that she would not do as well on District 2's Effectiveness and Results (E&R, or pay-for-performance) plan this year, because personal struggles outside of school had taken her off her best game. She was relieved, however, when her evaluation resulted in a "Proficient I" rating, validating her effectiveness. Unprompted, she told me that she was optimistic about next year and that she had resolved to be even more effective.

Verna's story is similar to many of the approximately 150 short interviews with teachers that my team and I conducted this spring. It is the E&R story — the story of best hopes and worst fears.

The E&R plan begins not with rubrics or achievement data, but with the district's core beliefs. In Harrison, we believe that at-risk students can achieve with the help of highly effective teachers. Our teachers help our students achieve more than a year's growth in a year. A district comprised of 79 percent free- and reduced-price-lunch students, Harrison chooses to discard the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and believes that both our students and staff can meet high expectations.

The E&R story is also about change and the courage to travel uncharted waters. Our plan, based on systems thinking, good instruction and demonstrated success in raising student achievement, is arguably the most innovative and thoughtful pay-for-performance plan in the nation. There is doubt and self-doubt. However, there is also a great deal of confidence and support among the staff. Two weeks ago, 76 percent of the staff voted to accept the district's Agreement of Trust and Understanding, the most significant part of which revolved around the E&R plan.

With the recent passage of state legislation that requires districts to tie teacher evaluations to achievement results (Senate Bill 191), Harrison's E&R plan is a harbinger of the challenges teachers everywhere will now face. Districts will engage in arguments about fair evaluations, student motivation, expectations for at-risk students, and whether student achievement is more important than meeting the other intangible needs of children.

There will be many who lead people toward their best hopes. Unfortunately, there will be many others — some reporters, pundits, naysayers and even board members — who will resist reform, will misinform, raise false alarms, and otherwise take advantage of people's worst fears. My best hope is that cooler heads will prevail and that we truly transform public education.

Mike Miles, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger and diplomat, has been Harrison School District 2's superintendent for four years and wrote this in response to last week's cover story.

Harrison Principals Support District's Direction

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