Letter From DC: Godfather of Go-Go Upstages John Legend at "Standing Ovation" for DCPS' "Highly Effective" Teachers

Chuck Brown was “bustin’ loose” with the locals.

By , Columnist

“Who was that guy?  And why the reaction?” asked DCPS administrators, Chancellor staff, and their philanthropic partners at the 2nd Annual “Standing Ovation” for DCPS’ 663 “Highly Effective” teachers held at the Kennedy Center this past week.

chuckbrown2.jpg“Mr. Mayor, you may be the mayor, but Chuck Brown is the Man!” explained Emmy Award-winning local newscaster and MC Jim Vance. “They asked me if I wanted to sit before my time up here,” ad-libbed Georgetown basketball coach and DC native John Thompson III.  “I said, 'That’s Chuck Brown back there! I wanna do whatever Chuck Brown is doing!'” he added during the fete launched around the District’s landmark IMPACT evaluation system. 

The 50-page rubric to measure teacher performance and financially reward those deemed “highly effective” could soon come to a local school district near you. 

The slight disconnect between those who administer IMPACT and those it is administered to, however, demonstrates that the ambitious initiative continues to be a work in progress, symbolized by those there for John Legend, and those in awe of Godfather of Go-Go.

John Legend.jpg

Photo by James R. Brantley

John Legend is the cultural darling of the Education Reform movement, with his board membership on Teach for America, frequent appearances on education policy panels, and his contribution, with The Roots, of “Wake Up Everybody” to the Waiting for Superman soundtrack. 

Much of the teacher rank-and-file, however, cast a suspicious eye to those affiliations.  The data-driven and heavy emphasis on testing mantra of the current ed reform trend has left many teachers feeling like assembly line instructors rather than educators of children. 

Teach for America, co-founded by the past broom wielder of ed reform Michelle Rhee, is seen by some to produce indoctrinated minions to a mantra rather than equipped teachers. 

And the documentary Waiting for Superman is regarded by many teachers as an exercise in blame of them, rather than a comprehensive treatise on the shared responsibility of the nation’s collective negligence on public education.

Chuck Brown.jpg

Photo by James R. Brantley

Chuck Brown, however, is as organic as you can get, an inspiration to DC’s locals and working class.  Imprisoned at the Lorton Correction Facility in his teens, Chuck Brown (and it’s always "ChuckBrown") lauded his prison teacher for helping him get his high school diploma at 25.  “He helped teach me, I ain’t never wanna come back to Lorton.” 

After Lorton, he went on to pioneer the unique musical genre of Go-Go, a Washington DC homebrew of funk, blues, serious horns and percussion, and its hallmark: the call back chorus that screams for audience participation.

Chuck Brown’s seminal “Bustin’ Loose” -- which must be played at a DC wedding in order for it to be properly consummated -- launched the Go-Go era of Trouble Funk and Rare Essence and their partnerships with the city’s founding punk rock scene. 

punk-Funk poster.jpg“Punk/Funk” concerts pairing Go-Go bands with pioneering punk acts such as Minor Threat and Bad Brains brought Ward Three whites and blacks from the rest of the city together in celebration and appreciation of Washington’s unique and powerful contributions to musical culture. Chuck Brown unites.

You almost felt sorry for John Legend when Jim Vance introduced his second performance to close the show, and the collective “Aww, man” hit the stage after folks realized it wasn’t gonna be Chuck Brown. The rank-and file identifies with Chuck Brown, the only presenter who made the rounds after the program, mobbed by folks with camera phones and arms outstretched for hugs.

In contrast, the event’s well-intentioned philanthropic sponsors and DCPS officials seem to want the recognized teachers to identify with them and their agenda.  With the opulence of the setting and the formal attire, some felt a conveyance of “Now you can be a part of us” after years of deliberate divisiveness. The lapel pin, a ubiquitous DC accessory to designate political and industry allegiances, was distributed, leading one teacher’s spouse to Niedermeyer, “Is that a pledge pin on your uniform?”

Still the effort by DCPS and its partners did not go unappreciated.  “It is nice to be recognized and to be treated with respect and appreciation for our efforts,” said one teacher.  “I just wish it went beyond one manufactured event a year and was more consistent throughout the year.” 

One way to show good teachers the consistent respect they seek is the continued evolution of IMPACT.  There is an inequity between those teachers in testing grades and those not.  Teachers in testing grades can be rated “highly effective” from their five evaluations by “Master Educators” and principals, but can lose around 50% of their rating if not enough students score high enough on a single standardized test at the end of the year. On the other hand, they can earn an additional $5,000 bonus if the test score matches up.

(DCPS did not return repeated online, e-mail and voice mail requests for statistics on the percentage of “highly effective” teachers in non-testing grades versus testing grades and how many teachers lost their “highly effective” rating when test scores were factored. This from a “data-driven” administration that should have the figures readily available.  It should be noted, moreover, that DCPS considers a 24-hour turnaround benchmark in communication requests to teachers and principals as part of its IMPACT rating.) 

DCPS would be well-suited to follow the lead of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will release waiver guidelines September 23, 2011 for states facing sanction from “No Child Left Behind.” Duncan wants to start measuring growth within the school year rather than proficiency.

Under NCLB, a student entering fourth grade reading at a 1st grade level but ending the year reading at a 3rd grade level is considered a failure for the school, student, and teacher.  “Instead of getting rewarded for helping that child leap two grade levels, the school (and teacher) gets punished,” Duncan explained. 

And they lose the opportunity to Go-Go with Chuck Brown, not to mention the bonuses that start at $5Gs for “highly effective teachers.”

DCPS and its philanthropic partners should be applauded for breaking new ground in teacher accountability -- and teacher performance incentives -- not to mention throwing a lovely affair to show appreciation for those in one of the most difficult professions in the nation. 

But it should look to Chuck Brown for inspiration and the call-and-response nature of Go-Go.  “Gimme the bridge, now,” he calls out in “Bustin’ Loose,” directing his band to provide the infectious hook of the song. 

But he could just as easily be referring to a more legitimate pathway for teacher recognition and incentive to grow DCPS students’ academic achievement.   DCPS is getting there.  It just needs to start “Bustin’ Loose” a bit more.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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