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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 12/12/2010

When popularity trumps learning in urban schools

By Jay Mathews

Dunbar High School Principal Stephen Jackson was fired at the end of last school year by the private management group in charge of the school, but put back in the job last week by interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson at the urging of parents, community leaders and teachers.

Jackson seemed an unusually lively and energetic educator when I met him at the long-troubled Northwest Washington school a year ago. He may be the person who can finally straighten Dunbar out.

But the odds are against him, both because of the ingrown nature of the school’s problems, and the dispiriting message Henderson’s decision sends to him and any other school leader she assigns to a low-performing school after this.

Jackson has the support of many teachers and parents, some of whom have written to me. Although they have not commented on the matter, leaving the decision to Henderson, both mayor-elect Vincent Gray and D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. gave indications that they thought Dunbar needed a change from the Friends of Bedford management group. The non-profit company is led by a clever and earnest educator named George Leonard who has a good track record raising the achievement of low-income students in Brooklyn.

Jackson is also getting extra security help — six more police officers and two more officers from the Roving Leaders unit of the Parks and Recreation Department. Leonard said he had been asking for such assistance but it was only approved after the school encountered a series of disruptions, including six students being arrested (the charges were later dropped) for allegedly raping a 15-year-old girl in an unoccupied area of the school. That led to the ouster of Friends of Bedford and the return of Jackson, whom Leonard said he fired for not pushing improvements in teaching.

If Jackson and Henderson can organize the new security force properly, they might find a way to remove the scourge of D.C. high schools — a stubborn culture of absenteeism, tardiness and wandering the halls during class. In a new book, famous East Los Angeles principal Henry Gradillas describes how he ordered teachers to lock their doors at the start of each period and used counseling, detention and transfers to wear down or, if necessary, remove the students rounded up each day for not being in class. That created an atmosphere in which his efforts to raise achievement began to work.

A concerted effort by Jackson and his team at Dunbar might have the same result, but it remains to be seen whether Henderson, the new mayor and the D.C. Council are willing to provide the necessary resources, and ignore complaints from parents and lawyers of the most disruptive students when they are transferred involuntarily to other schools, or expelled.

I have been communicating with Laura Johnson and Jessica Lilly, the two Dunbar math teachers who described their dissatisfaction with the Friends of Bedford to my colleague Bill Turque in his story Sunday. I have also heard from another staffer who supported Leonard's team for holding "teachers accountable for our student's failing academic performance." The staffer said "leaders are making decisions based on politics and not what is best for these students." The staffer asked not to be identified because of warnings that Friends of Bedford supporters might be fired. I very much doubt that is the case, but such misimpressions will hurt efforts to move forward.

Under their contract, the Friends of Bedford are still running a second school, Coolidge High. The school climate there has apparently improved in a building better designed for order. This sets up a competition between Dunbar and Coolidge — which will have the quietest campus and the most improved academic achievement at the end of the school year?

A key fact is that Friends of Bedford produced by far the greatest gains in reading proficiency last year of any D.C. high school. Dunbar went from 18.2 to 31.9 percent and Coolidge from 38 to 53.6 percent. Given that Friends of Bedford were removed from Dunbar despite that record, any new school leaders, including Jackson, must assume that raising achievement will not be enough to keep their jobs. They must reduce the daily disruptions caused by a general reluctance to take harsh measures and the fact that D.C. high schools, their enrollments shriveled by an exodus of students to the suburbs and charter schools, have many empty classrooms and other hiding places.

If principals can’t keep order, their only alternative is to do whatever will make them popular in the community — whether it helps learning or not — so they will not be blamed for the disorder.

Henderson says this is not true. She is a good person. She might be right. But it doesn’t look that way to me.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | December 12, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Dunbar High School, Friends of Bedford, Stephen Jackson, but his reinstallment also sends the message that being popular is more important than helping learning, new Dunbar principal has chance to save school  
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"A key fact is that Friends of Bedford produced by far the greatest gains in reading proficiency last year of any D.C. high school."

According to Miss Lilly, it was two English teachers who worked the kids to get their scores up.

I'm very disappointed Jay that you have decided to not pursue the very, very important question - What went wrong? Why didn't FOB succeed at Dunbar?

As a promoter of the educational movement that believes the reason kids drop out and/or score poorly on tests is because of their lousy teachers, you should tell us what went wrong.
Will you?

Posted by: edlharris | December 12, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

Glad you linked Turque's article so we could see the two teachers comments, since you only quoted in your article the one teacher in support of Bedford.

You end the article with an interesting premise. That if principals can't keep order they must do whatever will make them "popular" in the community. I am unclear where this misperception originated. If disorder exists the community doesn't expect a popular principal, they expect one that will stop the disorder and bring about safety. Popularity and bringing in safety are two different traits and issues.

I think you feel Henderson isn't right when she also expressed that popularity isn't ruling her decision making because it flies in the face of your misperceptions. You felt Bedford would solve everything, even though the set up of their Bronx school is not at all similar to Dunbar. You complain in other articles that dumping money doesn't solve education problems, but neglect to point out how much Bedford was paid.
You feel test scores are the only sign of quality education and ignore safety issues. In fact, even with your first article on this issue, prior to Bedford being kicked out, you feared Henderson would listen to those people in the community who were dissatisfied (teachers and parents who didn't care for Bedford). It seems to me she didn't listen to them soon enough. Who else should speak up for the children, Jay? Those directly working with them, or you and your view about test scores and private companies without any investigation whatsoever.

It is, in my opinion, shameful that you haven't fully reported how different Dunbar was from the Bronx school, how much Bedford was paid, the comments from the "dissatisfied community" who in your view were somehow "politicizing" the issue (from your first article). It is shameful that you are the one who is actually seemingly politicizing this issue...wanting your premise that Bedford would save Dunbar to be true regardless of what those directly affected by Bedford had to say.

Henderson has been touted as being very similar to Rhee in her education views. You loved Rhee, so why don't you trust Henderson? What do you mean when you say at the end, "It doesn't look that way to me?"

Would you be okay if your children were in the school under Bedford's control? Is that what you are saying? That they need to be there regardless of what parents have said?

Posted by: researcher2 | December 13, 2010 6:03 AM | Report abuse

Jay, you sound more confused than ever. You are talking about "sending messages", but yours are scrambled.

You can start to make sense of it if you answer edlharris. What went wrong? The snakeoil you are selling is using test scores and tough IMPACT scores to root out bad teachers. Leonard fired Jackson for the high IMPACT scores he gave his teachers, who had supposedly accomlpished this miraculous turnaround in scores.

The "improvement" in test scores is the only "accomplishment" you or Leonard can point to (his interviews are nothing but platitudes). The 12% increase in reading proficiency rate will evaporate. Miraculuos turnarounds are accomplished by the stupid, obvious, and brutal tactic of weeding out the bottom quartile of score suprossors. Soccer mom gave you the actual numbers, and you waved them away - a can of worms, you said. In no way can Bedford be held accountable for statistics on which children they chose to test.

That's why, in all these years of breakthrough anouncements, the "free-market" reform movement can point to no accumulated success. To maintain their dominance, they (and you) can only atack and undermine ordinary, everyday truth and transparency.

There is no evidence in all this that any of the work actually needed to establish a "learning community" in a school like Bedford was ever attempted. For instance, were there advisory relations set up, so each child could find specific adults who cared what they were feeling, or hoping for, or worrying about?

Now might be a good time to add a disclosure to all your columns defending this "non-profit educational consulting" firm, and attacking its "political" opponents. What does a management company do in the public sector? It funnels tax dollars to for-profit businesses, like the Washington Post's Kaplan K12 and Kaplan Ventures.

Posted by: mport84 | December 13, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse

Dear Mport, researcher2 and edlharris - thanks for saving me the trouble and expressing your points more clearly and thoroughly than I would have.

Jay - doesn't Michelle Rhee have an opening for a celebrity education writer in her new billion dollar operation?

Posted by: efavorite | December 13, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Poor Jay, If Michelle Rhee had made the decision to reinstating Mr. Jackson, he would have been extolling her decision.

I agree with efavorite, "doesn't Rhee have an opening for a celebrity education writer in her new billion dollar operation?"

Posted by: lacy41 | December 13, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Why is it whenever the Community (teachers/parents etc.) wants to get involved it becomes "politics"? But when the Community is not involved, we get blamed for the shortfalls. Contrary to what you may believe, those who have children there have a right to have their voices heard!!! I'm amazed that you think so highly of FOB, you clearly haven't spent much time in that school...

Posted by: missboo | December 13, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

thanks for the comments. I will be doing more reporting on this, but trying to figure out what went wrong at this point is premature, because we have to see what happens with the different approach that I assume the new administration will take. If that doesn't improve the situation, then I think the point I made in the column is strengthened. Nothing went wrong, at least in the matter of order and disorder, because nothing changed. The Friends of Bedford were unable to make progress because they were denied the tools---more security and tougher rules consistently employed---that have worked, at least for a few years, under good leaders at places like Garfield High. The truth will be that Dunbar continues to have the same problems of other DC schools, like Spingarn which I wrote about earlier in the year, and DCPS has to decide if they want to take serious action about this or not. If the new administration does make headway, then the answer to yr good question is that Bedford didn't follow the same policies. A piece on what went wrong now would be an unsatisfactory mess, because there are too many factors involved in creating the atmosphere of a high school to pick out which factor, or even factors, turned things in the wrong direction. You have to see what happens when something important changes, like the leadership of the school in this case.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 13, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Premature? Seriously, Jay?
I have too many thoughts to write a true response to your post regarding comments and your lack of desire to "figure out what went wrong"
But, why did you write this at the end, "You have to see what happens when something important changes, like the leadership of the school in this case."

The leadership changed when Bedford came in and fired the principal who is now returning. You're seemingly not following your own statements. Why???

Posted by: researcher2 | December 13, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

So, in Year 4 of Rhee / Henderson, Dunbar HS is still a mess, not so different from Springarn HS according to Jay's comment; and who knows that Roosevelt and Coolidge are better, and not just -- by the numbers -- safer?

Blame stubborn school "cultures", or do you blame the students, almost all of whom came would have been shaped by Rhee / Henderson DCPS middle schools?

How to cover-up this profound educational failure? Assign one MPD officer to every seven classrooms to stop attention-getting violence;and find State colleges desperate for portable $10K annual DC Tuition Assistance grants the graduates of these schools can matriculate with.

Posted by: incredulous | December 13, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

For researcher2 and incredulous---You have more faith in the ability of schools and cultures to change fast than I do. According to the teachers Bill and I spoke to, Dunbar has taken a turn for the worse in the last three months. That is not long enough time to judge any trend, or even to know if it is a trend. The stubborn school culture I am referring to have been present in a large number of U.S. urban high schools for decades. I spent a lot of time at Spingarn in the early 2000s, and that kind of stuff was clearly present then. You can legitimately blame Rhee for lots of stuff, but not that culture. She failed to improve the leadership of most of those schools, as far as I can tell, but even now those leaders that she placed and are still in charge have not gotten as much time as is usually needed to make a change. Anacostia High, for instance, has shown little achievement gains, but people who have been there say they see more learning happening, so we have to wait and see how the Friendship group in charge does over the long term. I wish Henderson had taken the same stance on Dunbar.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 13, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse


DCPS schools have been denied the tools needed to be successful for many many years. Now that your boys at FOB failed, you say they were denied the necessary tools to be successful. BULL.

FOB was a failure and Friendship is also a failure at Anacostia. This experiment promoted by you, WP, Rhee and Fenty is a waste of taxpayers money.

You will never admit that you have been had.

Posted by: guylady201001 | December 13, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

So, based on your views on how long it takes to change school culture, how long are you going to give Jackson now that he is back?

Posted by: researcher2 | December 13, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I think at least 3 years is fair. that is why I didn't like Henderson cutting off FOB before that. And if there are some small signs of progress, more than 3 years.

for guylady20100l---Since nothing else had worked for several years, it seemed to me worth a try, and as I said to researcher2 above, we need more time to see how this works out. I am also curious about how Sousa Middle school is doing. that was a Rhee initiative that I was critical of, but nobody seems to remember that. Stereotypes die hard.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 13, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

"...(I)gnore complaints from the parents and lawyers of the most disruptive students..." is A TERRIFIC SUGGESTION! Tragic times may unfold if threats of litigation continue to be misused by the enablers of disruptive students to undermine Dr. King's dream of first-class educational opportunities for all God's children.

Posted by: craigspinks | December 13, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse


This article is just silly. Since when is harassment, violence and general disorder a hallmark of a well-run school? If the teachers see it, then you better believe the students see it and the parents as well. Students who want to go off the rails will do so and parents will get very fed up. Clearly, one young teacher decided to quit instead of remain in the madness at Dunbar.

Why are you giving credit to FoB when they, bottom line, failed to do the job they were paid to do? Managing a high school means more than manufacturing correct answers on a test. As a parent and a teacher, safety, order and *community support* rank higher than standardized test scores. Particularly when the tests are inadequate measures to start with. I find it hard to believe that FoB was doing gangbusters in an academic program while simultaneously permitting disorder on the level of gang assault.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | December 14, 2010 5:32 AM | Report abuse

Jay, you came to the Dunbar issue with a prepared mindset, primed to reach predetermined conclusions. Your effusive and selective review of Gradilla's ghost-written book was part of your lead-in, and it is clear you were in conference with "stakeholders" from one side of this power struggle from before the issue publicly exploded.

You laid out your defense of the indefensible in isolation from the situation "on the ground". You can't or won't reply cogently to the content of Lilly's revelations, or soccermom's statistical deconstruction of Dunbar's academic "gains".

I think I can understand how an "inside track" with the powerful and influential proponents of privatization has propelled your career forward, and shaped your view without any actual sense of collusion on your part. Consider that the aura of power, wealth, and invincible prestige they project is just part of their marketing plan. It won't stand the light of day.

Your integrity is at stake. You are using your WaPo byline to specifically ATTACK parents, community leaders, and teachers without hearing them out. You launched a pre-emptive attack on the mayor-elect before he did anything at all, in defense of the entrenched hidden interests that have dominated DC education for a decade.

In this context, calling Friends of Bedford a "non-profit", still without acknowledging the for-profit underside of privatization, crosses the line. I know you know the Washington Post Corporation has invested in for-profit domination of the public education system's $500 billion revenue stream. So have other entities. What if you find yourself working for Rupert Murdoch? At least he is out in public about it.

"Nothing went wrong, at least in the matter of order and disorder, because nothing changed."

It is time to disclose the Kaplan scams your employer is pursuing in kindergarten through grade 12. You violate the most fundamental trust of journalism every hour, while you fail to do so. You actively enable and support their stealthy and corrupt agenda, so you are not free to ignore the issue.

Posted by: mport84 | December 14, 2010 6:40 AM | Report abuse

for mport84---We do disagree about my intentions, which is fine, but I think most readers know that my work is mostly about great teachers, and great educators in general, very specific stories and books about what they do and why it works. I have championed some teachers, such as Erich Martel, who have fought hard against the powers that be in DC. I also write a great deal about parents and their efforts to change schools, particularly in the Local Living section of the Post, which also run here on the blog. So this sentence of yours:

You are using your WaPo byline to specifically ATTACK parents, community leaders, and teachers without hearing them out.

... is at war with reality. In this particular column, what was I saying about parents, community leaders and teachers? I said they decided they wanted Jackson back. I used admiring adjectives to describe Jackson. I said I hoped he and the administration could find a way to fix Dunbar's problems. I suggested a way they might do that. I said I thought it would be a losing fight because DCPS historically has been unwilling to give high schools the support they needed to change the culture. You need to explain how that is an attack on parents, community leaders and teachers. What it is is an attack on DCPS leaders for the last several decades.
I realize you have decided I fit in a certain box. That is yr privilege. I used to do that when I was a young reporter. But I learned that people are full of surprises, so I hope you will read me with more of an open mind than you display here. I respect yr intelligence and yr ability to look beyond cant and propaganda. I hope you will exercise those same talents in judging me.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 14, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

This is from another particular column, Jay.

"Gray has let disgruntled parents and educators make political points for their side that threaten the academic progress at Dunbar, and has tossed in an unhelpful negative statement of his own."

Posted by: mport84 | December 14, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Right. On reflection, I didnt think that was the right way to put it. I changed my mind. I do that fairly often. I consider it a healthy trait.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 14, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

So do I, Jay; I'm counting on it. I'm trying to talk you over, as we used to say, years ago, in the movement.

You suggested my characterization was at war with reality, because it referred to a statement you made a week ago, also under your WaPo byline. "Reality" has changed a lot, do you think?

Yes, walk it back, by all means. But don't hide from it.

Posted by: mport84 | December 14, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Jay - I think changing one's mind is a healthy trait, too, assuming it's done after careful reflection or upon being faced with new evidence.

I think as a journalist you have a greater responsibility than the average citizen. Your words carry a lot of weight and travel far.

A lot of people believe what they read just because it's in the paper and they figure the person saying it must be very very smart to be a writer for a big paper and must have checked his facts before publishing.

There's nothing healthy about misleading thousands of people.

Posted by: efavorite | December 14, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse

I graduated from from H.D. Woodson back in 1985 and we had a kick butt principal, name Mr. Curry, that did not take no mess from students. For the most part Woodson was one of the better schools, back then. Now Jr. high was a different story, it was a total mess and the same problems you have now in DCPS are the ones we had then. The problem back then as now was allowing disruptive students to remain in school and play the role of pied piper to confusion and crime. Those kids, like the ones now, didn't want to learn and were hell bent on not allowing others to learn either. I wanted so badly to attend a private school, so I could get away from students that didn't take education seriously, but unfortunately my parents could not afford the tuition. Until DCPS grows a pair and kick out those that don't want to learn, DCPS will remain a total mess. You would think after seeing most of their best students flee for charters and other alternatives that those in charge would finally "get it", but they don't and I'm afraid never will.

Posted by: POLOinDC | December 15, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Friends of Bedford are getting a bad rep here. Those guys cleaned up that school and left it in better condition than what they found it. Also, from what I hear from the community, the lady from FoB is doing a dynamic job while the principal does absolutely nothing but intimidate the teachers. It is a shame that DC is so close minded and don't want to accept change. If things weren't so political, we wouldn't have to bring someone from the outside in to teach our kids. I mean it's a shame. I encourage all readers to get the facts before believing some of this crap!!!! BTW, there are many teachers who support this group but they are afraid to speak out in fear of getting IMPACTED OUT!!!!!!!!! Has anyone talked to the kids? What are they saying?

Posted by: realistic6 | December 15, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse

"...the tools---more security and tougher rules consistently employed---that have worked..."

Sounds fairly straightforward. So what's the problem then at Dunbar? Why can't there be tougher rules consistently employed? Who is preventing this from occurring and why? Who is beating around the bush here?

Sounds like the school could use someone to enforce the rules, regardless. Or, are there extenuating circumstances no one wants to talk about?

Rhee was certainly a no-nonsense, take no prisoners kind of administrator. And she couldn't get Dunbar on the right track? Something stinks here and it stinks real bad.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 16, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

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