Keeping the D.C. schools on track
By Victor Reinoso
In the wake of the District’s contentious mayoral primary, education advocates, journalists and interest groups are cheering or fearing the end of education reform in this city. It is too soon for either. Presumptive mayor Vincent Gray has pledged to continue reform but not yet provided details of his plans or the key players on his team.
Given the challenges facing our schools, it’s vital that the progress made over the past three years continue. Here are a few areas that can serve as a barometer of whether the city remains on track or is slowing down.
· Teacher professional development and evaluation. Under Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, spending on professional development more than quadrupled, and it shifted from centralized teacher training to targeted school-based and job-embedded training. The $75 million federal Race to the Top grant commits the District to a critical tool: an online professional development platform that will align teacher training to individualized teacher needs.
As a corollary, the role of principals as instructional leaders must be strengthened. Any chancellor must be free to hire, fire and make other placement decisions without political interference. In turn, principals must be accountable for how well they support and manage instruction, including evaluating teachers and other staff in a way that correlates with student achievement and teacher performance. The IMPACT evaluation system must remain a key tool for principals and administrators; while some refinement may be warranted, changes should be minimal.
· Evaluations with consequence. When IMPACT ratings are completed next summer, teachers rated ineffective, or minimally effective for a second year, will be subject to dismissal. Those rated highly effective will be eligible for performance bonuses. Sudden shifts at either end of the distribution of teacher ratings should trigger concern. It’s vital that accountability continue unimpeded; that means honest evaluations, rewarding high performers and dismissing low performers.
· High expectations for all students. We must ensure that every student is ready for college. Increases in career and technical education (21st-century vocational technology) cannot be used as a Trojan horse for lowered expectations. Even struggling students should be exposed to foreign languages and Advanced Placement courses if we are to create one city where students can pursue any opportunity regardless of family circumstances.
· Aggressive school turnarounds. The Race to the Top award commits the District to initiating the turnaround of the lowest-performing 20 percent of public and charter schools over the next four years. Doing so will require the school district to close some schools and to expand the number of schools managed in partnership with third parties, including charters. Historically, parents and unions have initially resisted these aggressive reforms, but the success of partnerships under Fenty and Rhee demonstrates their promise. The number of such partnerships should rise.
· Public school classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds. Experience here and elsewhere demonstrates that public-school-based pre-K and preschools are powerful drivers in turning around school performance and enrollment. We should continue the sharp increase in the number of public pre-K classrooms as well as innovations such as blending local and Head Start funding.
· Special education. Under the Fenty administration, significant progress was made particularly regarding early intervention and progress toward exiting long-standing court decrees. Increased capacity to serve special-needs students in a public school environment is critical to reducing outsized special-education spending. Last fiscal year, for the first time since 2004, the District spent less on non-public tuition than it did during the prior fiscal year. The new administration should continue these initiatives and reinvest the resulting savings in schools to raise the level of service for all students.
·End of “high-risk” designation. Under Fenty, progress was made in detailing and addressing the poor management and record-keeping associated with federal grants that earned the District a “high-risk” designation. While gaps remain, continuing these efforts should allow the city to exit high-risk status in one to two years.
· Willingness to innovate and upset. Successful reform requires having the stomach to ditch what doesn’t work, follow through on what does and try what might, even when such action unsettles stakeholders. Fenty and Rhee took chances on performance pay, Saturday school and a middle school arts magnet. Promising ideas yielding results in other jurisdictions include longer school days and years, single-sex classrooms and schools, and scheduling extracurricular activities throughout the day instead of after school. If in four years everyone who has been quoted criticizing the Fenty-Rhee team says they are happy, residents will know something isn’t right.
Progress over the past three years has yielded historic improvements reflected in academic gains across all racial and socioeconomic groups as well as the first increase in D.C. public school enrollment since 1971. If a Gray administration can maintain and expand momentum in these and other areas, we will all benefit.
The writer is the District’s deputy mayor for education.
| October 9, 2010; 10:01 PM ET
Categories: D.C., D.C. politics, HotTopic, education
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