Will Gray retreat on school reform? Here are 5 tests
By Richard Whitmire
On Oct. 24, soon-to-be-departed D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty wrote a farewell in The Post’s Outlook section: “We’ve done our best. Now it’s up to you.” Wisely, and appropriately, they kept their message at 30,000 feet. The big picture.
Allow me to address worried parents at ground level. How will you know if likely future mayor Vincent Gray succumbs to virulent anti-Rhee sentiment among some of his supporters and shifts her radical school reform agenda into neutral, to the kind of feel-good reforms seen in many urban districts. That is, just enough tinkering to trigger positive headlines but not enough to upset anyone — or really help students improve.
As Rhee indelicately put it just days after the primary, that would be “devastating” for D.C. students.
When it comes to education, Gray’s heart appears to be in the right place. He seems sincere when vowing to continue education reform. Certainly, his approval of Kaya Henderson as interim chancellor — Rhee’s close friend and deputy chancellor — is a positive sign. But let’s be real. The pressure to ease off Rhee’s reforms will be intense.
In Washington, much of the recent bump in enrollment comes from middle-class families, black and white, enrolling their sons and daughters in pre-K programs. I’ve interviewed some of those families. Rhee gave them confidence, while Gray worries them. If they sense that Gray will scale back the D.C. reforms, they will want to look for charter schools, private schools or a new home in the suburbs.
Here are five indicators that might help parents searching for clues about the future of the city’s schools. If any of the following pop up in the news, it’s time to worry:
1. Gray appoints a panel of experts to “evaluate” IMPACT.
IMPACT is D.C.’s new teaching bible that describes in great detail what good teaching looks like and holds teachers accountable for carrying it out. IMPACT may be a work in progress, but it’s still a generation ahead of anything used by other school districts.
The District’s new contract showered potential bonuses on 663 teachers faring well under IMPACT’s sophisticated evaluation system, but another 737 teachers rated “minimally effective” face termination next year if they don’t improve. Because teacher firings were a big reason Fenty lost, Gray faces enormous pressures to stop the raised ax from falling. What better way to do so than to appoint a commission designed to “improve” IMPACT? Problem is, the gains seen in D.C. schools hinge on dismissing more ineffective teachers.
2. Jason Kamras leaves.
Never heard of him, right? He’s the former national teacher of the year (won while teaching in D.C. schools) who invented IMPACT. The only way I can see him staying is if Gray strongly commits to staying the course on teacher issues. So if Kamras leaves, the first question to ask is: Why?
3. Patrick Pope gets reappointed principal at Hardy Middle School.
Pope was a good principal at Hardy; his Rhee-appointed replacement, Dana Nerenberg, is every bit as good. On its current course, Hardy could become the best middle school in the city. When Rhee moved to strengthen Hardy as a neighborhood school while assigning Pope to design a city-wide arts magnet, her actions were educationally correct but politically wrong. On primary day, the anger the Hardy controversy stirred up hurt Fenty. Especially damaging was the (false) impression that Rhee cared mostly about white families.
So why worry about Pope coming back? Neighborhood families would see that as a not-entirely-welcome sign, and it would be a symbolic indicator that DCPS will always be a racially isolated school district. Simply put: Our urban districts never succeed without drawing in families of all colors and incomes.
4. DCPS starts hiring back fired teachers.
Some good teachers got laid off in the reduction-in-force for reasons that had nothing to do with their competency: enrollment drops, teaching a subject that wasn’t needed at their school. But not that many. A few symbolic hire-backs would be a great move by Gray to mollify his supporters. But if it goes beyond a handful, buyers beware.
5. School reconstitutions cease.
When a failing school is turned upside down for a restart, the new principal gets to decide which teachers are effective and thereby invited to stay. This is as it should be. A handpicked, energized staff is what makes the takeovers (as at Dunbar) and makeovers (as at Eastern) work, and these are probably Rhee’s most promising reforms. But under the new contract, those “uninvited” teachers are no longer guaranteed jobs elsewhere in the system, triggering the firings Gray’s supporters want stopped.
So how many of these five does it take to sound an alarm? Only the first indicator, slowing down IMPACT, should on its own scare parents away. So much hinges on IMPACT. As for the rest, maybe a couple could be tolerated. Beyond that, worry is warranted.
Richard Whitmire is author of “The Bee Eater,” a biography of Michelle Rhee to be released by Jossey-Bass in January.
| October 26, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: D.C., D.C. politics, Fenty, HotTopic, Va. Politics, Vincent Gray
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