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D.C. Schools Total Reform Plan #477

D.C. schools superintendent Clifford Janey's announcement this week of a Master Educational Plan sent me into a deja vu tizzy, and before I knew what had happened, I was swimming in huge piles of paper--the accumulated reports from a generation of schools chiefs, each purporting to lay out the comprehensive plan that would turn one of the nation's most troubled and difficult school systems into a gem, or at least into something that doesn't sentence children to life on the bottom rung of society.

If you can stand it, follow me down memory lane:

From the Post, May 27, 1989:

D.C. School Report 'Revolutionary'

By Rene Sanchez, Washington Post Staff Writer

D.C. school board President Linda W. Cropp, emerging from a board retreat with civic leaders studying the city's schools, said late yesterday that the group's new report will become a blueprint for educational change in the city.

"I think the school system is going to be on the cutting edge, making dramatic changes that will rock education in our city," Cropp said. "The feeling now is, 'We can be pioneers.' "

In its preliminary report, the 60-member task force says the city must overhaul its schools, get more money from the D.C. government, and work harder to assist its 88,000 students, many of whom live in neighborhoods torn by violence and drug abuse.

Its suggestions include lengthening the school day, extending the school year, and creating classes for all 3-year-olds for the first time.

The group, known as the D.C. Public Education Committee, also wants to close or merge at least 10 schools with low enrollment, cut 400 administrative jobs in the school system, revise curriculums, toughen graduation requirements and improve the pay of teachers and principals.

The committee contends that school officials could sell or lease properties and collect more than $ 50 million for repairs on other schools it needs.

In 1978, then-Superintendent Vincent E. Reed tried closing 23 schools with low enrollments; the board agreed to shut nine. And in 1982, Reed's successor, Floretta D. McKenzie, proposed closing 14 underenrolled schools. The school board, again under community pressure to keep schools open, balked at nearly all of her suggestions.

In the seven years since then, there has been little talk of school closings, though the system has lost about 6,000 more students.

"During the retreat, there were not any strong feelings against the need to close some schools," Cropp said, "but we aren't prepared yet to say where those schools are."

Jump ahead a few years, to December 1993:

Schools superintendent Franklin Smith proposes a "radical" reform plan that proposes, as the Post reported then, "to put 10 to 15 schools under private management, decentralize power and decrease central office staff by 202 people, hire a private educational company to give guidance and instruction to low-achieving 11th- and 12th-graders, and give a Fortune 500 company management and operational control of a high school."

Within months, the plan is dead.

Three years later, August 1996:

School board chairman Jay Silberman pushes a "comprehensive plan, 'Accelerating Education Reform in the District of Columbia,'" which he says "cogently addresses issues of performance, accountability, resources, training, curriculum, standards, governance and operational streamlining. It is a visionary blueprint, and it will work if the city's collective will and commitment are brought to the task."

May 1997: After the D.C. Control Board took over the city schools and installed a real live general, Julius Becton, as the head of the system, the general learned a lesson about the reality of the schools. From a Post magazine piece by Peter Perl and Debbi Wilgoren that year:

[School food service chief Betty] Wiggins reported that she was having her managers fill out the forms rather than her nearly 600 workers, as intended. [One of Becton's deputies, former Army General Charles] Williams looked at her quizzically.

"I have folks who cannot read," she said. ". . . I have mentally retarded people and people who just can't read and write."

Williams recoiled slightly. "We have people who can't read?"

"Yes, sir."

"How do they know if they are putting salt or pepper in something?"

Wiggins frowned and shook her head.

"We also have the same situation with custodial people and engineering," said Harold Johnson, chief of maintenance and facilities. "They cannot read, and they have problems writing."

"They cannot read?" Williams looked stunned.

"Yes, sir," Wiggins and Johnson answered. Others at the table nodded.

Williams spoke firmly. "I have as big a heart as anyone, but we are not running a training factory here . . . I have to have the names, and we have to do something."

Wiggins explained that she had as many as 17 retarded people on the payroll, including some "who sit and don't do anything."

"Betty," Williams said, "that was a government dump, and we can't operate a program that way anymore."

Williams clearly was shaken, but characteristically positive. "This shows the value of the accountability report," he declared. "This is good news. This is how an accountability system works."

Afterward, his managers would estimate that one-tenth to one-quarter of the support staff was illiterate. They would adapt the new system to account for this.

Only later would Williams have a chance to reflect on the fact that most of these functionally illiterate adults were a product of the school system he and Becton had pledged to fix.

Next superintendent: Arlene Ackerman. She too announced a grand plan for total reform. And then she too learned a lesson:

From a 1998 story by the Post's Valerie Strauss:

Arlene Ackerman found out just how screwy some D.C. school operations can be when she tried to change her address in the system's central computer -- only to have her file, including payroll information, disappear from the records altogether.

Given the antiquated infrastructure of the District's beleaguered public school system, even such a seemingly simple exercise as submitting a change of address card to update her computer profile had unfortunate consequences.

"I was just dropped out of the system," chuckled Ackerman, who was then deputy superintendent but became chief executive two weeks ago. "There are basic kinds of things [like this] that I once took for granted."

Ackerman's big reform plan was soon cut back by budget reductions:

"We'll have to cut back on reform initiatives," Ackerman told the trustees. Key improvements may have to wait yet another year, and one of Ackerman's aides privately posited the question: "Do you get the sense that the reform effort is dying?"

2002: Superintendent Paul Vance issued a plan to fix the D.C. school system's high schools by improving teacher training, strengthening requirements for graduation and giving principals more authority.

The Post reported:

The 76-page report also calls for using new ways to measure the performance of principals and says that students need to be given end-of-course exams in subjects such as algebra and English.

And now the Janey report. The good news is that the superintendent promises to follow up on the plan with specifics about closing down some of the city's many empty or nearly-empty schools, naming names later this spring. If Janey can withstand the political nonsense that bubbles over whenever specific schools are threatened with closing (funny how school supporters are suddenly born when buildings are about to be shuttered, but are nowhere in sight when principals crave community and parent support), then he stands a chance of gaining the new resources that can help create the single thing the D.C. system needs most: A few--a handful, or even two or three--solidly achieving, safe and inviting schools that can lure families back from the charter schools, private and parochial schools and the suburbs.

That is not a very tall order. Unlike the grand changes in Janey's master plan, it is achievable within a reasonable amount of time. And it has the potential to transform the entire system because it brings into the D.C. schools people who have the knowhow and the time and resources to put the schools atop the political agenda for the city. And the schools in every neighborhood will only improve once the state of the schools becomes an urgent issue for the city's political class.

Until then, you can add the Janey report, which runs more than 120 pages, to the groaning shelf of education plans that have left far too many of Washington's schoolchildren thoroughly ill-equipped to better themselves in the years ahead.

By Marc Fisher |  March 2, 2006; 6:56 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Your article quite rightly states that the DC schools will get better when principals have "the authority to hire passionate teachers . . . ." (And, I might add, fire the underperformers.) But Mr. Fisher and his colleagues at The Post need to do a better job of explaining why these situations exist. Why don't DC principals have this authority?

My children attend a high-performing DC public elementary school in upper Northwest. The vast majority of teachers are excellent -- far more skilled, in fact, than the teachers I encountered when one of my children was in a private school. Unfortunately, we have suffered through a handful of teachers and staff members who "bumped" in to the school via absurd union rules. The principal has no say over who comes into the school this way. Paul Vance approved the union contract that contains this rule and if Superintendent Janey is serious about school reform, he will not allow this provision to stand. Negotiations are ongoing between the union and Janey with regard to the Collective Barganing Agreement. All DC parents should weigh in on this important issue and The Post should assist parents in getting involved in the issue by thoroughly covering the issues at stake in these negotiations.

Posted by: DC public school parent | March 2, 2006 10:07 AM

You might compare the DC schools history to the repeated promises and plans for better management of the Federal government. Remember McNamara's PPB system which was going to be spread across the government? Remember Carter's zero based budgeting? Remember the Grace Commission? Remember management by objective? Remember Total Quality Management? Remember Business Process Reengineering? Remember Reinventing Government? Each new broom has its own plan.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw | March 2, 2006 11:18 AM

I graduated from a DC public high school over 15 years ago. There were three huge problems then and it hasn't changed: a teachers' union with more power than sense; too much control "downtown" and not enough with the principals, and deferred maintenance. What difference does it make if you start high school in 8th or 9th grade if you don't have the books, the teachers, or the facilities?

Posted by: RC | March 2, 2006 11:30 AM

Nice blog.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 3, 2006 6:16 AM

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