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Schools Monday: 20 Questions for the New Chancellor

When Michelle Rhee, Mayor Adrian Fenty's choice to take over the D.C. school system, appears before the D.C. Council for her confirmation hearing today, the temptation will be to focus on her lack of experience in Washington, as a schools chief or even as a principal or teacher. But the bottom line is that she will be confirmed, so there's little point in centering on Rhee's credentials or the gaps in her preparation.

I'd far rather see the council members try to push Rhee off the festival of vague responses that she has thus far provided--check out this chat she did here on the big site and tell me if you can find a single straightforward, meaty answer to a question.

Here are 20 suggested questions that might give us a better sense of where Rhee hopes to take the D.C. system and how well equipped she is to start turning the old battleship around:

1. Who are you going to bring with you to be your allies in the system's executive suite, and how are you planning to figure out who is trustworthy in the permanent bureaucracy?

2. Successful new superintendents often make a point of sacking a slew of the managers who have been at the forefront of resisting change. Will you embrace the need to fire recalcitrant and incompetent administrators and principals?

3. Conversely, what are your strategies for bringing on board long-term principals whose support you will need to have any hope of reforming what happens in the classrooms?

4. Similarly, many veteran teachers have seen superintendents come and go so often that they brazenly say the new chief can't make them do anything. How will you win over the more experienced half of the teaching force?

5. It's totally unfair and yet it's simply a fact that your arrival is immediately seen through the prism of race. What are your strategies for confronting the view that this school system, where nine in ten students are black, should be run by a black superintendent or chancellor?

6. This system suffers from a longstanding paucity of parent involvement, as well as a failure to protect teachers from a relative handful of very aggressive parents, some of whom make threats against teachers. How will you show teachers that you will act against those parents while also building ways to get more parents involved in constructive ways?

7. Do you plan to restore the art, music and physical education instruction that have suffered drastic cuts since the imposition of No Child Left Behind? How?

8. Schools in Fairfax and Montgomery counties have achieved impressive gains in black student performance on Advanced Placement tests, while Prince George's County has channeled more black kids into those courses without seeing an appreciable improvement in how well those students perform on the tests. What lessons do you draw from the different approaches of those systems and how do you plan to address rigor in the D.C. schools?

9. How important is it to the future and reputation of the system to lure a substantial number of middle class and affluent families back to the D.C. schools from private and charter schools?

10. What's your view of the need for the District to create and tout a small number of marquee schools that stress high achievement and absolute standards as part of an overall goal of luring more middle class and affluent families back to the public schools?

11. If you favor the marquee schools concept, how would you sell it to parents whose first concern is the far more numerous body of students who perform poorly and need the most academic help? And which schools would you choose to use as marquee schools?

12. What's your attitude toward public-private partnerships for the renovation of school facilities, such as the plan that has been proposed for Janney Elementary in Tenleytown? Do you favor selling school buildings in places that are likely never to have much school-age population, such as the system's various facilities in downtown Washington?

13. How much of the system's financial woes are attributable to the enormous number of special education cases that end up as legal battles? How do you plan to break the stranglehold that special education lawyers have on the system?

14. Everybody talks about adding rigor to the curriculum but when push comes to shove, standards are usually watered down so as to prevent the PR nightmare of widespread failure on standardized tests. How would you go about instilling rigor in a system where kids often just pass through, emerging with poor skills or none at all?

15. While the system has many good and energetic teachers, it also has a large cadre of teachers who believe that D.C's school age population cannot learn and therefore should not be challenged. How can you persuade those teachers to raise their expectations of poorly prepared students?

16. Should the D.C. schools break the 180-day, summers-off traditional school calendar and move to year-round education? How would you accomplish that?

17. Despite decades of efforts to stop them from continuing an illegal practice, many D.C. schools still include prayer in their assemblies and student gatherings. Will you stop this practice and how would you accomplish that?

18. You attended a selective private school from seventh through twelfth grades. As you have pledged to send your own children to D.C. schools, how do you expect their education to compare with your own?

19. Why should taxpayers and this council believe that the D.C. system will now be in any better position to implement the findings and recommendations of the outside consultants that Mayor Fenty has hired to examine the school system than the D.C. system was after the many previous reports by outside consultants?

20. What are the concrete pieces of evidence that we should look for in one, two and five years to be able to judge the system's progress?

Add your questions--the hearing takes place today as follows:


"Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools Michelle Rhee Confirmation Resolution of 2007″, PR 17-0318. To confirm the Mayoral appointment of Ms. Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools.

By Marc Fisher |  July 2, 2007; 7:27 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Until a majority of the parents of students in DC public schools start giving a damn enough to raise hell and demand good schools nothing will happen. More of the same old same old. First cahnge I would make is everyone below me has to reapply for their job and the union contract goes out the window I would prefer forever but for at least 5 years.
Fenty will find the entrenched bureaucracy
just to difficult to kick out. Valiant effort but it will survive because the parents dont care enough.

Posted by: vaherder | July 2, 2007 8:10 AM

The irony of Private School Parent Marc telling the Council what questions it should ask of the new Public Schools Chancellor. Gee, Marc, did you solicit contributions from your friends whose kids go to Wilson and Deal?

Posted by: RL | July 2, 2007 9:22 AM

Marc: Your question number 7, regarding plans to restore art, music and physical education instruction -- if Ms. Rhee intends DCPS to adhere to established national standards, this must be communicated to Mr. Lew immediately so that facilities shortcomings are no longer an excuse to deny the arts and physical exercise to Washington's children.

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 2, 2007 10:26 AM

I already like Ms. Rhee. She was smart enough to be as vague as possible so she won't be devoured by the local press before she even has a chance to get started.

So question 21 is: How can you continue to be as vague and elusive as possible with the local press while still improving school facilities, student performance, teacher training, etc.

Posted by: pgres | July 2, 2007 11:00 AM

She wasn't vauge with the press she was vague with taxpaying citizens of Washington, DC in that chat. It was annoyng. Do you really want Mrs. Rhee to have no media oversight at all? How will you know whether what she's doing is working?

Posted by: Omar | July 2, 2007 11:20 AM

Total crap, Marc (especially if your kids are in private schools - mine aren't). Only question 20 is relevant - the rest are all leading. School prayer? Marquee schools? AP results in Fairfax/MoCo vs. PG? Year-round school year?

Bottom line is that Fenty's executing an ambitious plan to fix the exterior (Lew) and the interior (Rhee) problems impacting DC schools - problems that have festered for decades. You're just as bad as all the other naysayers (if not worse, given your high-profile column) in taking jabs at the mayor - what, you want more of the same?

Posted by: Rob Iola | July 2, 2007 11:27 AM

Please, did you really expect her to lay out her entire plan in a chat. And if you read my post, I said "before she has a chance to get started." Of course she has to be accountable but give her a minute, she hasn't even been confirmed. Relax...

Posted by: pgres | July 2, 2007 11:28 AM

Omar: Grades improve. More students graduate high school. More high school graduates go to college. Those are indicative of improvement.

Talking to the press has been done for years with no positive results for the kids. Which would you rather have? Sound bites on the 5 o'clock news or your child graduating high school with a college acceptance letter (maybe even a scholarship)?

Posted by: SoMD | July 2, 2007 11:31 AM

I am seeing repeated reference to the Union - scraping the contract, evil Union demanding so much, etc. - yet it does not seem that anyone actually knows what the DC Teacher's Union does or does not do. When administrators do not follow the contract, nothing is done. For example, teachers are supposed to receive about $25/hour for missing their planning period (vital, if used correctly). Yet, the teachers that do try to claim this time are told that they are not being "team players" and the hours are not submitted. After the scandals they casued, the Union in DC is impotent, sometimes to the detriment of fairness to the teachers. I would be interested to see what "over-the-top" Union demands posters would like to scrap. How much worse can DC teachers be treated by the very system for which they work? You get what you give in many cases.

Posted by: knowthefacts | July 2, 2007 11:51 AM

First, Mayor Fenty blocks Mayor Williams from taking over the school. Becomes Mayor and it is priority number 1 (non-campaign issue. However, your children are not enrolled in DCPS

Second, You hire a Deputy Mayor with 5 reports (estimated cost $500K). A plagurized plan is put together for school takeover.

Third, Janney is fired, but all plans for Education and Buildings that were written under his tenure will be used. Don'tforget his buyout package.

Fourth, You hire a new chancellor and Building supervisor at $500K cost.

After $1M you will have the same changes implemented that were already started. The school system still needs improved parenting, mentoring and a chance to institute change. The earliest results should not be expected for almost 1 1/2 years.

Posted by: Just Thinking | July 2, 2007 12:18 PM

People asked her questions. Not the hated MSM, but regular everyday people. It wouldn't hurt her to give more than basic answers to the questions that are on the citizen's minds. Her relationships with the residents of DC is important to her success. I felt she could have made better use of that forum and outlined some general ideas of the direction she's headed in. Instead she gave residents vague, useless answers. Hey, I want her to succeed but I think she failed her first course of communications 101 with DC residents.

SoMD, yes grades improve and kids go to college but all that stuff can be cooked by willing parties. DC Schools have demonstrated nothing gets done without concerned parents getting involved. One of the ways we learn about the flaws and weaknesses in the schools is a determined media digging through every source to find out what's going on.

I don't like the secrecy of this Fenty administration. They act like they have something to hide and don't want their ideas vetted in the public forum. We voted him in office and we deserve to know what he and the people he's hired are doing.

Posted by: Omar | July 2, 2007 5:34 PM

Omar - buddy, haven't you been watching? Fenty's been a whirlwind of activity, working his butt off to make the city a better place. You want solid answers re Rhee? Check out her answers and the testimony about her results from Monday's Council meeting - she's solid gold for the city! And it's not just Rhee, but Fenty's got Lew working to fix the schools. He's working hard - give the man some credit and support.

Posted by: Rob Iola | July 2, 2007 11:18 PM

Re: # 9, charter schools ARE D.C. schools.

("9. How important is it to the future and reputation of the system to lure a substantial number of middle class and affluent families back to the D.C. schools from private and charter schools?")

Posted by: Charter Mom | July 3, 2007 8:39 AM

Omar - agreed. The involvement of the parents is critical to the success of the school system.

Question 1: If the parents have not been involved before now, why not?

Question 2: Since we both agree it is the parents responsibility to be involved, why is it Ms. Rhee's job to get the parents to do their job?

Posted by: SoMD | July 3, 2007 9:16 AM

One thing she did say on the topic of parental involvement that was really important:

"That said, involvement and engagement looks different for different people. I've never met a parent who didn't want their child to excel in school and have the opportunity to attend college. "

She understands cultural differences.

Posted by: pgres | July 3, 2007 11:33 AM

Re: # 9, charter schools ARE D.C. schools.

heh heh. no they aren't.

Posted by: DCer | July 3, 2007 2:01 PM

Here's my question:

When I attended free public elementary school in MoCo almost all the teachers had master's degrees the principle and two other teachers had PhDs. We had a 15 yr old building. We had three large fields (football/soccer, baseball, and general play). We all took AP classes in high school and every one of my friends was accepted to at least one college. I want to send my kids to private school, but two kids at Sidwell would be almost $60,000 per year. How can DC schools support PhD parents who know what good schools are but who cannot afford private school in this overheated economy? What plans, such as PTA-funded academic aftercare, will be put in place?

Posted by: DCer | July 3, 2007 2:13 PM

SoMD, your first questions is one I can't answer with any certainty. It is a question that need to be answered in order for DC schools to have any success.

It is her responsibility to try to get parents involved. She's the face of DC schools and needs to develop a plan to include parents and encourage them to be involved. Without active parents the whole thing falls apart and she will join the other superintendents on the trash heap.

Posted by: Omar | July 5, 2007 12:35 PM

you will soon be getting a tremondous new cheif of staff for your school district. The work this person did in Cleveland was totally overshadowed by the lack of financial aide the city had. She was the one shining star in that school board system. Cleveland's loss is your gain.

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