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Schools Monday: Celebrating Mediocrity

This Thursday evening, the enablers of the D.C. school system's decades of mediocrity will gather for what is being billed as "a celebration of the work and contributions of former Superintendent Clifford Janey." Sponsored by DC Voice, one of the many non-profits that have worked around the edges of the system for years without making much of a difference in the schools themselves, this "Night of Appreciation" is being advertised as an act of "Respecting the Past."

More like celebrating failure, really.

There's no question that Janey was treated shabbily by Mayor Adrian Fenty, who sent the schools chief packing in the most demeaning and snide manner possible. Janey learned that he was out in an 11:30 p.m. phone call, his email account was canceled and his cell phone silenced a few hours later, and he was not permitted back into his office to clear out his things.

But the mayor's poor treatment of the ousted superintendent in no way justifies a celebration of Janey's overly contemplative and sluggish approach to the job of reshaping the city's school system. Janey was a nice guy who had some good ideas about what direction the D.C. schools should move in. But he never seemed to have the slightest sense of urgency about the schools or the children sentenced to rot in them. Not on curriculum, not on instilling rigor in schools that haven't seen it for decades, and not even on what should be the easy part of the fix--the buildings.

Janey did announce a $75 million "repair blitz" early this year, but Fenty's new school facilities chief, Allen Lew, was disappointed to find upon taking office that the summer blitz that was to assure that basic repairs be completed by the time school opens next month has not even started. "The contractors haven't been hired," Lew told WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi. "The procurement won't be done till August." So Lew is retooling the effort to focus on broken bathrooms and leaky roofs, postponing work on heating systems until the fall.

"The blitz program hasn't been started," Lew said, noting that some buildings don't even have enough electrical capacity to support the air conditioning or computers that Janey repeatedly promised he was putting inside those buildings.

Janey deluded himself into thinking that modest improvements at central headquarters would somehow translate into a different experience for kids in schools. He focused, for example, on equipping schools with computers without taking into account that many school buildings lack the electrical capacity to handle new technologies, and that many schools that do have computers leave the machines locked up in inaccessible closets because they don't have staff who know how to run the equipment or because they fear that the machines will be vandalized or stolen.

Yet Janey, in an accounting of his purported accomplishments, boasted about facts that simply made no sense to those who had actually visited the schools:

In the fall of 2005, DCPS had 68 schools that were not fully wired for computer network and Internet access. Today, 43 of those previously unwired schools are now wired. All schools in the system are now connected to the DCPS network and the system operates 10 times faster than it did two years ago. This will bring network and Internet access into every classroom, learning space, and most administrative areas within these schools.

There's no reason to think that Janey didn't try his best. But he was nobody's first, second or even third choice to be superintendent, and his lax attitude and sluggish pace were part of the reason for that initial skepticism. Sadly, he never did anything to change the minds of school board members and others who were in on the last superintendent search. Now, he's playing the petulant loser, making outlandish demands for a massive severance package and refusing to take calls from his successor. Celebrating his tenure seems the worst possible signal to send about standards and goals in a school system that once again stands at the starting gate.

By Marc Fisher |  July 16, 2007; 7:00 AM ET
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Council testimony by Mr. Lew indicates that the Janey Summer Blitz did not even adequately describe needed repairs at each school, so it is a blessing - though a small one - that work had not started. Any current DCPS administrative personnel charged with repair assessment should swiftly follow Mr. Janey out the door -- or the window, if the door is not working.

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 16, 2007 8:03 AM

Ahh, The District of Columbia Schools--- Celebrating Social Promotion !

Posted by: jmsbh | July 16, 2007 9:45 AM

Hey, it's DC, 'nough said.

Posted by: Md | July 16, 2007 9:53 AM

Mr. Fisher please be fair and balanced. Draw an accurate distincton between the burocratic sluggishness inherent with the system that Janey was forced to operate under and that which not exists with Mayoral control over the schools. When Anthony Williams sought to takeover schools and hold himself accountable to them, the Post and the District balked.

You and your newspaper are hypocrits and no longer worthy of serious unbiased contemplation.

As much as I dislike Conservative discourse, I fully intend on switching my paid subscription to the Washington Times.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 16, 2007 9:56 AM

Sorry, Eric, but...

If what you described re: Janey's lack of performance was nearly accurate he was not treated shabbily.

1. He did not perform up to the standards he was hired to meet.
2. He did not perform up to the promises he made.
3. He was paid a lot of money.

Fenty did the right thing in the right way, just as any employer would. Your fired! The security guards will help you empty your personal items from your desk and you will be out of the building by the end of business, today.

If more of that went on in the DCPS bureaucracy, more teaching would happen, more students would be adequately equipped, and there would be a better prepared group of students finishing the DCPS system.

Posted by: mikes | July 16, 2007 11:17 AM

Sorry, grammatical error: You're fired!

Posted by: mikes | July 16, 2007 11:19 AM

Why do people feel the need to throw these parties in the first place? Why would you throw a going-away bash for someone who was FIRED?

Posted by: John | July 16, 2007 11:48 AM

I'm embarrased as a public school parent - and supporter of the system - that this party is happening. We need to get beyond Janney NOW and keep moving - not harp on his accomplishments or lack thereof, much less celebrate them. Our priorities are so backwards.

Posted by: DC Mom | July 16, 2007 12:15 PM

I'm embarrased as a public school parent - and supporter of the system - that this party is happening. We need to get beyond Janney NOW and keep moving - not harp on his accomplishments or lack thereof, much less celebrate them. Our priorities are so backwards.

Posted by: DC Mom | July 16, 2007 12:15 PM

Please forgive my longhand response on this critically important subject. However, you will understand near the end.

First, having worked in the Office of Superintendent for DCPS several years ago (under Ackerman and Vance), I have an insider's insight about its systemic problems and solutions. As a DCPS parent, grandparent, and longtime public policy activist I have a big picture perspective as well.

As many longtime Washingtonians, critical observers and newcomers have noticed, District government continues to affirm our growing local culture of low expectations. Genuine leadership and certified experience in D.C. is now defined as anyone who is successful at getting elected or appointed to public office. Proven expertise, exceptional credentials and comprehensive plans that are truly open to the public are no longer the standard.

Testimony at the D.C. Council's confirmation hearings for education officers Victor Reinoso, Allen Lew, and Michelle Rhee prove this point. On one hand Mr. Reinoso's relatively minimal credentials for Deputy Mayor for Education are hyped, yet he is excused at this stage and his age for not understanding the lack of professional integrity and competence behind plagiarism. All responsible parents and teachers struggle to hold our children to a higher standard of honesty and accountability.

Education is our most critical tool for socioeconomic development. Mayor Fenty and the Council's minimal standards and practices regarding Mr. Lew indicate another example of low expectations and dubious credentials. Remember, this is the same Allen Lew who's been one of the chefs cooking the books regarding the Washington Nationals baseball stadium development. Our limited and valuable tax dollars are at work, as council member Jack Evans recently acknowledged to Tommy Wells in hearings that the stadium's final cost is a new and larger layer of D.C. debt. Yes, Mr. Lew is the same person that angered the Council and numerous public observers by his tactics of misinformation, disinformation and delayed information to the Council last year on stadium construction financing.

At the very least, Mr. Lew's appointment to be executive director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization represents a new low in administrative inbreeding and sole source corruption. I pray that we all as taxpayers vigilantly follow the money after his confirmation.

Then there's Ms. Rhee, a truly likeable and attentive individual whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk with recently. Despite her seemingly fabulous façade of professionalism and overhyped background in education, her bottom line credentials and expertise as a chancellor candidate have major experience holes. We can do better. Yes, WE CAN! You simply cannot fake managing a multibillion-dollar urban school system. The leadership, logistics and long term perspective required to effectively manage any major city system is not like amateur night at the Apollo Theater. Far more talent and technique is demanded, and justifiably expected. Acting like you know just won't cut it over the long term.

The common agreement among most proponents and opponents of Mr. Fenty's appointees is that we need systemic and measurable improvements in our public schools. No doubt, I fully agree. However, unquestionable or certifiable excellence at every level should be our standard. Change for the sake of change is not synonymous with better or best. Giving the appearance of "involvement" and "communicating" with parents is not the same as formulating systemic solutions to assist parents and students with related socioeconomic difficulties beyond the school door. Sacrificing quality at the top, and in the beginning of a long process for systemic improvement, has previously proven to have disastrous results both in D.C., and even in national policy. Did anyone bother to interview or assess the District's numerous 20-year plus star educators consistently ignored or passed over as executive educator candidates?

We can no longer academically or fiscally afford another series of untested and unfulfilled experiments on our children. We suffer from serial superintendents (now chancellor), and the excessive expense to pay them or buyout their contracts when they leave. My wife and I are not willing to gamble our most important investments, our children, on a stage full of clumsy dancing amateurs possessing no rhyme, reason or rhythm. It's show time, and the D.C. Council hasn't got its act together regarding higher standards and genuine best practices.

Nevertheless, it is now official. All of the negative or comical abbreviations I've heard to describe D.C. over the last 25 years simply comes down to the words: dysfunctional and corrupt. No doubt, it deeply hurts that my adopted city is now home to a growing swarm of overpaid political parasites. They promise much, prove very little, provide minimal improvements, and are handsomely paid with our hard earned tax dollars.

This year's crop of so-called "public servants" set a new low in depraved indifference to integrity, provable expertise, measurable results and good governance. Nevertheless, our elected so-called "representatives" on the D.C. Council have yet to fathom the trends and depths of this depravity in public service. We can no longer credibly criticize our city's many street hustlers for their own version of "trying to get paid."

The fix was always in for acting D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, and her crew of curiously qualified staff to be confirmed and get paid the six-plus figures they're hustling out of lesser-paid taxpayers. Thanks to our current cast of sleep-and-eat council members, and assorted confirmation supporters, those of us who earn far less will be bamboozled out of more valuable taxpayer revenue. The newly appointed education executives, Rhee, Victor Reinoso and Allen Lew, will find it easier to balance their checkbooks while all District citizens lose the last layer of checks and balances in city government.

Municipal mediocrity has become D.C. government's version of best practices. Within the small, wide, high and low circles I circulate, there is a growing sense that D.C. is genuinely on track for fiscal and socioeconomic failure. Condos and homes aren't selling, small businesses are suffering, and no one will admit to the District government's yard sale on properties and air rights (schools, libraries, hospitals, alleys, etc.). Increasingly crime, employment, education, affordable housing, and family friendly fiscal policies haven't been the subject of happy headlines. The friends and families I know prefer to remain optimistic, but feel something is just not right and are being forced to be realistic as they entertain crossing our Virginia or Maryland borders for better socioeconomic value. Subtracting the tourists and suburban commuters, has anyone noticed how empty our capital city is after 6 PM and weekends?

The basic proven principles of urban planning, fiscal economics and long term development ignored by D.C. officials make it hard for families to consider staying. Families (low income to upper middle class) are the primary source of exponential economic development and revenue from taxes, shopping and other family expenditures. Families don't stay where families can't live. Like Rhee, Reinoso and Lew, families need to "get paid" too. After a few years or less, with or without a new family member, even the gentry who gentrify discover there's a better or best buy at least 20-minutes outside D.C.

So, now our infinitely wise D.C. council members have pretended to ponder the complexities of assessing, confirming and overpaying minimally qualified public servants possessing unproven skills and dubious plans. Let's all hope this current trend in representative misgovernment, administrative dysfunction and corrupt governance is just a passing nightmare of our imaginations.

In the meantime, tighten to your wallet, make a family friendly fail-safe plan, and stay in touch with friends and family beyond the District's borders.

Dennis Moore
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control
Your comments and criticisms are most welcomed at:

Posted by: Dennis Moore | July 16, 2007 12:41 PM

I say, "How bad could they be?", We've already seen what experience and expertise and credentials in education could do for us so why not try someone without these encumberances? They could just open a frank and forthright discussion with the NEA and the DC teachers union, get their views and input , then just do the opposite and they would probably be successful.

Posted by: Stick | July 16, 2007 1:17 PM

Mr. Moore makes some interesting points. The first thing that I noticed was that he had accused Mr. Lew of being "one of the chefs that cooked the books" on the new stadium project. That is, in effect, a charge of criminal conduct. I wonder if Mr. Moore is prepared to back that statement up with more than just general rants.

If he is, I assume that the city's prosecutors will be going after Mr. Lew. If not, Mr. Moore should be prepared for a libel suit, or at the very least, to understand why his organization, DC Independents, has no credibility among those who actually are able to process information.

Posted by: mikes | July 16, 2007 1:33 PM

As a former resident of Rochester NY where Clifford Janey utterly failed as a superintendent of pubic schools. Who was also branded as borderline corrupt for putting all of his friends and family on the pay roll, I can't say that I'm surprised that Fenty asked him to leave in such an abrupt manner.

Posted by: Tom Wheels | July 16, 2007 2:11 PM

"No doubt, it deeply hurts that my adopted city is now home to a growing swarm of overpaid political parasites. They promise much, prove very little, provide minimal improvements, and are handsomely paid with our hard earned tax dollars." Mr. Moore hit it right on the nose with the above statement...and the rest of his commentary isn't far from the truth. As someone who also worked on the "inside" for several years the further and accelerated demise of public education in the District comes as no surprise. It's just a shame that these shenanigans have come at the expense and to the overall detriment of our young people.

Posted by: Rob | July 16, 2007 2:18 PM

What Mr. Moore failed to suggest is mass firings for the stunningly incompetent and arrogant school administration - from the janitors to the superitendants. Then we start from scratch, rehiring with real quantifiable job duties that can be monitored daily if needed.

Until he's willing to suggest that, his post has no real substance.

And he loses a lot of credibility when he refers to the baseball stadium as 'our limited tax dollars at work'. Simply put, this is BS. The baseball stadium is funded by a special tax on large businesses only. There is NO way that such a tax would have been passed to pour yet money into failing DC schools. Businesses eagerly put up with this tax because most think the baseball stadium is good for DC. And, of course, the baseball stadium has already generated a giant amount of development in that entire part of town.

And funding isn't the DC school system's problem. It's grossly overfunded and has been for decades.

Mr. Moore speaks of low expectations in DC school systems. I fully agree. But I expect people to at least tell the truth. And suggesting that the baseball stadium has ANYTHING negative to do with DC schools is just BS. Period. If anything, the baseball stadium and the stunning development around it will be a revenue source for DC schools for decades.

Posted by: Hillman | July 16, 2007 2:58 PM

I find it very interesting regarding Janey Summer Blitz, that Mr. Lew informed Kojo Nnamdi that "The contractors haven't been hired," when last week Mayor Fenty told the listeners of the Russ Parr Morning Show that the contracts for the contractors were poorly done. So which one is it. It appears that indiivduals are already passing the buck.

Individuals need to keep in mind there are no quick fix to overturning an underperforming school district. On average it takes about five years however with the level of issues plaguing DCPS the process could possibly take close to 10 years.

Posted by: Khathu | July 16, 2007 3:54 PM

Lemme' see... roughly $12,000 per student per schoolyear. K-12 is 13 years. So, very roughly: $150,000 spent "educating" DCPS students.
Of whom, what- nearly half don't graduate?
And of those do, what % would be considered college-material?
All this, for $150k?
While being fired near midnight and barred from boxing up one's personal effects may seem harsh, he still has $240,000+ things to console him, if not a car & driver anymore...

Posted by: Bloom's Tax | July 16, 2007 4:11 PM

Amen Hillman. That ridiculously long post seems like the work of someone with quite a bit to say but no solutions. He obviously thinks he knows everything and is probably an insufferable dinner guest. And the baseball stadium? Where were these people when DC was pumping millions into the Convention Center, which represents massive public investment in something that is of no benefit whatsoever to average citizen outside of economic development (just like baseball)?

Posted by: Anonymous | July 16, 2007 5:32 PM


What's your solution, in general terms, to this decades-long debacle?

Posted by: School Choice? | July 16, 2007 6:18 PM

Two issues: 1 - Any and all of you are foolish if you did not think that folks at DCPS did not see the writing on the wall and would seek to sabotage Fenty's takeover. Cornell Brown takes the brunt of the blame for this, and the DC procurement process. Fenty and his crew were foolish to think they would come in and inherit the mess and make it successful without putting in any ground work. Read the words of Lew and Fenty. Whatever they are saying, they were inheriting a situation and did not do the leg work. How can they fix the bathrooms in 3-4 weeks either. Fenty diserves some blame for the false promises and we should take note on the academic side too. 2- Say what you want about Janey, say what you want about Ackerman, Vance, etc. until folks want to get down to the core problems and issues of some things DCPS will continue to be a messed up place. I did oppose the takeover because Fenty was grandstanding versus presenting actual solutions. All I asked are where are the solutions Fenty? He was supposed to be a batter manager to get things done. If Fenty is sincere, he would give up this great team stuff and agent of change and talk about reconstruction. We as citizen know certain aspects of all City government need to be reconstructed, schools are a prime example. As an earlier poster stated, start from scratch. I do not think the young lady nor the Deputy are capable of building a system from scratch, but that is what DCPS needs.

Lastly, we need to stop finding excuses for why kids are not learning. I went to those schools and I learned. Every few years it is a new wave of blame as to why the kids cannot learn. When do the kids get held accountable. My parents held me accountable. I remember the 80-90 degree days w/o air. I remember the 30 degree days w/o heat too. Yeah tehy were a distraction, but what about the 180 others days? Kids need to get there lessons, plain and simple.

Posted by: RobGreg | July 17, 2007 12:00 AM

"Then there's Ms. Rhee, a truly likeable and attentive individual whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk with recently. Despite her seemingly fabulous façade of professionalism and overhyped background in education, her bottom line credentials and expertise as a chancellor candidate have major experience holes."

But she's an Ivy Leaguer who will bring in all sorts of "Teach For America" Ivy Leaguers -- who of course are inherently better than the rest of us -- into the school system! (Jeez, I can't believe I'm actually agreeing the overly verbose Dennis Moore on something.)

Posted by: Vincent | July 19, 2007 12:51 PM

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