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Schools Monday: The Sounds of Getting Serious About Reform

One of the great questions surrounding any effort to reform the D.C. schools is how will we know when things are getting better? What will that look like: Better test scores? Less crime? More local employers hiring products of the D.C. system? More kids going on to college? Better attendance? There are nearly as many ways to assess a school system as there are ways for a school to go wrong, and Chancellor Michelle Rhee is going to have to establish some markers by which she wants to be judged.

One consistent theme in her work before coming to Washington is a healthy skepticism about the current fashionable obsessions with testing and with requiring teachers to meet strict certification standards that are more about racking up college credits than about the teaching skills, depth of knowledge and personality needed to infect children with a love of learning.

Will that attitude translate into effective support for returning the arts to the D.C. schools? Can Rhee push aside the testing mania enough to relieve kids of the cynical and pointless practice of drilling math and English strictly to boost test scores, and would she then find ways to shoehorn art, music, and theater back into the curriculum?

The push to restore music to D.C. schools was already underway before Rhee arrived, but music advocates are deeply skeptical that much will come of those pre-Rhee initiatives. The D.C. system has proposed new standards for music and art, but they are the usual sort of illusion--an expression of wishful thinking, perhaps, but, as Dorothy Marschak, who heads up CHIME (Community Help in Music Education), which pushes for more music instruction in the city's schools, says, the new standards "are pie in the sky and unsuitable for DCPS, where almost half the schools have no music teachers."

There are groups in town that are pushing to find ways to make school more fulfilling and rewarding for kids who come from homes where school is sometimes seen as a chore and obligation rather than a gateway to a vastly more exciting and full life. But some of those groups are more focused on after-school programs than on what happens in the classroom; that's understandable given how hard the D.C. system often fights against volunteers and outside groups seeking to make things better. But if Rhee is to change the content and texture of what happens between 9 and 3 each day, she will have to pry open the buildings to let volunteers and parents play a role.

Marschak, like school advocates across the city, is eager to see if the new regime is as good as its rhetoric. In 2005, CHIME pushed the D.C. Council to give the school system $250,000 for a citywide summer school music program, but more than $100,000 of the money had to be given back because the school system's music department was incapable of putting the program together on a timely basis. Will Rhee install people who care more about getting instruments and music teachers into the schools than about the internecine battles at DCPS headquarters over the language of curriculum standards?

One small way to measure the new chancellor's progress will be to look at how and whether the arts resurface in schools that have been transformed into grim test-prep centers since the advent of No Child Left Behind. We shall see.

By Marc Fisher |  July 30, 2007; 7:41 AM ET
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Good point about the indicators of progress in school reform. To my mind, the first one would be enrollments and whether kids are leaving the charter schools in favor of the public schools.

As to arts, I think they have to take fourth place -- behind improving the three R's. For those who have forgotten, that would be Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmatic -- not Remedial, Remuneration, and Rhee.

Posted by: KK | July 30, 2007 8:23 AM

The real question is whether DC can overcome their Teachers Union.

Posted by: Jon | July 30, 2007 9:46 AM

Before we continually mock and just shake our heads with disgust at DCPS can we look at the existing sturcture and challenges in place. I would gather with the virtual non-existence of art and music, there is no one on staff probably competent and qualified to develop and implement a music program in short order. I would guess this wa also not on the right person's radar through proposal through council aproval as well. Select principals would have been able to utilize the funds, but would it have been an comprehensive program? Probably not. To see that Cardozo does not have the marching band that ruled this city back in the 70s and 80s is really a shame.

Posted by: OKNOW101 | July 30, 2007 10:01 AM

Music and arts are a luxury that this school district cannot afford. You have kids who can't read or write a coherent sentence. They have major catch-up work to do on the basics of education. Let the private groups sponsor after-school sessions in music and arts but every minute of school time must be devoted to academic instruction. There is no more time to waste.

Posted by: takebackourschools | July 30, 2007 11:36 AM

I think it would be a better indicator of Rhee's success to see if she can shrink the size of the DCPS administration than to do anything else. Here's a common twist on the old adage from a teacher friend, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, administrate."

Music education can allow students who otherwise might not be engaged to find a place to shine. But without the teaching faculty in place to provide that experience, the process dies in beaurocracy.

Posted by: Leesburger | July 30, 2007 1:10 PM

With the spectre of illiteracy, unemployment, and lives of crime facing the youth of DC, I hardly think that counting how many are playing the saxophone is any kind of criterion of progress.

Here's an easy one: the drop-out rate.

And another: what percentage is employed six months after graduation.

Posted by: gitarre | July 30, 2007 1:12 PM

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Given the tendency for new blog items to sink old ones, especially when the new ones, are long, I write to recommend the item below this one.

Check it out. It's a great piece.

Question for Marc: Is the break point for long blog items determined automatically? If you can choose, you might consider breaking the piece a little sooner so as to increase the lifespan of the previous item.

Of course, to the extent that a shorter post diminishes the likelihood that readers will click to go "inside", you run a greater risk of losing readers of the new post. Hey, this sounds like a problem for a newspaperman!

Posted by: Jan | July 30, 2007 1:53 PM

Well, by what measures do we say the DCPS *suck* now? Then to evaluate progress we just need to look for positive movement on whatever those benchmarks are.

Posted by: Stick | July 30, 2007 2:14 PM

What do local parents do when their schools underperform? My son wowed some local private schools, but we were told that costs, after "voluntary" donations were around $20-30k per year per student at various schools. All the parents I talked to made 4-digit "donations." Private school seems an impossibility with those numbers. A $400k mortgage seems an impossibility, but I guess I'm going to have to talk to my broker. I have good friends whose daughter is attending a failing suburban school.

What are parents doing to affect change at their schools?

Posted by: DCer | July 30, 2007 3:46 PM

The new DC curriculum standards are excellent. They should be -- they are all close models of national standards developed by professional education associations.

Ms. Rhee and her former organization have generally had good relations with teacher unions, which ultimately stand to lose if members are of poor quality. Check the record.

Wasteful DCPS bureaucracy has historically consisted of surplus Curriculum Developers, Analysts, Facilitators etc., and these may now migrate over to the State Education Agency end of DC Government. If so, costs will remain absurdly high, but the nonproductive slugs will now be shunted away from the actual practice of teaching, and quality should improve.

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 30, 2007 3:59 PM

gitarre: Beg to differ - and so does Mayor Bloomberg of NYC. School systems which develop meaningful instrumental music and other arts programs -- dance, drama, visual arts -- have a much lower drop-out rate and higher indices of academic achievement. This is not because dancing teaches quadratic equations or any of that absurd blather. It is because while the pursuit of excellence in the arts requires discipline and concentration, the intrinsic reward of artistic creativity is as strong today as it has been for centuries. Students in schools with arts programs are more likely persevere and graduate despite incredible social disadvantages.

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 30, 2007 4:24 PM

I'm afraid this reads to me like a preview of the excuses that will be made after the first, second, and third years of the Fenty-run school system. "Oh, sure, the kids aren't showing any improvement in reading, writing, or math, but we have a healthy skepticism of standardized test scores, and we've pushed aside the testing mania." Nonsense. The takeover was sold on the basis that it would improve basic education in the fundamentals for students, and the only way to measure whether it is working is by administering standardized tests -- and making sure test results aren't manipulated, fudged, or ignored.

Music, art, and drama aren't frills; they're necessary parts of a well-rounded education, and there's no excuse for not including them in school curricula. But they're not a replacement for schools' ensuring that students master the basic skills.

Posted by: Gary Imhoff | July 30, 2007 8:59 PM

Honestly, how many of us learn best by sitting at a desk, memorizing facts and then being tested on what we remember with a standardized test? When I move, speak, write and engage new facts or subjects interactively, I learn---I create new pathways in my brain towards understanding through experience.

Exposure to the arts and arts-integrated approaches to student learning offer students the opportunity to connect to lessons and information with multiple learning styles, vastly improving student engagement (our programs show lower truancy and higher homework completion during our programs), raising student literacy, supporting math skills, and developing higher levels of thinking (especially in being able to theorize and problem solve creatively).

Those of us working in DC public schools as arts educators see how thousands of students find their voice and realize their ability to learn through interactive, arts-infused approaches to any subject and know that an arts-based approach to Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is critical to improving student achievement.

The new DC arts standards have been carefully crafted in close consultation with the arts education community. They are a road map to student success via the arts and, like any carefully crafted outcomes, may take years to successfully implement --- but they are achievable. As we have for decades, the arts education community supports DCPS as we all continue to pursue excellence in the classroom, for our young people today and those to come. Here in our nation's capital, public school students should receive the best education our society has to offer, complete with the most cutting-edge, arts-integrated approaches to traditional learning.

Posted by: David Snider | August 2, 2007 8:56 AM

I, like every other DCPS employee, have been looking for short term goals from the Chancellor and her transition team. What is she measuring her success on? Unfortunately for Ms. Rhee we can not give her the customary 2 or 3 years for progress, we need to see it asap. Not an update of excuses but real progress!

Posted by: Vicky Pittman | August 2, 2007 12:11 PM

I think that since Rhee is running a school system that this mayor refuses to send his own children to, she's up against a nearly impossible task. Shame, shame, and shame on Fenty for claiming to be the education mayor and refusing to send his precious sons to our schools -- and what an appalling joke that he seems to be getting away with it.

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