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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