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Fixing the D.C. Schools?

(posted by guest blogger Valerie Strauss)

Imagine this: You earn a pay increase but somehow, your employer never manages to pay you the extra amount. You complain and are promised the money, but it never seems to come. After six years--yes, six years--your paycheck finally starts to include your increase. Getting the retroactive money is a separate issue, however.

Sound preposterous?

It happened to one teacher I know in the D.C. school system, and thre are plenty of other teachers who can relate similar experiences.

Unless Mayor Adrian Fenty and his new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, can get these basic systems fixed, then it is an open question as to how effective anything else they do will be.

It seems to me the place to start is with the personnel operations, so that teachers can get paid on time and the proper amount. The system also needs the ability to automatically track people and tell you whether they are in the central office or in a school; now such information has to be done manually. And it needs an automated budget system that can actually track exactly where and how money is being spent. Today budgeters still do their work on Excel spread sheets.

Past superintendents have vowed to fix these systems, but somehow got sidetracked, not staying focused on the basics, or not staying long enough to see them through. And millions of dollars have been wasted on computer systems that didn't work.

To be sure, none of this sounds sexy. The term "school reform" may mean to some new teaching methods and curriculum design--and that certainly is part of it. Indeed, the last superintendent, Clifford B. Janey, oversaw a widely praised overhaul of the city's academic standards and changed the accountability measures to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind.

That's all to the good. But how can it improve student achievement if the work force charged with implementing the changes is demoralized and in constant flux? Without a stable, competent work force, you have nothing.

What would be at the top of your agenda if you were D.C. schools czar?

By Valerie Strauss |  August 14, 2007; 12:25 PM ET
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One thing I've heard over and over again from parents is that THEIR kids teacher is ok, but the OTHER teachers in the school are lazy, or not focused on education, or undereducated (DC is an city of Ivy Leaguers), or unwilling to think outside the box (think of all the political entrepreneurs here with new ideas). Then the teachers I talk to complain about the administrators who seem to spend their days talking about church and never getting anything done. The administrators I've talked to complain about the repair crews disappearing and work not getting done or warehouse crews going home at 4pm instead of working a full day. The few school board people I met complain about "the system."

I recently attended a party with people who were involved in a major civil rights project in the 1960s. These 60 year old senior management types complained about "the system" and "the man" and the other issues they faced at the time. At this party I asked them how it felt to be "the system" and "the man" for the last 20 years. Ha! They said, they were principals, politicians, teachers and city administrators but they were not "The Man." I corrected them. They laughed and denied it. I corrected them again. They got angry and denied it, claiming that I didn't understand that while they managed 150 people, and while the former mayors they reported to were just like them, they were not "The System."

We left on unfriendly terms, with them viewing me guardedly and they in total denial that they are "The Man" who is causing the problems in Washington, DC schools, government, neighborhoods, etc.

The problem, then as I see it, is that the people who have the job to make sure the kids learn and the people who are taking up job slots that no one else can take are unwilling to step out of their baby boomer myopia and accept responsibility for the havoc they caused over the last 25 years because of a long-seated view that they are political outsiders because they once were back in 1968. Regardless of 25 years of city politicians who look just like they do and came up out of their neighborhoods, they fail to BELIEVE that they are the POWER in this city and place blame at the city's failures at the few people left who don't look like them, like real estate developers. As if a real estate investor ever beat them up at the police station in 1966.

So the first thing I would do would be to have some kind of discussion and education demanding that the powers who control this city's educational system accept that they are:

The powers that control this city's educational system.

They aren't fighting any system. They cause the system's problems every day.

Because what they told me at that party was a blueprint for how they got parental anger to change the schools and oust the 1960s regime. When a group of parents marches on the home of someone who thought of themselves a civil rights hero there will be a clash of cultures they may not fully understand.

Posted by: DCer | August 14, 2007 1:28 PM

Novel idea:

Integrate Black-History into World History considering it is in pre-history that their history starts. In the genesis of humanity long before Egypt was even a concept, long before it's creator, the African King Menes was born.

African children born in America (what Westerners call "African Americans") must have a concept of themselves that stretches back further than slavery in this ill destined country. They must be connected to the global nervous system of the black collective wherein the pain of one apendage is felt by the others. After all, we are all African, some simply got off the boat earlier. Some in the Americas, some in the Carrib., all over the world. We are one, unwillingly integrated into the worlds most wicked. Those who were/are Savages posturing as civilized Human Beings.

Yes, to see how high we were then, will cast a light on how far we have fallen, however, in the study of that fall, you find the causes that effected it. You start there. Give the children a legacy they can be proud of, the audicity to think and dream royalty.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2007 2:25 PM

ummm... we learned African History as part of a World History program in Bethesda in 1985.

They got a lot wrong back then: Cleopatra was a white woman from Greece, sorry guys, and all the Ptolemaic Pharoahs of Egypt's later dynasties were Europeans thanks to Marcus Antonius, and the fire at the library of Alexandria didn't destroy as much as people thought because it had been looted for years... but we learned all about major cities like Accra and Harare that never make it in the news, the wars between Arabs and Black Africans in places like Zanzibar and the Sudan, the Boer War, the Tuareg people 20 years before the car of the same name, and of course in the 1980s, fresh news about Libya and Ethiopia.

I think, pretty much, African History was added to the curriculum 25 years ago in DC schools. Maybe this is the issue, that we keep retreading 25 year old ideas?

Posted by: DCer | August 14, 2007 3:05 PM

With the DCPS there are so many things like this, how can you decide which should be "at the top of your list?" Kids don't get schoolbooks, the drinking water contains lead, there is rampant corruption, etc. Is one more important than the others?

There has been so much of it that nothing shocks or surprises anymore. We are numb to it. In a city wracked by poverty, the best way out is public education, and we don't care anymore. Where is the outrage?

Posted by: KK | August 14, 2007 3:25 PM

If you know the geneisis of the fall of Egypt and Africa, you will understand that the worst thing that ever happened to the darker people of this planet was integration and amalgamation.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 14, 2007 6:42 PM

Valerie makes a good point: it is important to elevate the academic standards, but if you don't have good, basic business systems, it is hard to see any results. My wife and I have been gone from the school district a year and she gave up on trying to get paid for her remaining hours worked. The basic personnel, management and accounting systems are absent and thus can't support the classroom teacher and standards, no matter how good they area.

Posted by: Former DCPS staffer | August 15, 2007 9:45 AM

In bureaucracies such as DCPS it is common for employees to restrict access to information about their particular area of authority as a form of job insurance, thereby ensuring absolute chaos. Imagine what happens when some of these people leave. There is software that can convert all these separate Excel and MS Access files to a central database form in minutes, but it can't ensure that all the piecemeal private files are up to date.

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 15, 2007 6:51 PM

I vote for improving business processes also. Apparently McKinsey is supposed to be examining this, but having an outside consultant do this is a recipe for failure - they don't really have a stake in the success of the system. Rhee should create a COO-type position, hire someone for it and give her/him free rein to go nutso on the system. The key is that the COO-type person has to rely mostly on her/his astonishing powers of persuasion rather than simply decreeing and standing back and wondering why things don't happen. It can be done. It's hard work, though, which is why McKinsey ain't gonna get it done.

Posted by: Lindemann | August 15, 2007 7:01 PM

I am a current DCPS teacher, and I have been teaching in the district for 10 years. I declare that June 2008 is the my last year in the profession.

There are so many ills in the system that there are too many to name. With all of the talk and propaganda, I still don't believe that PUBLIC education is a top priority in the United States or DC.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to fix the basic problems facing the district. By basic problems I mean payroll accounting, building structure issues, textbook ordering, and teacher pay/incentives.

It's my belief that the district likes functioning in dysfunction.

Posted by: Sharon | August 19, 2007 7:45 AM

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