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Schools Monday: Eliminating the Excuses

For as long as I can remember, the mantra from the people in charge of the D.C. school system has been that we're really doing quite well--it's just that our schools are filled with kids from dysfunctional homes, kids who come to school with so many problems that it's unreasonable to hold them up to the same expectations and standards we have for suburban children.

That rhetoric--that long roster of excuses for failure-- appears to be in its dying days. This change is taking place not only in the District, where the new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is changing expectations by the minute, but also in the suburbs, where--perhaps in reaction to too many years of mealy-mouthed excuses about how some people learn differently from others or how some people arrive in school with such enormous deficits that they cannot be expected to achieve--the language and therefore the behavior of schools chiefs is changing.

"When schools ignore race and poverty, that's when achievement takes off," said Jack Dale, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, at a think tank seminar in Washington earlier this month.

Dale, Rhee and Montgomery County superintendent Jerry Weast all agreed that systems must funnel extra resources to add teachers, teacher-mentors, class time and other extra help for students who come from poor backgrounds. No one is denying that there are vast differences in the preparation kids have gotten before they first come to school. But this trio of schools chiefs seems united in believing that the days of harboring lower expectations for such children must end. Assuming from the start that some kids just can't hack higher-level work turned out to be little more than poison poured into the educational banquet spread out before these kids.

In Fairfax, Dale says schools serving students from poor or non-English speaking backgrounds are getting instructional coaches, a modified (longer) calendar, and added staff in arts, math, science and advanced courses. Summer school, which is available to all students, is being pitched hard to kids who need to get a leg up, and the county is bringing in children who might struggle with advanced materials for two or three weeks of pre-school in mid-August. The idea is to get students "familiar with a course's vocabulary and nuances before they join the regular class," Dale says.

Fairfax now has 24 schools in which some or all teachers are working on 12-month contracts, enabling teachers in those schools to take on multiple roles "as part of a systematic, continuous improvement" of teaching, Dale says.

In the District, Rhee says, it's time to stop using the poverty prevalent in so many city neighborhoods as an excuse for poor achievement. "People talk about kids who arrive in school with no breakfast, come from violent homes, get no sleep," she says. "We're not going to be able to change those factors." She cited Weast's success in boosting test scores for kids who come from poor neighborhoods "even with zero change in the kids' circumstances."

Rhee's strategy is to focus on fixing the buildings and streamlining the central office in order to free up principals to become much more active in encouraging parent participation in the schools.

Weast warns that low expectations saturate much of the nation's approach to schooling--whether it's states trying to water down the tests they use to see who qualifies for high school graduation, or the No Child Left Behind law pushing schools to focus only on the narrow areas of learning on which kids are tested. Weast believes the country can no longer afford to fool itself on student achievement. The goal, he says, is to create schools where "race, gender and socioeconomic status are no longer predictors of a student's academic success."

That may sound like pie in the sky, but Montgomery County is making real progress toward that goal, with almost all of its students now reading in kindgergarten and about half of the county's students now completing algebra by eighth grade.

Can the District get to that kind of point? Stay tuned. The next telling moment will be when the D.C. Council decides whether to grant Rhee the authority she needs to sack large numbers of people in the central office who are holding back the system and preventing the reallocation of resources to the schools themselves.

By Marc Fisher |  September 24, 2007; 7:44 AM ET
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"The next telling moment will be when the D.C. Council decides whether to grant Rhee the authority she needs to sack large numbers of people in the central office who are holding back the system and preventing the reallocation of resources to the schools themselves."

The public schools provide government jobs. They don't provide education.

Think of the public schools as a depression era jobs program.

Posted by: stewart | September 24, 2007 8:26 AM

While these goals are admirable and necessary, Jack Dale fails to see that middle-class taxpayers like me are more and more considering private education. When middle-class kids in FCPS have problems, FCPS takes the position that we can hire expensive tutors. He needs to be a lot more balanced in his rhetoric and his resources allocated to ALL students. If not, I'll join my friends in going back to work so that I can send my kids to private school.

Posted by: Shelley | September 24, 2007 8:39 AM

12-month schooling prevents the usual loss of skills over the summer by scheduling shorter vacations after each of the three trimesters.

Anyone considering work with DC children in lower-performing schools should bear in mind that a significant number of the kids live with guardians other than parents - often grandparents or aunts and uncles. Even use of the term Parental Involvement demonstrates insensitivity and unfamiliarity with actual community conditions. If you think this is a small thing, consider it from the perspective of the young child already feeling a sense of parental abandonment. Using a term like Caregivers helps.

Posted by: Mike Licht | September 24, 2007 8:42 AM

DC needs to stop making excuses. Instead of complaining that Rhee isn't black enough to understand the school system (which is really really crazy), they need to look past race and how the schools have been handled in the past, and let her do her magic. The Unions will be a big obstacle here.

Posted by: Jon | September 24, 2007 9:18 AM

12-month schooling prevents the usual loss of skills over the summer by scheduling shorter vacations after each of the three trimesters.

12 month schooling equals no vacations. My aunt's family in Los Angeles did that and with a 3 week block of vacation at Xmas there was no camp to send the kids to and Mom and Dad had to take their two weeks off that year to watch the kids. In the summer our cousins stayed with us for 3 weeks. But the parents definitely got no vacation and the kids didn't get to go to camp. Simple solution? Catholic school didn't follow that program and by 1980 the school district abandoned it. It's all well and good to think about such a program, but another to actually cancel summer camp and family vacations and make it happen.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2007 9:50 AM

It's not really the unions that are the problem, but it is the teachers. My son has a new teacher taking part in a program. The principal told us that all my son's class gets free breakfast in the morning so they're sure that the kids eat a good breakfast. The new teacher blurts out, "but none of these kids qualify for free breakfast." And the principal shoots her a look. "We make sure both our lower class AND our middle class kids get a free breakfast" and one Dad blurts out, "I'm a professional" before shutting up. Turns out he's a congressional lawyer and far far above "middle class." The principal is so crazy that she's still treating the sons and daughters of upper class families like they need a free breakfast! The schools absolutely, positively must address this crazy weird concept that the children aren't getting the education they need prior to school. I haven't seen one parent in the pre-k and kindergarten classes who wasn't college educated and educating their children. I'm sure this wasn't true during the crack war, but that was 20 years ago. Wake up DC, condos cost $500k and your students aren't poor anymore.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2007 9:56 AM

I'm elated to read this column. The POST's Jay Mathews has blown this trumpet for years and years. It's so much a matter of expectation - kids and schools - that dictates what can be achieved. When schools get away from deciding portions of its offerings this or that kid should have and instead helps every kids do what that kids wants to do, then we'll see true achievement. The FCPS now pays for every AP or IB exam. Wonderful! Money is no longer a barrier to rigor. The extra prep some kids are getting before school is likewise wonderful.
Don't limit the dreams of others. Instead, show them the world and then hold open the door. They may stumble, but they will right themselves more often than not. Then, the only limit is themselves. And how nice would that be!

As to the parent who threatens to send her children to private school if they don't get as much as needier kids: how do you feel about Thomas Jefferson High School? Does it bother you that its teachers get paid about 15% more than other teachers? Or that its students get at least 15% more teacher-directed education than all other FCPS high school students? Does that inequity bother you as much, or are you only concerned with ensuring that your kids get as much as the disadvantaged get?

Posted by: D Reed - FCPS Parent | September 24, 2007 11:48 AM

I had a teacher suggest that my son eat breakfast at school. We by no means qualify for a free breakfast or meal. In fact I had breakfast on the table ALL mornings. He just wasn't hungry and didn't ever eat much. Then he'd be hungry at school and lunch was a little late.

I was offended. But looking back on it, I should have sent him off for the breakfast. He, like many people, just didn't want to eat right after getting up.

Middle-class parents need to get it out of their heads that their children won't benefit from things that the schools do to encourage poor children to learn. Children are children no matter what their background.

Posted by: RoseG | September 24, 2007 11:50 AM

I guess I am a little confused at Jack Dale's about face. Just two weeks ago he wrote a NCLB bashing editorial and now he is finally playing along.

What a pity we all didn't realize that our schools were failing over half our students all this time. Think about the outrage in communities if girls were trailing boys by 30 and 40 percentage points on tests. There would be a mob at the schoolhouse door. Instead our educators made excuse after excuse why these kids could not succeed. NCLB finally brought accountability and transparency to the table and put the NEA on notice.

Things are looking up-we need to support this law.

Posted by: takebackourschools | September 24, 2007 12:03 PM

We do tend to focus on the wrong things. Firing the bureaucracy won't solve the problem is the Chancellor has no plan to do what they now do- for good or bad. There will be a bureaucracy associated with the schools. There needs to be an acounting office- HR office- testing office- continuing teacher education- someone to buy books and somewhere to store them, central sports adminstration, etc. The Chancellor may do better as others have found by trying to get some of the bureaucracy to buy into what she wants to do. Many of these are good people who have been worn down by the constantly changing people at the top. Each time someone new comes in the directions change and the requirements are different.

Chancellor Rhee may find herself in a position where she hires a new bureaucracy and has the same problems if she doesn't learn that motivation, for children, teachers, administrators and the bureaucracy is the key to future success.

The Chancellor has yet to hire a Chief Academic Officer and that is one key to success. Good curriculum will help teachers teach and students learn. A stable teaching cadre will also help. Someone should look at the length of time that new teachers stay in the system these days and they may find some of the problems there.

The other issue is money. Money for a art and music teahers, guidance counselors, new technology programs, etc. These things need to be done now and not wait to see some future potential savings while we lose another two generations of children.

Children that come from low income homes need more from their schools than children that come from homes where they have the tools for learning around them all day. We have a huge population in our schools from low income homes.

These children need our help and that costs money. But at the same time let us not drive the middle and upper income children out of our system and provide them what they need. All children learn but not always in the same way and at the same pace. Let's teach to the child and not try to get the child to conform to what and how we teach.

Posted by: peter | September 24, 2007 12:07 PM

Middle-class parents need to get it out of their heads that their children won't benefit from things that the schools do to encourage poor children to learn. Children are children no matter what their background.

There are only so many hours in the day and when free breakfast replaces alphabet study or art class then it needs to go. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2007 12:19 PM

I think it's horrible to blame city schools' underperformance on students' behavioral problems and home environment. That's just an excuse for setting expectations low for these students. Suburban children suffer from a lot of these same problems, and I think that the amount of money received in classrooms, the quality of the teachers, the curriculum, and the environment in the school have a lot more to do with students' performances than home problems. It is unconscienable for teachers and administrators to make these statements because it suggests that they have simply given up on these students.

Posted by: Meeg | September 24, 2007 12:37 PM

I am glad to see that Mr. Dale is trying to open the door to students who are poor and/or who are ESOL. I would like to see him do the same for our high school students that are twice exceptional. They certainly would benefit from the same opportunites the other targeted population has. They too are an underserved population in FCPS Perhaps this is something Mr. Fisher or Mr. Matthews could explore further!

Posted by: Karen | September 24, 2007 12:49 PM

NYC School System just won the top education award-The Broad Prize. Mayor Bloomberg and his school head Joel Klein are a shining example of a school system that has stopped making excuses for their failures.

They introduced a program called CHILDREN FIRST which embraces three areas-leadership, empowerment and accountability. This plan should be the battle cry for every school system in the country and required reading for every school superintendent.

It is time these educators admit their failures and eat a slice of humble pie.

Posted by: FCPS parent | September 24, 2007 1:25 PM

I am a parent in a DCPS school where there are very few kids eligible for reduced price lunches, but breakfast is provided free to everyone. Breakfast is served before school, so it doesn't detract from the rest of the school day. We look at it as a bonus that we're fortunate to have, if we ever need it.

We take the DCPS situation year by year - so far, my kids (one in elementary, one in middle) have had great teachers, administrators, and experiences. No, it's not perfect, but it works for us. And, frankly, we work for it as well, with the PTA, fundraising, being involved.

Comments about DCPS being a WPA program are wrong, and insulting to the many people who dedicate their professional lives to these kids.

Posted by: DC Parent | September 24, 2007 1:39 PM

"When schools ignore race and poverty, that's when achievement takes off," said Jack Dale, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County.

I find that to be an interesting statement from a Superintendent of Schools because the "MSA" tests administered to the students in Maryland as part of the "No-Child-Left-Behind" initiative specifically grade on both race and economic factors.

Posted by: SoMD | September 24, 2007 1:45 PM

Breakfast is served before school, so it doesn't detract from the rest of the school day.

Seriously, come on, be real. I'm a parent of a child in DCPS. School starts at 8:45am and they get breakfast at 9am. I'm not really pissed they do this, it IS a plus, but my son complains about the quality of the breakfasts and doesn't eat it, choosing to goof off instead. It's not a big issue to me, just something strange that's leftover from a DC population long gone. but seriously, it's school at 8:45 and breakfast at 9, it's during school, not before.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2007 2:00 PM

Could Mr. Fisher and/or others cite some large urban school systems where many of the schools are doing a good job of educating large numbers of their students? Mr. Fisher attended a New York City public high school which is very selective. There are many New York City schools which are mediocre, as there are in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. I think that there can be some improvement in some schools, but large scale improvement in all the D.C. schools is a pipe dream.

Posted by: Jeff | September 24, 2007 2:14 PM

That's BS! you cannot be honest with that approach without the resources to support it. Race does not matter! Education is about resources and opportunity. My kids could all read at 3, not because they were naturallly intelligent but because their mom is a teacher and we invest and value education. We have the education and resourcs to offer ours kids almost anything they need or desire.

As a former DCPS employee I saw how the weighted student formula prevented DCPS from providing the additional resources to foster educational enrichment to overcome those basic hardships. The WSF did not provide much to boost the opportunites for those well off either. However, many educators know that these kids can be ready and able learners at age 3, but their environments are wasting their brain power by not being in a educational environment.

Posted by: OKNOW101 | September 24, 2007 2:33 PM

The best educational environment? A loving home! Yes, sorry, but it is true: government monopoly schools are failing children (my school district in the suburbs has a 50% math passing rate for sixth graders in the school my daughter would attend). Fifty percent is failing on any scale. My tax money to give free breakfast to people who don't need it?! That is insane. You like the convenience because, although you freely admit you don't need it, if you don't have time to give junior a breakfast at home he can get it "free" at taxpayer expense at school.

No need to go back to work to send your children to private school. As I see from my friends' privately schooled children, it is more of the same, just with a higher price tag. Start by reading David Guterson's "Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense" and then if you can handle it, anything by John Taylor Gatto. If nothing else, it will make you think about how things can be different.

Posted by: leaveminebehindthx | September 24, 2007 3:41 PM

The best educational environment? A loving home! Yes, sorry, but it is true

or else it's not true.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2007 4:59 PM

NCLB does not measure the level of individual students. It measures the level of the school. Schools merely have to be over a certain minimal level, so that is the standard they employ. There is no incentive to meet the needs of exceptionally gifted and talented students. The entire thoughtless and insidious NCLB enterprise belongs on the scrapheap of pedagogical history.

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