Schools Monday: Close Buildings, Open Minds
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee burst onto the scene with a strategy not seen before in the District's long-troubled system: Put out the bad news, great big heaping servings of it, nearly every day.
After decades of trying to pretend that things were just fine, or just circling the wagons to try to protect funding and staff from the ravages of outside criticism, the school system was suddenly touting its own bad news--buildings in disrepair, management flaws that mucked up reform efforts, messed-up warehouses, wasted dollars and on and on.
The strategy, very much informed by Mayor Adrian Fenty's similar approach when he took office, makes sense politically: If you're trying to drum up support for a big reform push, you want to persuade both the voters and the elected officials that you really do need new programs and dollars. And goodness knows the news reporters will be happy to jump on board the Bad News Express.
So we had week after week of publicity stunts in which the mayor and chancellor demonstrated just how far things had fallen. And coming in right behind that news, they offered some solutions, including a quick and highly visible construction program aimed at fixing some of the most egregious and obvious problems in the system--torn-up, useless fields and gyms, buildings without heat, that sort of thing.
But then the strategy shifted, and in a curious direction. For the past few weeks, we've seen newspaper and online ads seeking applicants for principal and other leadership positions in the D.C. schools. The ads tout the strong performance of young, energetic principals such as Wayne Ryan of Noyes Elementary.
Nothing wrong with seeking new talent, of course, but if you had just spent megamillions to fix up school buildings and fields and you found money to spend on advertising, would you choose to spend it on a campaign to recruit talent to the system you'd just spent months ragging for all its faults? Or would you spend that money to let the public know just how far you've been able to take those schools in those few short months?
Wouldn't it make more sense to get the word out that some of the most appalling physical plant issues in the D.C. schools have now been fixed? I am amazed at how few parents around the city seem to have seen or know about the new tracks, fields, lighting, heating and other repairs that the new management team at D.C. public schools have already put in place. Wouldn't it become a lot easier to attract talent to the system if there was a sense around town that the repair job was already happening?
One response from the system will be that the need for new leaders is immediate, and surely that's right. But for the Bad News Express to be an effective strategy, it has to be followed quickly by highly visible signs that the new sheriff in town is making real changes.
As it stands now, Rhee is associated in the public mind with telling the truth about what's wrong with the schools, and now with her plan to shut down 23 underused schools to free up money for all manner of classroom initiatives, such as restoring arts, physical education and other essential programs that were cut in the wake of the No Child Left Behind testing hysteria. Those are good and important objectives, but a big part of the politics of reviving both the schools and confidence in the city as a whole is to send the message that at least in some pockets, things are getting better, that real reform is indeed possible.
The danger otherwise is that the bad news becomes overwhelming. Already, at some of the hearings the system is holding on closing down schools, it's too easy to hear parents and others talk about Rhee and Company as more than people can bear. "It's too much change, just too much change, from the head on down," said a D.C. teacher who told the crowd at a hearing at Barnard Elementary School that she had taught in three schools that have been shut down.
No one wants a bunch of PR lies about the system Putting Children First, as a failed slogan of the past put it. But if DCPS were to tout what's really changed and show the wider community the new facilities and competent or even inspiring new leaders put into place by the new administration, that could help build support for the next, much harder phase: Making a difference in the classroom.
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