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D.C. School Reform: The Backlash

When Michelle Obama visits town and stops by two private schools without so much as a rolling glance at any D.C. public school, and when Barack Obama takes a moment in a presidential debate to lament that Washington's schools are "in terrible shape," the message received in the city school system cannot be a happy one.

After 17 action-packed months on the job, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is finally reaching the deep part of the pool. She's still the darling of many politicians and parents--and especially of Mayor Adrian Fenty--and she's still on a collision course with the city's teachers union, which is avoiding a vote on Rhee's proposal to trade much higher salaries for much more accountability. But there's been a change in the atmosphere, as teachers, school activists and some D.C. Council members and parents are grumbling more and more loudly about Rhee's bull-in-a-china-shop manner and her continued badmouthing of the schools under her charge.

The District's schools, Rhee says, are doing "an abysmal job," and any fair look at students' test scores renders that a simple statement of fact. But new questions are being asked about whether Rhee's reforms--closing underpopulated schools, fixing up decrepit buildings, sweeping out underperforming principals, and hiring legions of energetic, if inexperienced young teachers--are really making a difference in the classroom.

"D.C. is constantly experimenting on these kids," says Kerry Sylvia, a social studies teacher at Cardozo High School in Northwest and a co-founder of Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform, a new group that opposes many of Rhee's initiatives. "It's short-term thinking. I'm here for the long term."

Sylvia and Jeff Smith, executive director of DC Voice, a group that advocates for the city's public schools are my guests this week on Raw Fisher Radio, which you can hear here. They argue that Rhee is focused on quick, dramatic and even desperate measures rather than the slower investment of resources that would support teachers in overcoming the dysfunctional and impoverished home backgrounds of so many kids in the city system.

"I agree in some ways that every student can learn," Sylvia says, but she says the D.C. system fails to provide schools with the counselors, teacher training and security support that teachers need to be able to control unruly students and impose higher standards.

Smith says initiatives such as the system's new "Capital Gains" experiment, which pays students cash money for showing up to school on a regular basis, send the wrong message and fly in the face of public opinion.

"The way Michelle Rhee operates is the ends justify the means," Sylvia says. Rhee "underestimates the students and says they have to be bribed to learn."

But Rhee and her supporters argue that much of the growing opposition is what you'd expect to hear from teachers who feel that their job security is being threatened by the chancellor's merit pay plan and from others who are invested in the status quo. And the teachers who oppose Rhee's methods don't help their cause when their union refuses to move toward a vote on the chancellor's pay proposal.

Sylvia says too many of Rhee's ideas are based on the quest for a silver bullet--an easy, instant solution that really doesn't exist. "There's the belief in some sort of superhero teacher," she says. "Well, I've won awards and I still struggle." She notes that she has a class with 29 students--well above the maximum that the system claims to have in place--and another with 20 students, and only in the smaller class can she really call parents at home and hold the one-on-one conferences with students that produce results. She wants the system to focus on providing the resources that make that kind of personal attention possible, not on bringing in new principals, governance structures and accountability standards.

But as the debate over the system roars on, parents continue to vote with their feet, leaving the city's regular public schools in droves for charters, Catholic schools and the suburbs. And even teachers who generally support Rhee's efforts often grow frustrated by the lack of basic discipline in too many D.C. school buildings.

A D.C. teacher whose blog has captivated many parents and others announced a few days ago that she has resigned because she couldn't get anything done in an unruly and untamed atmosphere. "D.C. Teacher Chic" has been hit hard by some of her readers for having abandoned her children mid-year, and I have to say it's difficult to accept any excuse for walking out on kids who have invested their love and attention in a teacher.

But the teacher's account of how wild the scene can be in the city's schools is a sobering illustration of the huge job Rhee has taken on, and a reminder of the almost heroic demands that we make of teachers who walk into schools every day tasked with making up for parents' shortcomings.

Both sides in this debate are right: It's impossible for any teacher to overcome all of the obstacles that so many kids bring to school in the inner city, but it's also unacceptable to therefore back away from our demand that all students be held to high expectations. Rhee remains the best hope the system has, even if she does have a weakness for flashy, desperate quick fixes. She's the first leader this system has had in decades who is adamant about making structural changes that will really alter the classroom experience for the better. Whether she can pull it off remains unknown, and the atmosphere inevitably grows less and less friendly to dramatic change.

By Marc Fisher |  November 12, 2008; 8:07 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I'm not surprised that the new "First Family Elect" is looking at private schools for thier two daughters. The security concerns for the Secret Service in public schools are considerable to say the least. Private schools, especially those in high profile areas such as Washington DC and Hollywood CA are often already known to and work with the Secret Service and other executive security providers.

I don't blame any parent for taking a serious looks at charter schools, catholic schools, and or other private schools when the public schools in their area have failed the community. This is not the case everywhere, so look into it and don't just assume your district is bad, do your homework and check them out.

Posted by: AugustaWaterCooler | November 12, 2008 8:42 AM

I don't believe there are any parents involved in that parents group. Note that the first word in their group's name is "Teachers." I have yet to meet even one parent who doesn't want Michelle Rhee to clean up the schools. I bet that there are less than 100 parents who oppose the chancellor. Marc Fisher owed it to his readers to shed light on these phony teachers' groups who take parents' names in vain.

I want to see a minimum of 50% of the DCPS teachers who I saw working in 2007 fired. 50% must be fired. THAT IS THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE MAJORITY OF DCPS PARENTS. PERIOD.

Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 9:29 AM

I taught in DCPS for five years and like the teacher who blogged, resigned because I was not supported as an employee. I loved my students but they needed much more than the school system was willing to offer them. I applaud Michelle Rhee for taking control of a terrible situation head on. There are a hideous number of bad principals and bad teachers who are getting away with checking in and checking out and do not believe in the potential of the students. There are also many dedicated and wonderful teachers who are drowning while the union supports the former group over the latter. These children have amazing potential - I saw it every day - and they deserve a school system that promotes their learning instead of promoting inadequacy. It absolutely needs to stop and if it seems like Rhee is a bull in a china shop, it's probably because she recognizes the urgency in making these changes. Real reform can't happen until the dead weight is removed. These children CAN succeed and those who believe otherwise should pack their bags.

Posted by: educator51 | November 12, 2008 11:30 AM

>>Smith says initiatives such as the system's new "Capital Gains" experiment, which pays students cash money for showing up to school on a regular basis, send the wrong message and fly in the face of public opinion.>"I agree IN SOME WAYS that every student can learn," Sylvia says.<<

If I ever heard a teacher in Bowie utter those words, I would be protesting the school for her/his removal.

Posted by: ProfessorWrightBSU | November 12, 2008 12:50 PM

Paying dysfunctional impoverished children to attend school regularly will teach them that working hard and showing up on time is the key to success in life. G-d forbid that poor children should learn this lesson.

Posted by: ProfessorWrightBSU | November 12, 2008 12:53 PM

ProfessorWright, now you see why DCPS parents support such strong measures against the so-called teachers in these schools. It is an obscenity to teaching.

Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 12:55 PM

Well, I live in DC and I can tell you that everyone I know supports Michelle Rhee's efforts. In fact, they all based their votes for city council and school board on whether the candidate supports Ms. Rhee. I don't understand why the teacher's union is so opposed to merit pay. Is it really that your superior would rate your performance? Or that the principal could interview you and decide whether she wanted you to work at her school? Ms. Rhee has finally focused on the kids and their needs (something DCPS has failed to do for years and years!).

Regarding the Obamas choice for a school. Let's be real, they sent their daughters to a private school in Chicago, so why would they enroll them in a public school. Obama made clear that he is against school choice for people who can't afford it, he has no problem with it for people, like him, who have the money to opt out of public schools when they are bad.

Posted by: columbiaheights | November 12, 2008 1:18 PM

I went to school in Jamaica where we had the British system of schooling and I've always like that system. I knew back then that when I got up in the morning and got ready for school, I was going to school. I was dressed for school and was prepared to learn. I was shocked to see children going to public school wearing anything they want to wear, as if they were not going to school but going to popular contest party. If you look at Catholic school where students are required to dress for school by wearing uniforms, you will see that their performance is much better than that of the public schools. When most adults go to work, they dress a certain way for work and are for the most part prepared to work. The DC public school system should require that all public school student go to school wearing uniforms. This to many readers may not seem like a solution to improving the DC public school system, but it is start. Students have so many to deal with in today's society, from personal problems to family problems to just adjusting to their environment. They don't need additional worries like what clothing they should wear to school. You wouldn't have to worry about young girls going to school looking like young hookers and young boys going to school looking like thugs. After this, then the school system can concentrate on the issue of incompetent teachers, administrators and chancellor. For those who support Michelle Rhee, do you really support her for her work or do you support another effort to use DC public school students as guinea pigs?

Posted by: blacksheepanp | November 12, 2008 1:26 PM

You are so very wrong. Ms. Rhee is not the best hope that this city has. She's the worst nightmare that this city has. She and the mayor are the worst we have seen in a very long time. I hope she finds that her services are best suited for Sacamento since she is presently working on another mayor's initiatives.

Posted by: candycane1 | November 12, 2008 1:57 PM

I have to agree with previous posters that involved active DCPS parents have our hopes and dreams pinned on Michelle Rhee. Those who oppose her do not understand the great disservice being done to generations of DCPS students and most likely do not have children in the DCPS system. Teachers play a most important role in the lives of all Americans. We entrust the most important resource that this country has, the minds of future presidents, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, etc., to these people. Our teachers need to be accountable end of story. In all of the rancor over connecting accountability to test scores I have not seen one proposal from the WTU on what is an alternative tangible measure of accountability. The WTU is an affront to me as someone who is very pro-union. The public fighting and the protection of the incompetent at the expense of those like DC Teacher Chic is unconscionable.

Ms. Rhee has my full support and most of all my respect for taking on this onerous task.

Posted by: mmcgowen | November 12, 2008 2:16 PM

if Rhee is DC's best hope, lord help these kids. DCPS has broad challenges, much more than teachers and competence. I think all folks have made good points, and I have always marveled at the British system.

As for the lady's comment on potential to learn, i think we must understand she was speaking in a general sense. Yes, all kids can learn. I think she would clarify that point. However, the realities of home environments impact the outcomes of these kids ability to learn. It is so many issues impacting these kids and DCPS, we cannot narrow the debate to an issue of semantics. I have worked with kids and teach adult ed part time. you can see early on the students that grasp the lesson, and those that need extra effort or attention. People do not speak to it, but those that need extra attention typically need it throughout the course, the year etc. because they just do not get it or have the additional resource to make of for the deficiency.

Posted by: oknow1 | November 12, 2008 2:46 PM

To BBCrock who wrote, "I don't believe there are any parents involved in" Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform, do you also "believe" that Barack Obama is an Arab Marxist? The FACT is that of the twelve bloggers listed on the Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform Web site, I know four to be parents who are not teachers: three are parents of students in, or graduates of, DCPS; and one is a social worker in a DC public school and a parent of children who are not yet of school age. (There may be other parents on the list; I don't recognize all of the names.)

You assert that "THE MAJORITY OF DCPS PARENTS. PERIOD" endorse the firing of 50 percent of the DCPS teachers you "saw working in 2007." From what vantage point did you observe these teachers, and how many teachers did you observe? How many parents have you surveyed that you can make the claim that the majority of DCPS parents agree with you?

As for jumping on ProfessorWrightBSU's bandwagon, castigating Kerry Sylvia for her statement, "I agree in some ways that every student can learn," I can only say that you and PrfessorWrightBSU should hold fire when you know nothing more about Ms. Sylvia than a single quote selected by a journalist. Ms. Sylvia is an effective and dedicated teacher working in a challenging environment in a dysfunctional school system, and the Bowie schools would be lucky to have her.

Finally, as the parent of a 2006 DCPS graduate and a volunteer at Woodrow Wilson H.S., I am of the opinion that Ms. Rhee is ill-prepared and temperamentally unsuited to take control of any school system, let alone one with the myriad long-standing problems of DCPS. The changes I have seen made at Wilson with her direct involvement, and the lack of improvement at that school in, for example, class size and any services for students with learning disabilities, have only deepened my low opinion of her actions. In fact, on the basis of her conduct as chancellor, I would not vote for Adrian Fenty again.

Posted by: AERzonzinska | November 12, 2008 2:58 PM

AERzonzinska, you yourself admit that a bunch of the people involved in the groups are non-parents (parents of DCPS graduates or a social worker) and that supports MY argument, not yours. Are you a parent of a DCPS student or not? You seem to suggest you are not (parent of a 2006 graduate). The fact that you are not a parent of a DCPS student makes all the difference, you no longer have your child's future at stake. You literally have written that everything I said was true.

I am a PTA officer in my second DCPS elementary school. In my interactions with parents at PTA meetings at two schools and at the DC-wide PTA meeting, every single parent I spoke to was excited that Rhee would fire many dead-wood teachers who could not EVER get jobs in ANY local school system.

I too am a DCPS volunteer in the broad sense of the word. Creating and teaching projects in my kid's class, working on-campus, now in Ward 3, same as you, and talking directly to the principals and teachers.

I have no issue with Kerry Sylvia, except that she is fighting against the students and for the teachers. We are fighting for the students and against the bad teachers. What the good teachers fail to realize is that the majority of DCPS teachers that I have met could not get jobs next door to DC in Montgomery County or Arlington County. They are so far below standard that merely being a poor teacher makes them average in DCPS.

I am giving the city one more year.

Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 3:17 PM

You are so very wrong. Ms. Rhee is not the best hope that this city has. She's the worst nightmare that this city has. She and the mayor are the worst we have seen in a very long time

I know CandyCane, you're a diehard Maryor Barry Supporter, we get it. Keep pining for his return CandyCane, don't worry if I sit that one out.

Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 3:28 PM

"slower investments that support teachers" translation: more money with no accountability.

Posted by: jy151310 | November 12, 2008 6:44 PM

I certainly don't agree, nor can I take serious "Candi" and her cohort, my opinions on Rhee have shifted.

It is true that in many schools people should be afraid for their jobs. Probably half of them need to go. I geniunely supported Rhee at the start.

However, in the last several months I've seen up close the damage Rhee has inflicted on the system. She hasn't even bothered to see what people and programs are effective.

I'd love to speak out, but I'm afraid. I can't say anything that would bring attention to the principal of my child's school.

It is true, Rhee does answer every email. Then she forwards it on to people who don't respond or fail to address the issue.

It's exactly the same as it always has been, except with crackberries.

Posted by: concerneddcpsparent | November 12, 2008 7:05 PM

Except for L.A., I can't think of another cosmopolitan district where virtually 100% of the families who are able to flee the public schools do so. NYC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco- all of these cities have managed to retain at least a certain percentage of their middle-class families. Why is D.C. unwilling or unable to offer the kinds of schools that will do the same?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 12, 2008 10:14 PM

Also, as compared to other metropolitan districts, DC spends more money per pupil for these abysmal results. When I taught there, the two biggest problems with the money were 1. mismanagement and 2. special ed. Students are severely overclassified in special ed because they either reach a point where they've fallen too far behind in reading, or they've become behavior issues that no one wants to deal with. It's a real shame. Parents know that they'll get government money and their children won't be retained so too many of them push for the children to be classified. The district is overburdened with these students who are NOT learning disabled and then when they can't provide the services, they get nailed with lawsuits. The district is hemorrhaging money from this problem - unless things have changed since I left in 2004.

Posted by: educator51 | November 13, 2008 8:09 AM

I like the "sense of urgency" that Rhee has brought to DCPS. It used to seem like it took forever for things to get done. Overall, I think more light needs to be shed on the social circumstances that DCPS has to take on (character development). As a new parent to DCPS. I have observed this personally.

I have 2 girls in DCPS (3 yr program, now Pre-K) and my experience with DCPS has been good, but still filled with intertesting observations.

For example, their was a 3 yr old kid sleeping in the classroom on the floor while the other kids were playing outside during recess. Their teacher told me that he doesn't get enough sleep in his home, environment (social circumstances). Therefore, he "tends to sleep in class".

Other 3-year olds don't have adults to read to them for their homework (30 minutes a night) so they bring 5th graders to read to them during the day. This is reading that should be done at home in order for them to be prepared and ready to go during the day. The reading log reflects this.

In my opinion, I don't think it's fair for teachers to be helf accountable for social circumstances like this that our outside of their control. If students aren't prepared to contribute in a team-oriented learning environment, they should be removed and placed in a room with other kids in similar circumstances (i.e., get the help they need). Pre-K in essence is really playcare for some.....

When I showed up for orientation at the start of the school year, a few of the parents were dismayed, because the teacher told them that they were expected to read to their 3-year old kids as a part of their homework. Thi skins of reaction eads me to think that many parents are not always stepping up, because they don't know how to step up. In the meantime, teachers and principals come and go.

In my opinion, their teacher is good and appears to be qualified and really committed. At the same time, she could only shrug her shoulder at the social concerns she was having to deal with. How do you discipline the 3 year-old kid that-for reasons outside of his control-can't help but fall asleep in class?

What impact does this type of behavior have on kids that come prepared to learn with supportive parents that inevitable seek other options?

Posted by: Anacostiaque | November 13, 2008 9:31 AM

Tenure (or "permanent status," as we prefer to call it in California) is often misunderstood. So is the concept of merit pay, which is oft-mentioned but seldom clarified.

Tenure was implemented as a historical trade-off for low wages and as a guarantor of academic freedom, and it was of particular importance in attracting males to urban schools around the turn of the 20th century.

To the public, tenure has come to represent protection for mediocre or even incompetent teachers. Our profession should not tolerate bad teachers. Properly applied, tenure should guarantee due process for aggrieved teachers as well as for those who need to be dismissed.

Absent merit pay, talented, committed teachers have no hope of improving their salaries based on performance. As a consequence, some - not all - teachers lose incentive to improve, evolve and remain vital in their profession. So, on its face, merit pay appears to be the answer.

The problem with merit pay is that many teachers necessarily would be left behind when bonuses are awarded. For instance, how would we evaluate successful music or art teachers? They don't administer the standardized tests that are today's holy grail in education. Many other teachers - and counselors - would fly below the merit pay radar for the same reason.

Teachers don't object to the concept of merit pay. What they fear is the inevitable stratification of faculties that would roil individual school sites, especially if standardized test scores become the principal evaluative tool.

Posted by: warthog1 | November 13, 2008 12:39 PM


The teaching profession has long promulgated this concept that it's "impossible" to judge a good teacher vs a bad teacher. We all know this is untrue. However the teaching industry has allowed this to continue without instituting reasonable guidelines for themselves. The government, with their imperfect NCLB was forced to step in. The NEA and/or teaching certification boards can know with some research what these guidelines for good and bad teachers are that can easily remove higher than normal subjectivity from the process. But I'm not an educator, so I don't know what those results are. People in education research know what makes a good teacher. The NEA and related organizations need to know that the governments and the parents are serious and sooner or later they will create a "real" certification test and related management metrics that show what makes a good teacher. Only that will end the debate. who is willing to confront the NEA about this?

Think about your credit score and your insurance score. Your credit score is a single number that encapsulates a large amount of statistics about your historic spending into one number. There is no reason that a group of actuaries couldn't come up with a "teacher's score. no rason at all, except FUD.

Posted by: bbcrock | November 13, 2008 4:58 PM

You are right: it's easy to identify the good teachers. It's equally obvious when a teacher is not up to the task. However, your post implies that teacher competency should be gauged by how much a teacher knows about his/her subject. While that's important, it's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what successful teachers do. Good teachers connect with human beings by forging relationships that encourage inquiry, curiosity and the quest for "standards."

Education critics want test scores to be the principal measure of teachers' efficacy. We strenuously object to that.

An example: If you had two high schools in a given town, and one of them was on the affluent, educated side of the tracks and the other was in an area populated mostly by immigrants and low income families, which one do you think would have the higher test scores? Now, imagine you were to transpose the respective teaching staffs from one school to the other. Working with a dramatically different clientele, would the teachers who had been at the affluent school now be deemed inadequate, or would they be assigned a lower "score," because their students' test scores didn't measure up to their counterparts' at the affluent school? Wouldn't they be the same teachers who presided over superior test scores with their previous students?

Few people truly understand the essence of good teaching. The principal assets of their skill set can't be measured or assigned a score.

Subject mastery is sine qua non for good teachers, but it's not the most important attribute we need.

Another example: We buy a car from a dealership's salesperson. They don't know the most about cars. Mechanics do. But mechanics don't sell cars. Good salespeople have an abundance of skills that supercede their knowledge of cars.

Extending that example to education, our critics want us to be all things to all people. We're expected to design the car, sell the car and fix the car.

Posted by: warthog1 | November 14, 2008 12:14 PM

Anacostiaque: Your post is very accurate. I taught in Anacostia and at another school in SE and it's so difficult when parents either don't know what's best for their children or are unwilling or unable to help them. I think most of my students' parents were doing the best they could, but the city needs to do a lot more to support the "whole child" before the schools will improve. You can't blame a 3 year old for not getting enough sleep or even an 11 year old for having to take care of 3 siblings. So, as teachers, we find ourselves being sympathetic and trying to allow them to get their needs met at school, even if they aren't academic. But - it's not doing them any real service in the end because they aren't getting the education they need to succeed. Perhaps if you are in the community and have this awareness as a parent, you could volunteer at your child's school to help educate more parents and get them involved. I think change comes best from within the community. I was a white teacher in an all-black school and while I had a good relationship with the parents, it still sends a different message if I tell them what they should be doing v. a fellow parent telling them. However, contrary to public opinion, most of my students' parents really wanted the best for their children. Some just didn't know what to do.

Posted by: educator51 | November 15, 2008 8:12 AM

I completely agree with you. I spent 7 years in DC and am now in Montgomery County. I found myself in the same situation.

Also my son is in DCPS. I am very wary of Rhee and Fenty's plans. As a teacher and parent I look at things from both sides. I'm not enthused when I see someone with little teaching experience and who, according to her background can't be a certified teacher, take over a school district. We all agree that DCPS needs some serious changes, but when you start a war with the teachers and don't work with the parents, what can be accomplished?

Posted by: 39aka94 | November 17, 2008 2:48 PM

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