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.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: AugustaWaterCooler | November 12, 2008 8:42 AM
Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 9:29 AM
Posted by: educator51 | November 12, 2008 11:30 AM
Posted by: ProfessorWrightBSU | November 12, 2008 12:50 PM
Posted by: ProfessorWrightBSU | November 12, 2008 12:53 PM
Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 12:55 PM
Posted by: columbiaheights | November 12, 2008 1:18 PM
Posted by: blacksheepanp | November 12, 2008 1:26 PM
Posted by: candycane1 | November 12, 2008 1:57 PM
Posted by: mmcgowen | November 12, 2008 2:16 PM
Posted by: oknow1 | November 12, 2008 2:46 PM
Posted by: AERzonzinska | November 12, 2008 2:58 PM
Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 3:17 PM
Posted by: bbcrock | November 12, 2008 3:28 PM
Posted by: jy151310 | November 12, 2008 6:44 PM
Posted by: concerneddcpsparent | November 12, 2008 7:05 PM
Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 12, 2008 10:14 PM
Posted by: educator51 | November 13, 2008 8:09 AM
Posted by: Anacostiaque | November 13, 2008 9:31 AM
Posted by: warthog1 | November 13, 2008 12:39 PM
Posted by: bbcrock | November 13, 2008 4:58 PM
Posted by: warthog1 | November 14, 2008 12:14 PM
Posted by: educator51 | November 15, 2008 8:12 AM
Posted by: 39aka94 | November 17, 2008 2:48 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.