Politics could torpedo D.C. schools’ incipient progress

With the power back on, vacation coming and the Nationals in first place this summer, it is easy to forget our troubles — particularly something as removed from most of our lives as the perilous state of the D.C. schools.

But the issue merits attention. Few public school systems have as much promise. Teachers are getting better salaries, standards have been raised and some schools are recognized as national models for raising student achievement.

That potential is in jeopardy because the D.C. schools are controlled by the mayor. When the mayor is in trouble, as Vincent C. Gray is because of questions about his 2010 campaign, so are the schools, no matter how hard teachers are working or how quickly schools are adjusting to new common standards.

The District has become a focal point for U.S. educational policy. If poor children here cannot reach higher achievement levels with all the changes made and money spent, it will be a victory for those who say kids like that are not capable of doing any better.

I have been conferring with D.C. educators and experts about this. Some have watched education crises come and go for decades. How bad is this one, they wonder, and how do they survive it and move toward better days?

Despite my belief that Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has failed to respond adequately to widespread D.C. test-sheet tampering, I hope she keeps her job. The person I know with the best grasp of D.C. school history says: “I have hoped for a superintendent who would know what to do and a governing group that would stand aside and allow them to do it — and give them the time we all know is required. I think Kaya is that person. She is smart and has an excellent team. . . . You won’t get a better leader.”

We won’t find anyone willing to take such a demanding job who is more knowledgeable than Henderson about how schools improve. A replacement would probably come from outside the District. It takes a long time to gain the understanding of our local politics that Henderson has achieved through painful experience.

One veteran teacher likes some of Henderson’s selections for principals despite his fear of her connection to her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, whom he calls “the most destructive force in the history of DCPS.” I feel differently about Rhee. She should get credit for clearing deadwood from administrative offices, getting more money for teachers and moving away from evaluating instructors by inertia. The new teacher assessment system, IMPACT, has problems, like all such reforms in their early years. But Henderson understands teaching and is more likely to make sensible improvements than anyone else we could get.

Another veteran teacher said he likes the principal Henderson picked for his school. The previous school leader, picked by Rhee, was too fond of telling his teachers at faculty meetings how awful they were. Henderson puts more emphasis on people skills. She works well with the charter school leaders. She has encouraged many of the most creative educators and gotten rid of some bad principals, including some who probably inflated their test scores. I think one reason Henderson hasn’t done a full-scale investigation of cheating is that there is not enough money for that.

There is no magic cure for the D.C. schools. Much needs fixing. One principal said schools have been given little help in preparing for the new standards: “No new textbooks, no workbooks, no teacher resource kits.” Teacher turnover is “atrocious, mind-bogglingly numbing,” said one D.C. educator. The central office still has deadbeats, said one D.C. official, including a staffer who never arrives before 10 a.m., “shops on the Internet . . . and socializes the rest of the day.”

Starting all over with a new and inexperienced leadership team won’t help. But many D.C. school veterans wonder if the city’s political leaders understand that.

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.
com/jaymathews.

 
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