'Poised to Make a Difference' in D.C. Schools

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, March 6, 2006

By rights, D.C. school Superintendent Clifford Janey should not be as cheerful and relaxed as he appears.

Last year, his first in Washington, only 11 percent of his fourth-graders and 12 percent of his eighth-graders scored at or above "proficient" in reading, according to figures contained in the "Master Education Plan" he published last week. Enrollment is steadily declining, as private and charter schools entice students from a dysfunctional system; more than 2,200 high school places are empty.

This year there are 4,247 ninth-graders and only 2,318 12th-graders, the difference providing some measure of how many children are lost to the system before they graduate. More than a third of high school students are overage for their grade, usually because they've been held back at least once.

To these indicators Janey, during a conversation in his office, adds more. The system spends 26 percent of its local funds on special education, which serves 4 percent of its children. When he arrived 18 months ago, he found 10,000 problem checks -- paychecks or legal judgments the system had neglected to pay, step increases that hadn't been calculated -- each of which took hours to resolve.

It was all "much more of a mess" than he had expected, "beyond some of the broken indicators," Janey says, though presumably he knew how many superintendents had rotated through in the years preceding his arrival. The biggest surprise? "The way lying has reached an art form. They lie effortlessly. They just look you in the face and lie. I've come to accept that as standard."

Yet Janey does not appear beaten down. When I ask what he has accomplished so far, he says the system is "more poised to make a difference" than it was a year ago.

The apparent patience reflected in that remark induces anxiety among some school watchers, who worry that Janey has moved too slowly, has yet to assemble a full team, has failed to take advantage of some offers of assistance. The flip side of that, they hope, is his apparent commitment for the long haul -- his understanding that the system, like every urban system, is not amenable to a quick fix.

The master plan released last week, intended to guide school reform in coming years, speaks to that tension. It is so comprehensive that it raises a question of which changes are Janey's priority -- or whether any are. Janey responds that school reforms have foundered when they single out one aspect of the schools and expect the rest to fall into place -- as in, if only we could fix the middle schools, or offer universal pre-K, or institute annual testing or ramp up after-school programs or ban social promotions . . .

What might be among his most far-reaching reform proposals is barely hinted at, in two paragraphs on the 91st page of a 122-page report. There Janey holds out the possibility of giving more "flexibility and autonomy" to high-performing or improving schools. Other systems (most famously Edmonton's, in Canada) have found that this can work: Make the principal responsible for progress, then free the principal from the downtown bureaucracy. If the school can fix its own broken windows faster and more cheaply, let it. If it wants to hire an extra music teacher in place of a guidance counselor, go for it.

But this works only if principals can hire the teachers they want to hire, something that teacher union contracts up until now have made extremely difficult. Janey is in the process of negotiating a new contract (which is already almost two years overdue). As one measure of how serious he is about reform, watch whether he manages to pave the way for at least a pilot autonomy program for, say, 10 schools in the first year.

As my colleague Marc Fisher pointed out last week, plenty of other ambitious reform plans have come and gone. Bureaucrats, unions, interfering officials all have reckoned that they could outlast the superintendent -- and therefore the superintendent's plan. So a key is how long Janey will stick around.

He doesn't have to look in any reference book to tell you that the average tenure of a big-city school chief is 2.9 years -- "the same as in the NFL," he says. And like the NFL, he says, his isn't just a contact sport -- "it's a collision sport."

But so far the school board is working smoothly with him and -- though in an election year nothing is for sure -- city politicians seem to understand the need for continuity. Janey suggests he won't jump if he's not pushed.

"I am not daunted by people who want improvement but not the change necessary to bring about improvement," he says. "It'll take more than a couple of years. I'm not a four-year person. I think that our kids really deserve a once-and-for-all approach."


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