The Education Issue

Clean Up This Mess!

By Thomas Toch and Sara Mead
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Why can't we fix our schools?

It's the number one question on District residents' minds. It's the question Adrian M. Fenty has promised to make his top priority as mayor. It's the question that has bedeviled the city and its various governments for nearly four decades. But it doesn't look as though things are getting any better.

Here's the latest:

· The city's fourth-graders placed dead last in reading and math in a federal study of 11 urban school systems last year. · Only 19 percent of city schools -- 28 of 146 -- met modest reading and math standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

· Enrollment keeps plummeting -- from 80,000 a decade ago to 58,000 today -- as wholesale defections continue. · Even the charter schools that promised a cure have failed to meet lofty expectations.

It's a dismal record. Yet in many ways, it reflects the problems that plague any large urban school district -- a high concentration of low-income students, bureaucratic inertia, aging schools and crumbling infrastructure. City school systems from New York to Houston to Los Angeles confront the same constellation of challenges. Test scores have begun to climb in a handful of places, such as Boston, but urban school reform is slow, laborious work, and it's not at all clear just how far we can go in transforming urban systems.

But if the District's problems seem particularly intractable, it's because they are.

Schools in the nation's capital suffer from a special affliction: too many emperors. The continual battling for control over the school system among government officials and agencies -- as well as the congressional gorilla on Capitol Hill -- has resulted in ever-shifting priorities, an absence of accountability, low morale and waste. It has spawned an endless churning of leadership (six superintendents or acting superintendents in the past 10 years), promoted patronage and spurred endless political infighting.

These are hardly the circumstances from which successful school reform springs. Just the opposite: An outside audit of the school system in 2004 found that the District's hydra-headed power structure had left the city unable even to establish a vision for improvement. Indeed, the review concluded that the city had "no . . . strategy for raising student achievement."

Into this vacuum strides Fenty with a promise to "demand and deliver results."

But the mayor-in-waiting is not the first to vow to slay the District education dragon. And unless the many factions that lord over the city's schools can be persuaded to work together, he probably won't be the last.

The schools haven't always been a blot on the city's image. The school system was founded in 1804, and President Thomas Jefferson was the first chairman of the board. Dunbar High School, established in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, was the nation's first and most prestigious secondary school for black students.

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