Correction to This Article
A June 11 Page One article incorrectly said that a board appointed by Congress seized control of the D.C. public schools in 1996. Congress authorized the board, but its members were presidentially appointed.
Part 2: Reform's Checkered History

Worn Down by Waves of Change

By April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

When a board appointed by Congress seized control of the D.C. public schools in 1996, its members were eager to give the school system a clean break from its troubled past. They fired Superintendent Franklin L. Smith, replaced him with a war hero, retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., and urged Becton not to bother debriefing Smith.

"I finally decided, 'This is crazy,' " said Becton, who arranged a quiet meeting with his predecessor at a downtown office building. The advice Smith gave was ominous.

"I know you are accustomed to giving orders, turning around and saying, 'Forward march!' " Smith recalled telling Becton. "My only advice is that in this job, you turn around and look to see who is following you. Because every time you think people are following you, they are not. And that includes the inside staff."

A year and a half later, it was the general's turn to leave town in frustration, blamed for failing to transform the schools.

The history of D.C. school reform is filled with fix-it plans hailed as silver bullets and would-be saviors who are celebrated before being banished. The constant churn of reform has been a big part of the schools' troubles, according to school officials, community activists and others who have watched the system for decades.

D.C.'s schools are shot through with silver bullets. The revolving door of school superintendents -- six in the past 10 years alone -- has meant that few reforms had time to filter down to the classrooms. Isolated gains achieved under one reform theory were tossed aside, lost or forgotten in the next. Some reforms that did have an impact went awry, accelerating inequality, distrust and decline.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) will take over the schools tomorrow with a new promise to fix a host of the same problems -- abysmal test scores, dysfunctional management systems, decaying buildings -- that have been identified and targeted, but never corrected, by one would-be reformer after another. Fenty is expected to try a familiar quick fix: replace the current superintendent, Clifford B. Janey, and install his choice in the job, which will be renamed chancellor.

Fenty's takeover comes 40 years after a federal judge ordered the white-dominated, federally appointed school board in June 1967 to stop practices that discriminated against African American children.

"I think this means a bright future for the poor black boys and girls in the school system," a jubilant Julius Hobson, the civil rights leader who initiated the lawsuit that led to the ruling, said at the time. He soon joined the District's first elected school board.

The bright future Hobson envisioned has not materialized. Among the reasons: The District's unique political history exacerbated distrust between blacks and whites and allowed Congress to interfere at a level unseen by school leaders elsewhere.

Urban school systems that have improved student achievement despite the challenges of social ills have done so in large part because politicians, educators and community groups agreed on a single reform strategy and were "pulling together in the same direction" for a long time, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit group based in the District.

In the District, the opposite has happened, said Casserly, who has long advised Washington superintendents. Politicians -- in the city, Congress and the White House -- educators and community activists have engaged in a long-running tug of war.

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