Federal Official Praises Progress, Urges More Long-Term Planning
Saturday, March 15, 2008
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his education team have made progress in correcting long-standing problems in the beleaguered school system but have failed to develop long-range plans and to fully involve the community in the process, a U.S. Government Accountability Office investigator said yesterday.
The official, testifying before a Senate panel, echoed criticism by school advocates that Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee introduces initiatives piecemeal and that she solicits feedback from the community after her plans are formulated.
The accountability office is looking for "something that covers education in the District as a whole. None of the [Rhee] efforts by themselves do this," Cornelia M. Ashby, director of education, workforce and income security at the GAO, told the Senate subcommittee that oversees the District.
Ashby, who said she was asked by the subcommittee to conduct a long-term study of the school system, said, "Bring in stakeholders not just to comment or hear about plans but to be at the ground level developing the plans."
Rhee disagreed in her testimony with suggestions that she had solicited feedback after the fact on her plans to close 23 schools and overhaul 27 others where students had repeatedly failed to meet academic targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law. She said she had numerous meetings at the schools and incorporated ideas from the public into her plans.
Ashby said the Fenty administration has laid a solid foundation for improving the system by introducing a set of sweeping changes: a new governance structure that puts the mayor in charge of schools; shifting state functions from the school system to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education; approving a plan to consolidate schools; and streamlining the central office through the firing of 98 workers.
But she urged Fenty (D), Rhee, Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso and State Education Superintendent Deborah A. Gist to work together with the community to create a five-year plan for the schools.
Rhee expressed doubt that a long-term strategy was needed, saying her time would be better used taking action rather than making plans. She said she has seen shelves at the central office full of "binders and binders of plans" that were never implemented.
"I would say that part of the problem in public education today is we have a whole lot of plans and not enough execution," she said. "Our energy and time have to be [spent] doing the real work rather than creating the plans."
Gist testified that her office is initiating a long-range plan that will be based largely on the master education plan previous superintendent Clifford B. Janey developed. The plan focused on proposals to improve instruction, including the conversion of high schools whose students have failed to meet academic targets into specialty schools concentrating on communication, science and construction.
In an interview, Ashby said she is looking for a more detailed plan that would include strategies on improving academics, facilities and community involvement. The plan also would detail school leaders' goals and vision and a schedule for achieving them.
A study released this week by the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education highlighted the huge task facing D.C. school leaders: The study, which compares the city with the 50 states but not with other large urban districts, estimates that 58.2 percent of seniors graduated last year from District high schools, compared with 70 percent nationwide.