Give Principals the Power to Improve Schools

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

I am one of the elementary counselors who might be cut from Marie Reed school in Adams Morgan. There are very few, if any, elementary schools with 600 students.

Counselors are crucial to the well-being at any school level. The image of a guidance counselor has changed. My duties include far more than working with testing and attendance. I am nurse, parent, grief counselor, small- and large-group leader and much more.

Many teachers, counselors and other school staff members are living in a state of fear that their jobs might be cut anytime.

We are in the final weeks of school; the testing for the most part is finished. I ask for your help in questioning the decision making of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Betsy Wendt

The District

On this issue, I am with the mayor and the chancellor. They both understand what took me 25 years of writing about schools to learn: You cannot significantly raise the achievement of disadvantaged children unless schools are run by principals who were successful teachers and have the power to assemble their own teams of educators, all focused on learning.

It sounds as though you are that kind of person, too. If so, there will be a school that wants you. But if we don't leave it up to good principals to decide, and that includes the power to fire people who are not doing the job, we will continue to have the disappointments we have had in D.C. schools for so many years.

Dear Extra Credit:

I took the AP chemistry test as a senior in 1990 at Wootton High School. Although it was not school or Montgomery County policy back then, my teacher, Mr. Lilga, made certain everyone in the class knew he was expected to take the test.

His reason was simple. The class had a limited number of seats, and because you had to apply and compete to get in, it was not fair to "waste" a seat on someone who was not going to take the test when someone else could have.

But none of us was forced to take the test. I doubt the school could have forced anyone to take it. My teacher's position made sense to me, and his results spoke for themselves: 18 fives, nine fours and five threes.

Jose Menendez


Mr. Lilga was ahead of his time. I am hearing that some people want to end the policy of requiring AP exams for all AP students in Northern Virginia. That would be a bad move.

Dear Extra Credit:

Thank you for publishing the terrific poem by the fifth-grader at Bancroft Elementary School ["Some Measures of Success," Extras, May 15].

It was great to give recognition to the sentiments of a girl living through the testing regimen brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act. Your response was telling in that it seemed to condense the basic argument behind the law: "Without . . . state tests, we can't tell which schools are messed up."

Really? Are we so incapable as a society of doing analysis that we can't identify poorly functioning schools without state tests?

So, before the passage of this law, we collectively groped in the dark, unsure which schools were good and which were not? Is that really the truth?

I think not. I seem to recall an equal understanding as a society of which schools were generally recognized as being quality and which were not. I think homes in "good" school districts had higher values than those in "bad" ones. I recall that parents and other relatives would struggle to get kids into certain schools based on an understanding that they were better. All this happened for decades before No Child Left Behind, which certainly does not allow us to learn which schools are "messed up." We knew that already.

And even if we wanted another "objective analytical tool" to help us identify these schools (what's wrong with graduation rates and college placement success?), what poorer tool could be devised than state-mandated and created end-of-year exams? Because the tests are public knowledge, are scheduled well ahead and come with such draconian penalties for failure, they can be nothing more than objects of fear and hate.

Joshua Stearns

Arlington County

The answer to your first good question, whether we were groping in the dark, is yes. You describe very accurately the situation before we began to focus on annual assessments of students and schools. Indeed, most of us thought we knew which school districts were good and which were bad. Those judgments, then and now, were usually made based on how many children from low-income families attended those schools. If few, the school was good. If many, the school was bad.

That actually reflected, very closely, the average test results from those schools, because academic achievement -- as well as graduation and college placement rates -- is so closely tied to parental income.

But the successful inner-city teachers who have had the most influence on me and our testing policy began to point out that they were able to raise the achievement of such students substantially and could prove it if their students were tested regularly. Once we started such testing, we found that those good teachers in supposedly bad schools were right.

We also discovered that many supposedly good schools were stuffing their few low-income students in remedial classes and leaving them there, because they did not believe such kids could do much.

The tests we have could be improved, as you say, but the best teachers I know, and their students, do not fear them. They provide a quick, useful check of progress. I don't want to go back to the days when we assumed that only rich kids could learn much. I don't believe you do, either.

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