Arlington's Smith Has a Track Record Obama Would Prize

By Jay Mathews
Monday, November 24, 2008

There is a lot of talk about who the next U.S. secretary of education will be. All I know is it won't be Rob Smith.

That's Robert G. Smith, 65, the Arlington County school superintendent due to retire in June. The name fits the person. He is quiet, humble, bookish and -- if you compare him with other Washington area superintendents I know -- almost anonymous. He is not the kind of person a secretary of education has to be: out there selling the department's story. He has other things on his mind.

I have admired several U.S. education secretaries -- Bill Bennett, Dick Riley, Rod Paige and the current jobholder, Margaret Spellings. I think they would all make splendid school superintendents. Paige was one before he came to Washington. The candidates for next education secretary also look good to me. I would bet on Arne Duncan, leader of the Chicago public schools. Other possibilities like former South Carolina state superintendent Inez Tenenbaum and New York City Chancellor Joel Klein are also good. But their track records don't come close to Smith's.

He grew up in Silver Spring, was a teacher and an administrator in Frederick County and an assistant superintendent in the Spring district of Houston before applying for the Arlington job in 1997. School board member Libby Garvey has never forgotten his answer to a standard question: Why do you want to come to Arlington? "He said that many people in education around the nation thought that you could usually predict how a child would do in school if you knew that child's racial and ethnic background," Garvey recalled. "He said he wanted to come to Arlington and prove them wrong."

The county was moving rapidly to where it is now. Less than half of its students are non-Hispanic whites. A third are from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Many superintendents use that as an excuse for poor academic performance. Smith did the opposite, becoming one of the first district leaders in the country to make closing the achievement gap between white and minority students a public goal.

I was the Washington Post reporter covering Arlington schools when he announced the plan. I analyzed the move in a typically cynical journalist's way. I thought he was taking a big risk. Closing those gaps would be hard. If the numbers didn't go his way, people like me would put it in the paper, and he would look bad. The emphasis on poor minority children was a potential sore point with affluent white parents who worried their kids might be ignored.

Guess who turned out to be right? I hadn't checked Arlington's numbers in several years. Smith, of course, never called to brag about them. Last week, I asked county schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos to send me the data. I was vaguely aware that Smith had made some progress, but I was not prepared for the size of the gains.

From 1998 to this year, the percentage of Arlington students passing the Virginia Standards of Learning exams rose from 65 to 90 percent. The progress by minorities was even greater: Black students went from 37 percent to 74 percent and Hispanic students from 47 percent to 82 percent. All groups improved. Whites went from 82 percent to 96 percent, Asians from 69 percent to 95 percent.

On the gaps, Smith made me look like an idiot. The distance between non-Hispanic white and black passing rates was cut in half, from 45 to 22 percentage points. Between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, the gap shrank from to 35 to 14 percentage points.

Smith would say more has to be done and this was not his doing, but the result of hard work by teachers, students, parents and the county's very good school board. But he can't deny what he did to encourage such an effort. He co-founded the Minority Student Achievement Network, a group of districts across the country that share information on how to close the gaps. There was one full-day and 17 half-day pre-kindergarten programs when Smith arrived; now there are 44 full-day programs. By last year, 89 Arlington teachers had earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, one of the largest totals in Virginia. They were encouraged by Smith's insistence that the county pay for the expensive review process.

The county's four high schools are among the nation's most innovative in encouraging challenging courses. Arlington went from 962 college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams in 1997 to 3,626 this year, a 277 percent increase. Smith took the unconventional move of making Doris Jackson, a former guidance counselor, principal of his lowest-performing high school, Wakefield. She introduced summer prep programs and achievement-oriented clubs for students from non-college families and continued her predecessor's effort to open AP to all. AP participation increased, with scores still strong, winning the school a rare national award.

For the next few months, Smith will be getting warm praise and nice dinners as he prepares to leave. But he appears to be in good health and still has many promising ideas. I wonder if I might be wrong, again. Give him a good publicity team and he could be a great education secretary.

Dear President-elect Obama: Please check this guy out.


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