By Jay Mathews
Monday, June 15, 2009
Summer arrives in a few days, so this will be the last Schools & Learning page until August. I am not happy about that. It's shameful to admit, but this column is both my occupation and my favorite recreation. I will be looking for ways to sneak in a few pieces over the summer, maybe when my editor is on vacation.
Hoping to distract me from such thoughts, he has suggested that I use this opportunity -- the end of my first school year with this column -- to look back and see whether I did anybody any good.
I rashly promised in my first column, Aug. 25, to answer several vital questions: Would D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee succeed? Would Prince George's County become an educational model? Would Fairfax, Montgomery and other wealthy counties survive budget cuts? Would regular and charter public schools end their war? Is there help for special-education families? Can we chill out about college admissions? What can we do about dropouts?
My answers: probably, maybe, yes, no, maybe, no and who knows? Oh, you wanted some detail, some sign that I had actually investigated these matters? There, I fear, my record is spotty.
You heard a lot about Rhee from me this year. I wrote three columns about better teaching at one of her most drastically reorganized schools, Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, and four on her relations with teacher unions, charter schools, the Obama children and the new generation of school innovators of which she is a part. Shaw Middle had a good year. Its test scores seem to be improving. Its parents are happier. Its students are engaged. All that led to a rather startling decision by Rhee to grant a request from eighth-graders (I didn't believe it at first, but it was a genuine kids' initiative) that she create a ninth grade there so they could stay another year. The future of Rhee's plan for the D.C. schools is impossible to predict, because she is so unlike any other urban superintendent I have seen. But she believes in the things the most successful teachers I know believe in, so I think her prospects are good.
I did two columns on Prince George's. Superintendent John E. Deasy, known for his efforts there to raise student achievement, surprised me by taking a job with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He was succeeded by his talented but less-experienced deputy, William R. Hite Jr. The number of college-level tests given in Prince George's high schools increased 44 percent in one year, a remarkable, heartening event. But many of those tests received low scores. I am not sure yet whether the principals and teachers working so hard to improve achievement in the county have the support from central administrators and parents who will allow them to get tough on such issues as homework, attendance and classroom behavior. If they do, they have a chance to turn Prince George's schools into something many other districts will want to study.
I wish that the Prince George's school board and Hite would consider adding one more element to their plan: more charter schools. Charters aren't all good, but the best ones in the District are better than any of the regular public schools. Low-achieving school systems that do not give parents a wide choice of charters are, in my view, letting old ideas and politics get in the way of helping kids learn.
Schools in Montgomery, Fairfax and other affluent counties are doing fine, despite budget cuts. That is because they have large majorities of families who value public education and are willing to pay for it. This year, I examined many instances of the creativity that comes from smart administration, good teaching and energetic parenting. The Washington suburban Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, already the best in the country, got better. Innovative changes such as senior projects, new grading systems and accelerated reading and math left me wondering why anyone living in those suburbs would send their children to private schools. (Yeah, I know. This Montgomery resident sent his kid to one, but that was her and my wife's idea.)
I chronicled the war between regular and charter schools, which saw a bit of a respite because Rhee is so pro-charter. College admissions angst got no better, despite what I thought were wise suggestions for more imaginative college prep courses and smarter tactics in handling college wait lists.
Inexcusably, I did nothing to solve the mysteries of improving the education of students with disabilities and reducing dropout rates. I am not sure either of those problems has ready solutions. Next year, I'd better at least try to say why.
There is much to cover in the schools of the Washington area. Just about every education debate of national significance arises here, except for teaching evolution. Our public schools seem to be able to agree on that at least, thank goodness. Maybe we can unify in the same way to solve a few more problems and reduce significantly the number of our children who aren't getting the schooling they deserve.