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No Use In Studying For This Test

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's teachable-moment time again for D.C. public school students, so let's get started. Question: Firing 229 teachers six weeks into the school year is:

A) Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's way of showing students how to throw a teacher under the bus.

B) How adults play Halloween tricks on kids.

C) Dumb as chalk.

"What upset us the most was seeing our teachers fired and then escorted from the building by D.C. police," Jessy Beach, 17, a senior at McKinley Technology High School, told me. "The students were saying, 'Shouldn't you guys be out catching criminals?' The police wouldn't even let us hug our teachers or say goodbye. It was horrible."

The correct answer is: all of the above.

Beach was one of several McKinley students who organized classmates for a protest march to D.C. school headquarters and on to city hall last week. The way the students saw it, Rhee had used a relatively small budget shortfall as a ruse to get rid of older teachers and make way for the 900 new ones she had hired over the summer.

The protest continued Saturday at a D.C. Council hearing on youth issues.

"We had a great science teacher who knew how to handle our class and make learning fun," said Dayna Downs, 13, an eighth-grader at Alice Deal Middle School. "Now he's been replaced with a less-experienced teacher, and the class is acting a lot differently. Some students don't listen anymore. Some talk while the new teacher is trying to talk because they want our old teacher back."

It is said that youngsters pay as much attention to what adults do as to what we say and that kids are especially alert to contradictions. On one hand, school officials say students should behave like ladies and gentlemen. On the other hand, Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty, who gave her near-dictatorial powers over the schools, have behaved like bullies, callous and inconsiderate.

Question: Can you spell hypocrite?

No one argues about the need to improve D.C. public schools. And Rhee has certainly won her share of accolades over the past two years as a full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes reformer. Her early attacks on the Washington Teachers' Union suggest that she thinks incompetent teachers are the main reason so many students do poorly.

Question: Is she right?

Students I interviewed say their schools have far more unsung heroes in the teaching ranks than loafers. McKinley's Sheila Gill, a counselor for 32 years, was cited as an example. Her extensive contacts at colleges and in the community helped thousands of students get scholarships and jobs that they might otherwise have missed out on.

"A lot of times, it's who you know, not just what you know," Beach said. "The ability to help students meet the right people won't show up on some teacher evaluation form."

Gill was among those fired.

Question: What has Rhee done?

Fenty has credited her with bringing about a near-miraculous rise in student test scores -- during her first year on the job, no less. But Rhee has alienated many teachers along the way, including, no doubt, many of the good ones she will need to keep gains coming. The enduring questions about how Rhee made her layoff decisions has only made teachers and students more suspicious.

"It's a fact that there is a complete lack of transparency about what's going on in the school system," said Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini, 17, a senior at McKinley and one of the protest leaders. "You can't get a straight answer about anything -- not about the firings, the school budget or the test scores. What's really missing, as I see it, is self-respect among city leaders and the courage to take responsibility for their actions."

Question: Can you raise an academic bar if you don't have an ethical leg to stand on?

"We have a science test coming up, and I'm worried about failing because our new teacher doesn't know where we are in our work," Dayna Downs said at the hearing.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray replied: "I don't think you'll fail. The question is: Are we failing you?"

Can you spell duh?

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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