Smooth opening of D.C. schools is a sign of overall improvement

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

WHAT IS remarkable about the opening of D.C. schools is how unremarkable it was. Schools were ready, teachers were in place and parents knew what to expect because of the system's herculean efforts to share information. True, there were some textbooks still on back order, but in those rare instances, officials copied and distributed beginning chapters so students wouldn't lose a step. Monday's smooth opening contrasts with the days not so long ago when going back to school meant confusion and chaos for D.C. students. It should give pause to those who would belittle Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's accomplishments as he seeks to reform the city's public schools.

Of course, the success of a school system is based on much more than the system's ability to stock paper supplies or keep its classrooms clean; what matters is how well it educates its students. But the historic inability of D.C. schools to perform even the most basic tasks was symptomatic of the dysfunction that made the system a national disgrace, with the vast majority of its students unable to read on grade level or do basic math.

And the improvements in basic school operations since Mr. Fenty became mayor have been accompanied by encouraging progress in the areas that matter the most: student achievement, student enrollment and graduation rates. There also has been success in shrinking the achievement gap between white and minority students between 2007 and 2010 on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. African American students in particular had success in closing the gap, with the most significant gains on the secondary level.

There is no question, as critics of Mr. Fenty are likely to point out as the Sept. 14 primary draws closer, that monumental problems remain. You will get no quarrel about that from either Mr. Fenty or Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who cite the continuing challenges as reason for their bold changes and urgent timetable. It is appalling that less than half of the system's African American and Hispanic students, on both the elementary and secondary level, are proficient in math or reading. That, though, is not Mr. Fenty's fault but the result of decades of neglect and indifference by a progression of city officials too timid to take on the hard job of school reform.

It is to Mr. Fenty's credit -- and a major reason for our endorsement of him over D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray -- that he was willing to take on a task shunned by his predecessors. A report set for release Tuesday by the Thomas Fordham Institute on cities conducive to school reform credits him as a leader "willing to expend political capital to advance education reform." The District is ranked No. 2 in the nation, behind New Orleans, for an environment healthy to school reform. We hope voters take for granted neither the hard-won achievements nor the commitment needed to continue moving forward.

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