D.C. school reform marches on

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee speaks to new teachers in August.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee speaks to new teachers in August. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Mary Lord, Ted Trabue and Laura McGiffert Slover
Sunday, September 19, 2010

To District residents who consider Tuesday's mayoral primary a setback for D.C. schools, rest assured: Education reform -- and student gains -- will move ahead full throttle no matter who's at the helm. Why? Because our entire "state," including its executive and legislative and educational leaders, has pledged to pursue the ambitious agenda for change detailed in the District's winning proposal in the federal Race to the Top program. Stronger science programs, great teachers and data systems to track individual student achievement over time and hone instruction: These are just some of the improvements that the city's $75 million contract with the U.S. Education Department should help realize over the next four years.

Our city is at the forefront of several other game-changing national reform initiatives. As part of a multistate consortium, the District is developing innovative new assessments around rigorous "Common Core" English and math standards. Not only will D.C. educators help shape those tests, but our schools and taxpayers also stand to reap economies of scale. Meanwhile, the District has become a national leader in early childhood education with our robust academic standards and universal pre-K legislation. That 2008 law, guided through the D.C. Council by presumptive mayor Vincent Gray, propelled a dramatic expansion in quality programs that has boosted enrollment in both D.C. Public Schools and charter schools while tackling the city's stubborn achievement gap by helping to ensure that all students start kindergarten equally well prepared.

School reform could not have progressed so far, so fast, without the state-level infrastructure -- the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and State Board of Education -- to support it. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee deserve much credit for whipping a dysfunctional system into shape, focusing on student performance and teacher effectiveness and driving the city's reform blueprint. But only states, not districts, were eligible to compete in Race to the Top, and proposals had to have the full participation -- and signatures -- of the state superintendent and State Board of Education president. Similarly, governors and chief state school officers have led efforts to create rigorous, nationally recognized content standards and richer ways to assess student mastery beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests.

Mayoral control of DCPS is just one of many seismic shocks that have transformed public education in the District. Out-of-boundary enrollment, private school vouchers and charter schools that now enroll roughly four in 10 public school pupils have made us an emblem of education reform for a decade. Indeed, charter schools played a major role in shaping and winning Race to the Top. In retrospect, the most pivotal governance change wrought by the 2007 D.C. education reform law may not be mayoral control but the creation of a robust state education agency with authority and responsibilities distinct from the District's largest local school system.

State departments and state boards of education set academic benchmarks and standards. They establish graduation requirements and determine how to measure student performance and hold teachers and schools accountable for results. Most important, they provide a forum where educators, researchers, parents, community advocates and business leaders can collaborate on forging bold new policies that will sustain change and prepare all D.C. learners for success in college, careers and life.

Mary Lord represents Ward 2 on the D.C. State Board of Education. Ted Trabue (At Large) is president of the board. Laura McGiffert Slover (Ward 3) is vice president.

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