The worst schools

Students leave Dunbar High School at the end of the day on Tuesday.
Students leave Dunbar High School at the end of the day on Tuesday. (Jahi Chikwendiu)
Saturday, December 18, 2010

A LOT IS BEING read into the recent decision by interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to remove the private operator brought in to fix the city's troubled Dunbar High School. Foes of Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) have seized on it as a sign that he will be soft on education reform. Critics of school turnarounds point to it as evidence that these drastic means to improve schools don't work. We think that both are wrong. In fact, it's hard to transform schools where a culture of poor performance and low expectations has taken root - and it's critical to keep trying.

More than two years after it was hired based on its success running a highly regarded school in New York, Friends of Bedford was ousted as operator of Dunbar, although it continues to manage Coolidge High School. The decision by Ms. Henderson followed, as The Post's Bill Turque reported, escalating complaints from parents and teachers about safety, security and academics. "In general, the building seems to be in turmoil at all times," Ms. Henderson concluded in a letter terminating the contract with Friends of Bedford. The school will be operated by the city.

The meltdown at Dunbar comes amid new attention devoted to turnaround efforts at the nation's worst-performing schools. A report released this week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looked at more than 2,000 of the worst-performing district and charter schools in 10 states from 2003 through 2009 and found only about 1 percent making significant improvements. One reason for those disappointing results was the tendency of schools to make timid adjustments rather than take bold steps. That's why the Obama administration gets credit for sticking its neck out - not to mention opening its wallet - to support places willing to make drastic changes such as replacing teaching staff and shutting down schools and reopening them as charters.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is devoting an unprecedented $3.5 billion to a campaign to fix the country's lowest-performing schools. The department is encouraged by reports showing a willingness to make hard decisions. The Post's Nick Anderson, for example, recently reported on 150 schools where principals and at least half of the staff were replaced. Equally encouraging is that some of these efforts were undertaken without opposition from the teachers unions.

But as Dunbar demonstrates, there are no quick fixes. Radical change may be needed, but it is just a first step; it has to be nurtured. Ms. Henderson may be right to correct course, but we hope she will now keep a steady focus on the school.

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