Transcript

D.C. Schools Investigation

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Dan Keating, April Witt and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 11, 2007; 12:00 PM

Washington Post reporters Dan Keating, April Witt and V. Dion Haynes were online Monday, June 11 at noon, ET to discuss their investigative series about the D.C. public school system.

Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.

____________________

April Witt: Welcome. Thanks to everyone who is joining us. You've posted a lot of good questions already and we're looking forward to receiving more. Let's get started.

_______________________

Wellington, Florida: This is more a comment than question: When will this mess of a DC school system ever change? In 1966 I was a naive 23-year-old teacher with the National Teacher Corps, a federally financed, but short-lived experiment analogous to the Peace Corps organization. I was (for one year)stationed at Banneker Jr. High School across the street from the old DC Teachers College. What an environment! Students brought weapons to class everyday, teachers were untrained or incompetent (many had other jobs like taxi cab drivers),most teachers were uncertified, the principal was a major obstacle to any changes, English textbooks were 10 years out-of-date or nonexistent.

I could list a litany of similar failures along with your article, many from an insider's view. D.C. public schools are an embarrassment and a national disgrace. The more things change, the more they stay the same!!

April Witt: Thanks so much for posting your comment. I'm interested that you recall the schools as being so terrible in 1966. Because those were supposed to be relatively golden years compared to conditions today. Thanks for the insight.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Your series, as well as much of the reporting and commentary the Post has run over the years on the D.C. school system, suggests that the system's problems are due less to poor leadership than to gross incompetence among the administrative staff, principals, and, to a lesser extent, teachers. What prevents managers from getting rid of the massive deadwood in the system? Is this a function of civil service or union rules? Or is it more due to the ethos running through too much of the D.C. government (as best epitomized by Marion Barry) that the prerogatives of the bureaucrats trump the interests of taxpayers?

Dan Keating: Many people seem to read about the problems and say "why don't they just fire them all?" When we were reporting this story, though, we say many good people working very hard for the children.

The problem often lies in support systems -- the student-tracking system or personnel system or facility maintenance or contracting for textbooks. Educators looking to improve the classroom over the decades have let those problems fester. More recently, when people are ordered to fix them, the find overwhelming problems and often leave. With turnover making the problems worse, saying "fire everyone" does not seem to be a solution. Few people have experience fixing a system this complicated that's broken in so many ways while running it simultaneously. And having to do it under a tight deadline.

One factor that has made it hard to separate out the problems is that leadership changes so fast. People feel like they can lie low and wait for the latest reform movement to blow away. Now we're changing at the top again.

_______________________

Baltimore, Md.: One thing the Post never does in D.C. schools -- which it manages to do in other school systems -- is explain what happens in the classrooms. What is taught and how? What's the typical kindergartner's day life? Fifth-grader? High school student? What kind of teaching is going on, what kind of learning?

Is this because the principals don't let you in the classrooms, or because the Post chooses to focus on bureaucratic problems in D.C. but other issues in other districts?

I plead with you to take readers into the classrooms, like you do it other local jurisdictions.

V. Dion Haynes: This is a great observation. Theola Labbe -- the other D.C. schools reporter -- and I would love to spend our time in classrooms. It's much more fun to write about kids learning in the classroom than a crisis in the bureaucracy.

It is, indeed, difficult to get into the classrooms. We go through lots of red tape in trying to get clearance from the principal, regional superintendent and communications office. Sometimes we get clearance from a principal and communications director, only to be overruled by the regional superintendent.

Sometimes I think this is because administrators don't want us to see problems in the school buildings.

I find it is much easier to get into a classroom in the charters.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Most of the D.C. School Board and the entire D.C. Council have or had kids in private schools. Mayor Fenty's kids are in private school since he pulled them out of public schools 2 years ago. Why would the members root for the DFC Public School systems?

April Witt: You raise a good point. Public officials obviously have a right to send their kids anywhere they wish to school - as long as their political base will stand for it. In the District they seem to get away with it. The mayor is far from the only elected official in the District who has, over the years, placed their kids in private school. The obvious downside of this for the school system is that when the best and brightest, the parents with the most clout and creativity, opt out of the system, the system is the poorer for it. More to the point, the kids whose parents are not willing or able to advocate for the schools are left behind in a declining system. Public education is supposed to lift all boats. For that to happen, there has to be broad support for it from all corners of the community.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: How does the cost of Charter Schools impact the total budget of DCPS? And is that where a portion of the total budget is spent? If so, how much is allocated for each?

V. Dion Haynes: Theoretically, charter schools are funded through a separate pool of money -- not through the DCPS budget. But because DCPS schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled, they wind up losing lots of money when students depart for charters.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: What were The Post's intentions when publishing specific salary information of teachers, custodians, support staff and administrators?

Dan Keating: We did not publish specific information. We labeled the information estimated. The estimate is based on the pay grade and step. The figures are estimated for the budget at the school. Not all schools calculate them the same way. Some apparently factor in an adjustment for benefits, and some may include money for after-school activites, though that comes from a different part of the budget.

Just as with the crime information, the repairs, the test scores, the demographics and the cafeteria inspections, we put the staff information online to give parents, educators and others interested in the schools the best possible information about the schools.

We are expecting to do more stories as the year goes on and expect to post more information as we go.

_______________________

Zip code 20035: I wonder what steps have been taken to recruit new/more teachers? I'm curious if many teachers will leave with the takeover or if more will work in the public system. Thanks.

V. Dion Haynes: The school system has several programs, including Teach for America, that it uses to recruit teachers. The system also has been recruiting in several other cities, including Philadelphia.

At this point, I'm not certain what effect the Fenty takeover will have on teacher retention. The leadership of the Washington Teachers' Union endorsed the takeover.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I just wanted to say Thank You for writing these articles. Someone should have had the courage to write these articles YEARS AGO!!! I want to touch on a few things--contractual services for D.C. public schools, the dilapidated conditions of the schools, and several unqualified and unprofessional teachers.

Where is the money for D.C. Public Schools going? Has anyone examined the budget with a fine tooth comb? Has anyone investigated the contracts written for the rendering of services for D.C. Public Schools in the Contracting and Procurement Office? You will be disgusted at what you find. I suggest you perform an audit and write an article on that!! I am sure the public would LOVE to know about all the ABUSE. You will be amazed at what you find┬┐;the number of contractors paid thousands of dollars to improve D.C. public schools for services including preventive maintenance and grass cutting who do absolutely NOTHING!!!

Next, the infrastructure of many public schools is horrible. A 43 year old friend of mine visited his elementary school in SE last spring and he stated it was in the SAME condition that it was over 35 years ago. He could not believe what he saw--no air conditioning, dust and filth in the halls, and the same desks and chairs. The sad part--this school is not an anomaly. It goes on and on at many schools--no heat, peeling paint, leaking ceilings with water stains, no textbooks, and no chalk.

I visited Roosevelt Senior High School last spring and I couldn't believe what I saw--two lazy, incompetent teachers who were in the main office acting totally unprofessionally. They had no idea of who I was or could have cared less. I could have been someone from the Post, or better yet, the main D.C. Public Schools office. They were totally unprofessional. Then two minutes after the bell rang to change classes the Assistant Principal put the school on lock down. He informed the teachers over the loud speaker to lock their doors and not let the late students in. I could not believe it. I asked what that was and I was informed that occurs after each class change to keep the late kids from getting in. In my mind, that was definitely a fire hazard. How do you expect children to learn under those harsh conditions?

It is pretty obvious the D.C. Public School System has been in disarray for years. We wonder why D.C. has a high crime rate--car theft, random acts of violence among children/young adults, drugs, and teenage pregnancy. Children are our future. If we can't protect and educate our kids, how do we expect them to become productive citizens? What kind of messages are we sending our children if we can't provide them with a decent education? Local authorities don't care because their children don't attend D.C. Public Schools. Their children attend private schools and schools in counties such as Fairfax where 50 percent of their tax dollars go towards education.

Just wanted to give the masses something to think about!!

Dan Keating: Thanks for your note.

One thing that we posted online is the list of repair work orders since 2001 -- every one that's been completed (about 52,000) and the ones that say they're not yet finished (about 11,000). We have special links for the ones that use the words "urgent" or "dangerous" or "sparks" or "rats".

You'll see that lots and lots of things are getting repaired all the time. It's not that nothing gets done.

We hope to write more about the repair process and what gets prioritized. Vandalism has a lot to do with the number of repairs that have to be made.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Would you try to retain Janey? And if so would you recommend him for the chief position as Chancellor?

April Witt: I'm not comfortably offering an opinion on a subject I'm covering. But obviously, turning over the superintendent every few years has had terrible consequences for the system. Dramatic governance changes, such as the one the schools are entering now with the mayoral takeover, have also been part of the problem much more than part of the solution. I've had several people tell me that the schools have never recovered from the control board takeover. Whatever Mayor Fenty does, he needs to consider that history. Luckily for me, it's his call.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: There is so much emphasis placed on teacher quality, and little if any on leadership and principal qualities. Will your series address the qualifications of principals and its impact on student performance? You touched briefly on the closing of school libraries in today's paper. The libraries are in deplorable conditions since more than half of them were closed more than 4 years. Funding for libraries is left up to individual principals, which limits student access to its resource. There are no provisions for per pupil spending for the library collection.

V. Dion Haynes: I'd love to talk with you offline about the library situation. Please email me at haynesd@washpost.com. The situation with the libraries is pretty sad. All the other area school systems have libaries that are open full time.

_______________________

Zip Code 20005: I think the only solution is to fire every administrative employee, abandon every system, and start anew 100 percent from scratch. That would be cheaper than trying to repair this broken, hopeless system.

April Witt: Obviously, that's a common feeling among our chatters today. I understand the impulse. But that's ultimately a cop out. This is not rocket science. Urban school systems elsewhere have managed to make gains elsewhere without burning down the house first.

_______________________

Vienna, Va.: One thing I couldn't get quite clear from reading the stories (albeit quickly): how much has the D.C. schools overall budget gone up over the past 30 years? It seems as if the stories are a good argument for the side that says the structure and management of schools matter a great deal more than the bottom-line dollar figures, for my guess is that spending has gone up dramatically.

Dan Keating: We did not analyze the budget back that far. The size of schools have changed drastically over that time, and the demands for things like computers in schools and systems to run schools have changed the economics of education.

What we saw since 2000 was that the inflation-adjusted budget was up 9% while the number of students have fallen 20%. Part of the problem is that lower enrollment in many schools means running half-empty buildings, which is very ineffecient in administration and building costs and even makes it harder to provide proper services for students.

The inability of DC Public Schools to get quality special education is also a drain on the system. The schools spend $120 million a year to put special ed students in private schools. Those students would be in public school in most places. Spending that much money, along with $75 million in special ed transportation, keeps them from developing their own programs in house.

The schools have essentially been restructured multiple times in the past decade -- all the while the support services to track the money and the positions and the students are not in place. So it's like the captain of the ship is furiously turning the wheel, but it's not connected to the rudder. Getting those connections in place may be more important than which way the wheel is turned.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: It appears that so many of the District's top administrators don't seem to have a vested interested in D.C. schools because they are not D.C. residents. Wouldn't it be wise for the chancellor's new leadership team to be required to live in D.C. and be D.C. tax payers?

April Witt: You make a good point. Given the precarious job security in the top job in DCPS can you fault someone for not wanting to sell their home and move their kids to new schools for a job that they may well be tossed out of in less than two years.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Excellent reporting ... It appears that information on teaching salaries for Oyster Elementary are not reported. Why is that? Also, will there be a full disclosure of the monies allocated for salaries for central administration?

Dan Keating: I don't know why. I'll track this down and fix it.

It is unusual for us to post so much "unedited" information online -- the raw public records on crime incidents and repairs and staff info. One reason we did it is to hear from people who may understand things in that information and help guide our reporting. There are links on all the school pages online to let us know things that you see in the information that you think is important.

I'll track down the Oyster staff info.

_______________________

Washington, DC: Janey has received compliments for basically one thing: introducing new, rigorous standards. However, as a DCPS parent, I can tell you that my daughter's 5th grade language arts teacher did NOT teach Greek, required components of the "standards." Some teachers take the standards seriously, others do their own thing.

The above-referenced 5th grade teachers makes nearly $100 grand, according to your records, and has a union that protects teachers from terminations at all costs. Who is supposed to ensure that the standards are actually being taught?

April Witt: Thanks for your comment. From what I've heard, implementation of Janey's standards is still a work in progress. One of the reasons it's important to leave a superintendent - and his or her programs - in place several years is that it takes time for initiatives to filter down to the classrooms universally.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I taught in D.C. schools for 37 years before retiring in 2004. Your articles, while depressing, are accurate; and I hope they led to change.

Among my many frustrations was that D.C. for some reason cannot maintain new or rehabbed property. Within the past couple months, a chatter in a Post discussion stated that he or she had approached a prominent developer about rehabbing a decrepit D.C. school. The developer said absolutely, he would devote the millions of dollars to do this, were he not certain that within a couple years thereafter the building would be in as bad or worse shape as before. I have no idea what can be done to change this, but I wish you well in your efforts.

Amanda K.

V. Dion Haynes: I've heard the same thing. In one example at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast, which opened 2004, all the doorknobs apparently had to be replaced because they were designed for office workers and not for rambunctious adolescent students.

School budgets are not able to cover all the maintenance and repairs required at the buildings. Also, custodial staffs have been cut so there aren't enough staff to carry out the work.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I agree that many things need to be fixed in the system. And your story points many of these out. You also said that you met a lot of folks doing good work, caring for kids. Where are those stories?

Also, I'm unsure on the relevance of printing salary information of specific teachers and how that relates to your study of the school. You are implying that schools, and teachers, have control over how much they are paid when they don't.

Dan Keating: I agree that our stories published yesterday and today did not have a thorough portrait of the people doing good work. There are always limits on what can fit within any story and which points fit together.

The online presentation, however, has wonderful slideshows labeled "in the trenches" that portray Daryl Jackson, a custodian at Barnard Elementary who helps out by teaching art to students, and Lucia Vega, principal at Powell Elementary. They are among the people we found when we were out reporting the story and we were glad to be able to have such great presentations about them.

It's important to know that there's no "strategy" to publishing the staff information including salaries. We are not trying to imply that they get paid too much, nor too little. We're not saying there are too many or that there are not enough. I would love to have been able to publish more meaningful information on level of education, years of experience, special training, etc., but the system was not able to provide that to us in a meaningful way.

_______________________

Arlington, Virginia: One Solution: Begin by having a person new to the system and 10 assistants sort through the teaching personnel records for certification and being physically on the job. This can be accomplished in three weeks. Once you clean up the records of the teaching staff, go from there into other employee areas. The person in charge of the clean up must be unknown to the system and support the Mayor's goal. The system is entrenched with hard liners who have their hand in the till.

April Witt: That's not a bad suggestion. Obviously, someone has to get control of those records. But I have to chuckle when you say that task can be done in three weeks. I can't tell you how many people I've interviewed who witnessed the personnel records spilling out of broken boxes, scattered over floors. The most sobering fact is that the people who told us this made the same observation in different years under different superintendents. More than one of the superintendents I spoke with said they made fixing the personnel records a priority. But when the next person came in the records were still a disaster. I get the impression the records room is something akin to the Bermuda Triangle.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Isn't a big part of the problem that there are too many D.C. schools? As the city's population has shrunk, the school system is left pouring money into capital outlays to support the upkeep of far too many half-full buildings, and political pressure prevents the closure of underused schools.

Dan Keating: Good question.

Yes, they have plans to close more schools. One thing Superintendent Janey has been criticized for is not closing enough schools fast enough. But when he tries to close schools, the affected neighborhoods react angrily, as you'd expect.

Running half-empty schools is very inefficient in staffing and facilities costs. I think Fenty plans to be more aggressive in closing schools, but he's going to face the same angry neighborhoods.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: One of the many issues surrounding the poor performance of the public schools system seems to be the lack of competent personnel, or those that know how to "game the system", as the article pointed out. What, specifically, are some of the road blocks that you found that prevent administrators from removing these individuals?

April Witt: One of the former superintendents told me that the seniority system, while it has its merits, is a problem for would-be reformers. If a superintendent tries to improve the schools by bringing in highly skilled new employees and then there is a personnel shake up due to some kind of change - the superintendent is fired, there are budget cuts, the governance structure is changed - then the new folks are the first employees to be let go. So who does that leave working in the system? The folks who've been there a long time and learned to outlast every superintendent and every reform effort.

_______________________

Cedar Rapids, Iowa: I'm a Washingtonian, graduated from Ballou H.S. in '62 and still feel Washington is my home. It grates me to no end how the D.C. school system has failed our children. We need to find honest, caring and sincere individuals to revamp the system with strict guidelines on what is done to educate our children so they may lead a more full lifestyle, gainful employment (skillset),citizenship that all leads to community.

Looking back at my era we had our issues but the school system wasn't it. There were problems but we let the system into disrepair that it looks as if it never has recovered. We need a concerted effort to revitalize the system, maintain it and monitor it that it succeeds for the future of the children not their continued regression. How do we monitor it is through policing it -- If the politicians and the cronyism (sp) won't monitor/enforce it then I believe the media should be the report card to do so. Why? Well you publish crime stats, traffic reports, home sales, sports results, well why not weekly good/bad reports of the schools system operation. Everyone likes good but not bad publicity. Well dole it out as it is deserved but it is a step in the right direction. Let's take the heat but correct the problems in the system for the children and their future. It is a shame to see this in the heart of our Nation.....It can be fixed but not through patches....

V. Dion Haynes: I often hear the same sentiment expressed by people who graduated from the system in the 1950s and '60s when schools were top notch. One of the reasons the schools are struggling is that there is a disconnect between them and the central office. Rather than supporting the schools, as many principals point out, the central office neglects them and withholds vital services from them.

What's needed is for the central office to become equipped to serve the schools while at the same time holding them accountable for student achievement. This has happened in the Philadelphia school system, where student achievement has steadily improved over the last five years. Philadelphia will be the subject of Part 3 of our series tomorrow.

_______________________

Wash., D.C.: My mother taught adult ed through DCPS and was never given a classroom in the office building where she worked! She was told that it was her job to find an empty room every week and no one would ever help her. Also, I have a friend who teaches special ed. and her classroom aide sits in the room doing her nails and taking cell phone calls. My mom's and friend's complaints were ignored or laughed at. My friend's supervisor threatened to discipline her if she kept mentioning her concerns. There is NO accountability among the administration.

April Witt: Thanks for your fascinating posting. It speaks volumes about the obstacles that people in the system who care and try are up against.

_______________________

Capitol Hill: What do you mean exactly when you state that a teacher is "highly qualified"? Is it your judgment call or some national test that they passed?

Dan Keating: The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that all teachers be highly qualified, then leaves it up to the states to define what that means.

In DC Public Schools, it means that teachers have to be fuly licensed by the city, and then they must have expertise in the field they are teaching. So elementary teachers need qualifications in the broad number of topics handled in an elementary classroom. Secondary teachers need a degree in the subject being taught -- like biology or mathematics or english -- or have passes a special exam in that subject.

Interestingly, the federal law creating the charter schools removed the teacher licensing component of that requirement so that charters would not be bound to people licensed by the city. But charter teachers still need the special expertise to be considered highly qualified.

DCPS was supposed to submit it's information on the qualifications for each teacher in the 2005-2006 year in November 2005, but they did not deliver it until December 2006 -- 13 months late. The schools do not have good information no who is qualified or not. The latest tally i that 48% of core classes are taught by a highly qualified teacher. Most states are well over 90%.

When people look for a reason that DC schools are different than elsewhere, that's a powerful factor.

_______________________

No Solution To The Problem: I've seen many parents that are tenants of mine that could care less about the schools or their child's education. How can anyone turn the schools around with this level of apathy coming from the home?

April Witt: That's a good point. I noticed that one reader from a suburban in Ohio posted a comment at the end of my story on washingtonpost.com today. She said that there is such widepsread parental involvement where she lives that parents act as if the public schools are a family owned business and they are part of the family. Obviously, schools with community buy in like that are going to be centers of learning.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I live in a D.C. neighborhood where nearly all children attend our neighborhood schools, which are largely in disrepair, and it seems that very little learning is taking place.

While I don't have any children, it kills me to see my friends' and neighbors' kids going to school in this environment. Is there anything that I or someone like me can do to help? Do schools accept volunteers, or would they resent the offer? For example--I have some teaching experience and wouldn't mind working on some kind of after-school program involving foreign languages, music or art, but would me offer be welcome?

V. Dion Haynes: It is commendable that you want to pitch in and help the schools. I'm guessing that many principals would love to have someone like you involved in helping students improve. Some of the most successful schools in the city are thriving because of parents and others volunteering to make them work.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: It's apparent that DCPS is top heavy with most of the cost concentrated on employing administrative employees (asst. superintendents, school improvement specialist and the like -- along with seasoned teachers). Will you shine light on the estimated salaries of those individuals who are employed in order to support the teaching and learning that is suppose to happen in the classrooms outside of teachers? The emphasis on teaching and learning appears to be the real reason why there are so many problems with the system because there's a real disconnect in how the classroom is being supported. How did you find the classrooms being supported and more importantly, is the classroom being supported so that there's a true emphasis on teaching and learning?

Dan Keating: Good question.

We wrote extensively about the fact that the support services that are supposed to help the classrooms often end up undercutting it. Teachers who don't have supplies or textbooks, students who don't have the right classes on their schedules, principals who can't hire the teachers they want, schools that wait for repairs to get done -- all of these things make life harder for people trying to raise the level of education.

That's what Superintendent Janey was talking about when we quoted him saying that they inherited these obstacles but he'll "be damned" if he'll let it paralyze them. He says they're trying to work through it. But those impediments are pretty powerful.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Looking at some of the estimated salaries, I see many teachers are paid nearly $100K a year. What percent of the teachers citywide are paid over $75K a year? How does that compare with other districts?

Dan Keating: Thanks for your question.

One challenge in answering it is that the city's information on teacher salaries in hard to rely on. The salary information online is from a budget document called Schedule A. Some schools apparently included an estimate of benefits in the figure (which they were not supposed to do) and other schools may also have included figures for after school activies (which they were also not supposed to do).

There are salary figures that appear to be too high and some that appear to be too low.

We posted online the most current information. This document was produced in spring 2007 for the 2006-2007 school year, so they were already months into the year. If these figures are wildly inaccurate -- and some people are saying they are -- then that is something that people need to know about how our school systems operate.

Some people find the salary information online is rude. I understand that people feel this is sensitive. On the other hand, when a system has has as many problems in identifying its own employees and paying them accurately, the listing becomes a critical element of knowing what's going on. As we said in our story, the schools are up to five years late in processing personnel change information. Five years late! So we are trying to help people see the information listed for their schools as best we can.

_______________________

Alexandria, Va.: As someone who has done contract work for D.C. schools (evaluations for children who were not been tested as legally required by the school system), I cannot tell you the frustration of getting paid for services once completed.

They lost all sort of documentation they required, including copies of testing reports, at all levels of the bureaucracy. These were required by the finance folks to assure that the service was completed (a commendable goal to be sure, given the possibilities for fraud), but these records were lost/misplaced, often due to staff turnover, with little apparent concern for the privacy of the student and the security of such records. I'm surprised someone has not sued under Federal Privacy regulations to account for educational and medical records that DCPS holds.

It took 14 months of pounding pavement in order to get paid. I'm not likely to do it again soon.

April Witt: I'd really appreciate it if you could email me at witta@washpost.com so we could converse more about your experiences. We have had many people tell us similar accounts. There are many good, dedicated people who work in the system and try to give their best to kids every day despite many management obstacles that wear them down and make every day more difficult than it should be. I've interviewed principals who didn't get benefits for nearly a year after they started and they could never get an explanation why. I've interviewed several people in DCPS who were trying to hire a great job prospect, only to have the application get lost or stalled so long that the applicant fled.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I have heard a common criticism of most of the recent D.C. school reform plans. There is no attention to keeping and rewarding good people, from the folks who keep the schools maintained to the superintendent. Is this a valid comment?

All of the success stories I have heard from urban school districts rely on a core group of school officials/teachers working together for years at a time.

V. Dion Haynes: Longevity of the principal and teaching staff definitely is a key attribute in successful schools. The problem in the school system -- since the 1970s -- is the constant churn of superintendents, central office administrators, principals and teachers. The main challenge for the Fenty administration will be to provide the much-needed stability for the schools.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I'm a life-time resident of D.C. who attended the public schools in the 1970s. The thing people need to understand is that when push come to shove, many in the DCPS, and the government as a whole, see the schools as a jobs program. Yes, the goal is to educate students, but not if it requires cutting administrative overhead. This is just how it is. And it likely will not change unless there is a residency requirement for D.C. government employees, including DCPS folks.

April Witt: I don't think we need to comment on your posting other than: Thank you for weighing in.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: One thing I never understood about DCPS (and just a suggestion of my own):

Instead of trying to create these pockets of 'special' schools, why can't every child in DCPS be offered the same basic education (reading, writing, arithmetic, history, etc.) across the board BEFORE you start to add the "extras" like music, art, language, etc. This is where the focus needs to be and it would eliminate the need for the out of boundary process (another area that needs some looking into). This way DCPS can then focus on fixing the facilities and parents don't have to 'compete' to get their child in the school with all the "extras". The "extras" would be equally added to each and every school at the same.

Thanks for presenting this series, which is long overdue.

V. Dion Haynes: That is a great point. The system spends lots of time and effort on the out-of-boundary policy. By not focusing on improving neighborhood schools, some experts say, the system is speeding its own demise by pushing students into a select number of quality DCPS schools and into charter schools.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I love the fact that you published teacher salaries, public information. There are many teachers making $100K for 9 months of work. The salaries for many of the teachers are shockingly high.

Dan Keating: Having visited many schools in DC and elsewhere in my years as a reporter, I always wonder if anyone who has actually worked as a teacher has ever said such a thing about teachers being overpaid.

The work is difficult and exhausting and frustrating and emotionally jarring.

Many people in DC schools talked about the home problems that the students are bringing into schools. Teachers, principals, guidance counselors -- when they exist -- coaches and others go to great lengths to try to provide a safe environment for the children. One of them told me "I wish we could keep the kids here overnight. The more time we keep them out of that environment, the better."

Principals talked about finding teachers who are emotionally strong enough to deal with those problems and keep teaching, and never let their own problems intrude.

The estimated pay listed online above $100,000 may include benefits and other jobs and may not be accurate, since some teachers have told us today they think the numbers are too high. But those are the budget numbers used by the system.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Isn't the general wisdom that DCPS lost out on Carl Cohen and Rudy Crew because they did not want to deal with the complex governance structure in the District and so the city went with the best they could find -- Janey? This is the best argument for the mayor's takeover. Change the structure so that a top-notch administrator will take the job. We need a hero.

April Witt: We need a hero. I hate to tell you this, but.....you are not the first person to make that plea. Historically, we've annointed a "hero" time and again only to brand the hero a failure after a few years and chase them out of town. The politicians who failed to do their part to fix the schools are guilty of that. The press, which failed time and again, to understand the long view, is guilty of that. I think hoping for a hero to save us from ourselves is too simplistic approach. We need a community. (I can't bring myself to say it takes a village.) We need parents at every school who that are involved. We need politicians who send their kids to public schools and work to make those schools good for all. We need people in all neighborhoods to care about the kids across town. Without that kind of community buy in nobody at the top of DCPS is ever going to stay a hero past the reception to welcome them to town.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I noticed on your chart found in Sunday's paper that Birney ES seems to be the only "high poverty" school that performs well on the standardized tests. Any idea why? Maybe that Principal should get the superintendent's job.

Dan Keating: Birney does an excellent job. Much has been written about the good work there.

On the other hand, some other high poverty schools also had relatively good performance. We can't chart everything in the paper, but the online presentation gives a chance to delve down into schools. The scores are broken out by socio-economic background and english-language ability and other factors, so you can see how well a school performs with various groups of children.

One thing many people said and is mentioned in today's article is that the teachers and principals expect the 2007 test scores to show considerable improvement. The scores listed for 2006 -- the latest currently available -- are for the first year of the DC Comprehensive Assessment System test. Scores in the first year of a new standardized test tend to be low.

So if the new scores from this spring are higher when they're released this summer, who gets the credit?

_______________________

Washington D.C.: I don't think you have pointed out the obvious. Schools are meant to be educational, not cure all the social ills of these kids. It's no secret that the top performing schools are in upper Northwest where the parents go out of their way to reinforce reading, homework etc. You can teach until you are blue in the face but if the kid has a terrible home environment, all the building renovations in the world can't fix it.

V. Dion Haynes: That is true about the importance of parental support and the importance of children being socially and emotionally ready for school. Superintendent Clifford Janey and the Fenty administration have agreed that schools serving high numbers of students in poverty should be linked with city agencies -- Department of Health, job training, mental health -- so that they and their families can address the social problems that hinder learning.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Many of your facts about teacher salaries and other matters are inaccurate. I am a teacher in D.C. Public Schools. I think that you should also do a segment where you get a more accurate accounting from the teaching staff and our Washington Teacher's Union.

Please note the top teacher salary with longevity steps for our 10 month teachers with a Doctorate or a Masters plus 60 credits is $87,584. Other counties such as Fairfax and Montgomery are higher paid than we are. You have teachers listed as making $100,000 in many schools and making more than principals, which is not correct. While you point out that some schools factor in benefits -- this does not seem to be clear to many of those commenting on-line.

Dan Keating: Thanks for your note.

We appreciate getting the heads up about problems in the figures and plan to post a clearer note on the pages that show those estimated salaries.

On the other hand, I can't help but wonder how the system functions when these numbers are used for the budget?

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: What is destroying the school system are the very same politicians who are always promising us to fix our schools. There are many great people in the school system but they do not have an opportunity to perform because there more chiefs than Indians in this city. The biggest mistake every new mayor makes is to bring a new Superintendent and start all over again. I believe that before pointing the fingers out to the school system, the city government should look deep inside and kill the bureaucracy that is playing games with the children of our nation's capital. Fixing the school system is a complex task but nothing will be achieved unless politicians stop using our kids as a way to gain votes during election time and really make and honest and dedicated effort to help our children. It will take our community and an honest government to achieve this goal.

Aris Ventura

April Witt: Thanks for your comment. There's certainly been a lot of political theater in this town over the schools. I wish every politicians who decried the condition of the schools, and denounced the people working in the system, had actually used their position to make the schools better.

_______________________

Columbia Heights, D.C.: Your series makes quite well the point I made to many of my neighbors who were up in arms about the funding for the new baseball stadium. Much of the debate on neighborhood listservs was about how wrong it was to spend money on a baseball stadium when that money could be used for schools. However, it's crystal clear that the problem with the D.C. school system is not lack of money, it's lack of direction and accountability in spending the huge amount of money that already pours into the system. I hope your article put an end to the "let's spend some more money on schools" argument for once and for all.

Dan Keating: Thanks for your comment. I note that you don't mention that you have kids in school.

That debate about schools-v-stadium always seemed to make sense to people grappling with the schools in their lives, while other people thought it made no sense.

People who say the article proved that the schools have more money than they need might have been eager to overlook that a third of the budget is spent on special ed and the system has to bix big inefficiencies caused by dropping enrollment and half-empty buildings. The schools are also trying to overcome decades of problems in back-office operations like computer systems and personnel.

We're not saying every penny is well spent. But it would be hard to visit most schools and feel like they were swimming in money.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Correction to an earlier submission: The standards require 5th grade teacher to teach not "Greek," but Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes. And I find Ms. Witt's response startling, actually. Can you imagine a corporation that would introduce new standards and sit back and wait for them to trickle down without any kind of program in place to ensure that it was, in fact, happening? There is no reason -- other than lethargy and incompetence -- that these standards should be an elusive goal.

April Witt: Thanks for your comment. I take your point. It seems like the person at the top should be able to order a change and make it happen. But from all the accounts I've heard, there are so many moving parts - and so many different skill levels of teachers and principals - that making change is easier said then done. In fact, I had at least two different superintendents tell me that they had initated new teaching standards -- only to have others in the community tell me that those standards NEVER made it to the classrooms.

_______________________

Davidson, N.C.: It seems to me that no matter what happens with Fenty taking over, change will come slow. Are there any changes that DCPS can make for the upcoming school year due to start in a few months that you recommend?

The change I would like to see as far as the kids go would be for Freedom Schools, a national program that sets up summer schools, especially for the children of the urban poor, to come set up more sites in DC. They are unaffiliated with any school system, but frankly I'm not sure I would want a program like that to be affiliated with DCPS anyway.

V. Dion Haynes: A review of reforms introduced in other cities that have seen advances in student achievement shows that it pays to introduce programs focusing on low-achieving students. There are all sorts of tutoring and intervention programs that have worked in places such as Philadelphia and Miami.

_______________________

Washington, DC: Is any other profession as publicly bashed as are public school teachers in crisis-ridden systems? Why did the Post print teachers' salaries for public school but not for charter schools? Why so little scrutiny of the role of charters schools in DC -- where they siphon off significant amounts of public money yet are not held accountable the way that public schools are? Why do reporters such as yourselves do little to combat the notion that DC teachers are "incompetent" and "lazy"? By the way, I teach in a "room" that was once a storage closet. It even says 'storage' above the doorway.

Dan Keating: Thanks for your note.

I think you would be hard-pressed to read the stories we're writing as a bash on public school teachers. Much of what we've written is about how the teachers are working hard but stranded by a lack of support from the central office.

Your storage/classroom situation is exactly the kind of thing we're trying to shine a light on. Feel free to get in touch at keatingd@washpost.com to tell us more.

The salary information for teachers is part of the public budget process that applies to all government employees. The charter school employees -- even though they are paid from tax funds -- are in a gray area and not subject to the same disclosure. It is definitely not "even." You can decide whether it's fair.

I can understand that we would be better off if we had more information -- charter and public school. That's why we posted information online because we feel that more information is better than less.

_______________________

Washington, DC: Thank you so very much for this series. I think it is only through such public efforts that - maybe, hopefully - the residents of this city will stand up, take notice, and be appalled enough to act on the unacceptable state of our school system.

And, please be reassured that you have done the right thing in posting the salary levels. With the understanding there may be errors because of the unreliable source of the information, it truly irks me that some people are stating that they find the public sharing of this information as "rude". This is a taxpayer supported school system, and there should be NO data that is not widely open to the public. The system, its teachers and administrators should welcome the public sharing of this information. Indeed, isn't it not only our right but our responsibility to be aware of what is going on in our schools?

Please, please keep doing what you're doing with future series. It is my fervent hope and prayer that someone - I don't care if it's Fenty or Janey - has the fortitude, intelligence and staying-power to conduct the miracles that must happen within this system in order to prevent another generation of DC children from the indignities of having no choice but to receive their education in a school system that is so flawed. It is the American-born right of these children to have better than we're giving them. And it is the responsibility of every DC resident to demand that this system improves. DCPS should be nothing less than the most stellar public school system in the nation, with all the resources available in this city.

April Witt: Thank you your comment. We really appreciate all the great questions and comments. We apologize that we were not able to answer all your questions in an hour. There are just too many for us to get to. Please feel free to contact Dan, Dion or myself directly by e-mail with comments, tips or suggestions on what we should be writing about regarding the schools. I'm at witta@washpost.com My colleagues are at haynesd@washpost.com and keatingd@washpost.com. Goodbye folks.

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Discussion Archive

Viewpoint is a paid discussion. The Washington Post editorial staff was not involved in the moderation.

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity