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Post Magazine
This Week: Pass/Fail
Hosted by Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, April 7, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Nick Ehrmann and Josh Kaplowitz were both idealistic, 22-year-old Teach for America recruits who wanted to press change on a failing D.C. public school. Ehrmann met with inspiring success, Kaplowitz with a night in jail and a $20 million lawsuit.

Marc Fisher -- whose article about the two young teachers' challenging year at Emery Elementary School appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine -- was online Monday, April 7 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the article.

Fisher is a columnist for The Post's Metro section.

A transcript follows.

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.

Marc Fisher: Thanks for joining me on a dreary day. There are already lots of comments and questions, so I'll jump right in....

Rockville, Md.: Marc, I was completely fascinated by your magazine article. I thought it was great but sad at the same time. Unfortunately, the first principal who seemed to give one of the teachers such a hard time never seems to have been reprimanded. Passing students who can't pass and never believing the teacher until cleared by a court is no way to run a school. Since both men taught in the same school, was there any positive reinforcement from Ehrmann to his fellow teacher? Unfortunately, with the exception of a few schools in the district, this situation seems to be the norm, not the exception.

Marc Fisher: Thanks--it is indeed a sad story, but I hope also one that shows some ways through the thicket of a troubled system.
I think you've hit on the essential point--the almost incalculably important role of a principal in setting a tone and making it possible for new teachers, especially those without much training, to succeed. In this case, the principal was a severe strain on teachers, whether successful or not.
The relationship between Nick and Josh was complicated--they were friends and competitors at once, with all the accompanying jealousies and resentments that often mar such relationships.

Arlington, Va.: I had a friend enter Teach for America the same time as the two gentlemen in your story. Placed in Houston, Tex., he faced a strikingly similar situation: out of control students, a principal who failed to support him, and something I feel you shortchanged in your article, Teach for America's poor support system and training. The program puts new teachers in a "sink or swim" situation. These teachers are motivated, but inexperienced, shouldn't their program do more to support these teachers against skeptical principals and parents? The fact that the program didn't react to the parents' misconceptions (ex. that the TFA people were paid more) indicates a problem to me. I was disappointed that you gave this little attention in your article, can you explain your treatment of TFA?

Marc Fisher: I spent some time reporting the Teach for America side of the story but in the end decided to focus on the D.C. system and the dynamics of the school and its community. Those are the more important issues for the District and its residents. But you're right: Teach for America does not and really cannot serve as a classroom presence for each of its teachers. There is a formal follow-through program for their teachers, and some teachers say they get a lot out of it. Obviously, Josh did not, and others offer similar complaints. But I don't think that's where teachers should get their guidance; that has to come from within the school itself.

Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for writing that fascinating article in this week's Post Magazine.

The two teachers started from the same place with similar classroom problems -- one a big success, the other a big failure. Your article touches on some reasons, based mostly on viewpoints of fellow teachers and some parents. I have to assume the different outcomes have to do with the different personalities. Having interviewed both, what differences did you observe in the two mens' personalities, especially in terms of who they interact with people, that might explain the different outcomes?

Marc Fisher: You're certainly right that a good chunk of the explanation for what went right and wrong in these case must come from the individuals themselves, but what struck me most about Kaplowitz and Ehrmann was their similarities, not only in their backgrounds and preparation, but in their attitudes, ideals and even their efforts in the classroom.
For me, the great challenge of this piece was in finding ways to understand how two people with such strong similarities could end up in such different places.
Still, there are important personality differences here: Nick is extraordinarily patient and receptive; his openness to his kids is something rare. Josh is more dynamic, more of the showman kind of teacher, but also more impatient about making a splash and getting things done. That is a trait that I've seen stomped on all too frequently in the D.C. schools. He was also stubborn about his confrontations with authority, and that ended up being a self-destructive trait.

Washington, D.C.: I drive every day past Emery to my job near the Capitol. I live on Chapin Street NW near Meridian Hill Park. I have friends that teach in the D.C. system, one of whom has made good progress, but seems defeated most of the time.

Question, "why can't the bad kids simply be separated into detention areas so the less disruptive kids can learn?"

Marc Fisher: Well, this is a problem throughout education: In schools with large populations of kids from troubled homes, what you call "bad kids" can come in various forms, with various behaviors, and while the extreme cases often do get weeded out, the next level of cases frustrate the system. Do you create entire schools of unruly kids? There are all sorts of rules about mainstreaming that limit how much separation schools can attempt.

Washington D.C.:
Congrats on a most interesting and well-written article! However, it is dismaying to see that the D.C. government caved in on the civil lawsuit and paid a ridiculous amount of money to the parent of the boy who claimed he was assaulted by one of the Emery School teachers. At least Superior Court Judge Dorsey saw through this scam; unfortunately, the federal judge who had their civil lawsuit (you don't give that judge's name) did not dismiss the civil case as well.

The result is that more children will be emboldened to falsely say "Teacher touched me" and their parents will then shake down the D.C. government -- and ultimately we taxpayers -- for the equivalent of winning the lottery.

Marc Fisher: Thanks--you're right, and school administrators acknowledge that there are too many incentives in the system for wayward parents to try to make a buck off their children's misery. The corporal punishment picture in the D.C. schools remains a very mixed one--even as a zero tolerance effort continues at the central HQ, there are some schools where hitting kids remains an open secret, and others where it goes on under the carpet. And there are also schools, as we saw at Emery, where the zero tolerance rules are enforced so rigidly that teachers are afraid to comfort a crying child. All so sad.

Rockville, Md.: Interesting and timely article as we have a daughter beginning TFA in June in the south.

My questions are if Kaplowitz had it to do again would he do it and what would he have done differently?

Marc Fisher: Josh is, as you'd imagine, rather sour on Teach for America's ability to supervise its teachers. But he remains a strong believer in the TFA concept and in the idea of dedicating a couple of years after college to educating children. Throughout his experience, he has remained quite idealistic about what schools and teachers can accomplish, even as he's soured on the D.C. system and on big public bureaucracies.

Washington, D.C.: Hello, my name is Alan. I started out the same year as Nick and Josh with TFA. I am still teaching 6th grade at my original school. I was intrigued by the article for a few reasons.

First, it succinctly illustrates one of the main causes of the problems in our city's public schools. For whatever reason, some of the parents have become so distrustful and antagonistic towards the schools and teachers that they view them as the enemy instead of partners in the education of their children. Evidence of this can be found in the countless special education and corporal punishment lawsuits that are bankrupting this system. No one wants to stand up and defend the teachers and schools, which are doing what they can with no support from their own administration, unions, or citizens. DCPS rewarding Ms. Ware with $90,000 for a groundless charge simply ensures fifty more hopeful parents will step up to play the DCPS Cash Money Lottery (better odds than the DC Lottery). Every schoolteacher in the District can tell a similar story of ridiculous allegations that are taken as gospel truth in fear of lawsuits. Everyone is afraid to step in a break up a fight where some kid is smashing some other kid's head in with a chair because they might get in trouble for "laying a hand on 'em." Something has got to give, because without some kind of consistent discipline system, the violence will go on, and the litigation will continue.

That is probably old news to many. But I was also interested in an issue the article raised that is not as openly talked about, and that is racism. As a white male, I have experienced numerous incidents and remarks that, had the shoe been on the other foot and the remark said by whites to a black teacher, someone would get fired. I realize that this is what blacks have had to deal with for centuries (and still suffer today), but that doesn't excuse it. Two administrators at my school, when confronted about this, said that it was "impossible" for blacks to be racist to whites, because blacks are disenfranchised and whites are the majority. At first I questioned this definition of racism, but I accept it now, because that is exactly the situation at many of our schools. Blacks are in most of the powerful positions, and whites are in the minority. And there is NOTHING wrong with that at all. But what is wrong is when this results in institutional racism where white teachers are held to different standards and expecting to endure racial comments. My principal has expressed her desire not to hire any more white teachers for the school. Is drastically narrowing our applicant pool on the basis of race really going result in getting the best new teachers? Yes, I know I have seen, heard, and documented more than enough to sue the system for this "reverse discrimination," but I know that would make me part of the problem, not the solution. (And I can't bear the thought of being the poster child for some right wing foundation.) At any rate, I am glad the issue was raised by the article and I look forward to further dialogue on this.

(As an aside, why schedule an online discussion about an article about school at 1 p.m. on a school day? This is functionally shutting teachers out of the discussion.)

Marc Fisher: Good point about scheduling. The Magazine's chats about its cover stories are always scheduled for this time slot, so it's not meant as a deterrent to teacher participation, but you're right, that could be an effect this time around. If it's any help, I'll be back on line Thursday at noon for my regular show, so if that's more convenient to lunch hour for some teachers, I'd be happy to continue this conversation then.
Thanks for your comments on the race issue. I hear exactly that sentiment from a number of white teachers in the District. It's important to note that not that many years ago, there were hardly any white teachers in the D.C. schools, and this change seems to have been rather happily greeted (if occasionally warily) by parents, teachers and students. As several parents told me, it's high time their children saw that there is a wider world beyond the almost all-black D.C. school system. That said, there remain real concerns about control and power and the ability of a system that defines itself as black remaining one that can speak with authority to black Washingtonians.

Alexandria, Va: Mr.Fisher, if were up to me, you would win an award for this article. I have several bright and idealistic friends who chose to teach in difficult city gradeschools in New York, D.C., and Chicago--not one of them lasted more than five years. I've heard many hair-raising tales from these teachers, and you've done a brilliant job of illustrating the obstacles that the best intentioned and most devoted teachers face in these environments.

Yet one thing troubled me about this article: Is the Ehrmann story really such a success story? It sounds as if Kaplowitz was actually trying to teach his students, while Ehrmann merely entertained and befriended them. I'm certain that Ehrman's students benefitted (and continue to benefit) in certain ways from his devotion, but not one mention is made of their academic performance under his tutelege.

You make it clear that these kids are being neglected and destroyed by a school system gone haywire. Yet, by juxtaposing the cases of Kaplowitz and Ehrmann, did you intend to suggest that it's wrong to "fight city hall"?

Further, I was wondering about your opinion on School Choice (public and private), and whether the research for this article affected your beliefs.

Thank you for the wonderful piece, and for taking the time to respond to these questions. --maura flynn

Marc Fisher: Thanks for your thoughtful questions. If you got the impression that Ehrmann primarily entertained his students, that is my fault. My sense is that he used his photography project to win the trust and respect of his students, and that after establishing that foundation, he was able to win their attention and effort in more traditional aspects of the curriculum. A number of his students have moved on to more challenging charter schools and are doing well there.
I guess that gives you a hint about my answer to your question about school choice. I think charters, which are the choice element already in force in the District, are an important step in providing quality choices to parents stuck in a dysfunctional system. The charter schools in Washington vary considerably in quality--I wrote a piece for the Post Magazine about them and found them all over the map in quality.
That said, I think the voucher system that Congress seems intent on imposing on the city is a cruel joke. It would provide grants so small as to be meaningless compared to private school tuitions. The money would be of use only for Catholic and a few other religious schools, and I think it is simply wrong for the government to support church schools. Some of my favorite schools are religious institutions, and the Catholic schools in Washington are already extremely generous in providing grants to poor students. Vouchers offer only false hope, whereas charter schools spur the public schools toward improvement.

Washington, D.C.: Your story was an eye-opener. There's no excuse for what the school system allowed to happen to the teacher who had the more negative experience. They obviously didn't support him or his efforts. The lack of accountability in our school system is shocking, yet it's been this way for pretty much ever. We constantly say we're shocked, but we never seem to change it. Do you see any permanent solution?

Marc Fisher: The only permanent solution has to come in the form of reforms that recruit and train a better grade of principals and then give them the authority to run their schools as they see fit. Sadly, in the District and all too many other systems, the best principals move through the schools all too quickly, pushing up to administrative positions in which it is very difficult to have an impact on children and the life of the classroom.

Washington, D.C. Doing it over again: If I were planning on being in that situation, the 1st thing I'd do would be to get myself a video camera and tape the classroom every day. Tell the kids that you are going to show their parents copies of every tape so they can see how their kids are behaving. Save the tapes for records and see what happens. It would certainly cut down on the bogus claims.

Marc Fisher: Well, yes, but the sad truth is that too many of the schools are already so tense and divided that such a move would seem too much in keeping with the existing atmosphere.

Herndon, Va.: Mr. Fisher: Great article! It certainly demonstrated, if we didn't know already, that if the children aren't getting backing from the parents, their futures are dim, to say the least. Of course, a lousy administration certainly doesn't help matters. One can only admire the teachers that keep trying to teach in almost impossible circumstances. I wouldn't last 10 minutes.

Marc Fisher: I don't know that I would either. But when you see someone succeeding in those circumstances, it is almost unspeakably moving. Magical.

Brooklyn, N.Y.: From your observation, was Josh fired more because of his arrogance of because of his race? I ask this because he is constantly sidelined by his fellow teacher Nick Ehhrman, who was also white, but achieved success at Emery.

Marc Fisher: Josh failed in part because of his attitudes and in part because the system failed to support him and instead fed into his tendency to be confrontational. It cannot be said that he failed because of his race; you could, however, make the argument that resentments stemming from race and class played a role in the lack of support he experienced.

New York, NY: An absolutely appalling story. Truly unbelievable that the people who can most help these students -- dynamic, motivated teachers -- are stymied at every turn simply because they're white and seen as "outsiders." I would wash my hands of these despicable parents who condemn their children to a life of segregated poverty -- self-selected Darwinism and all that -- but I feel terrible for the teachers AND the children, whose futures are hijacked to preserve some strange idea of black unity or defiance against gentrification and/or authority or some nonsense like that. The DCPS will never rise above what it is now (i.e., a joke) until it takes responsibility for its own overt reverse racism.

What a tragedy. Those children are doomed.

Marc Fisher: Sadly, you are correct that too many children are indeed doomed. And teachers see it and know it. The good ones try to save a few, and often succeed. After all, the truly uneducable child is quite rare. But it is hard to spend much time in the schools without being weighed down by the sense that far too many children with real potential are permitted to fail. And when the system operates under the burden of racial politics as well, the way out is much harder to find.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Great story. I'm a writer living in LA and thought substitute teaching would supplement my income. Los Angeles, under court-ordered supervision, required I attend skills training. A good idea, I thought. But the amount of time spent on legal issues, liability pitfalls, warnings of law-savvy, suit-slapping elementary students, and how best to avoid getting sued was frightening -- the kicker was the admonition of "no full frontal hugging." I chose not to enter the minefield of what should be an honored and esteemed profession. "Johnny can't read" is just the tip of the iceberg of a horribly complex issue. And if our society's problems aren't rectified, we will become a second or third rate nation.

Marc Fisher: I cannot imagine a more difficult position than substitute teaching. You're right, of course, about all those impediments to learning, but the fact is that good teachers achieve success in most schools every day, and they find ways to ignore or buck those barriers you list.

Washington, D.C.: What was the role of the teachers union in supporting (or lack of) teacher accused of corporal punishment? Do you see the Union helping/hurting the plight of already underserved students?

Marc Fisher: Remember we are talking about the Washington Teachers Union, where bilking the members of their dues so that the union fatcats can buy fur coats and fine china is the order of the day. The union plays little constructive role in the D.C. system's struggle over corporal punishment.

Washington, D.C.: Did Mr. Kaplowitz and Mr. Ehrmann make it clear that the main reason they chose Teach for America was because it forgave a large portion of their college debt?

Marc Fisher: In neither case was that a factor. Both came from families with enough resources so that that was not an issue. Nor have I found it to be a factor for the great majority of TFA teachers I've met. These tend to be extremely idealistic young people.

Washington, D.C.: Marc:

Good article. I continue to be happy with my choice as a D.C. resident to send my child to a private school (despite the fact that I am a middle-class wage-earner and tuition for kindergarten was about $17K).

Do you think that continued/accelerated gentrification is the D.C. school system's only answer?

Marc Fisher: Well, I wouldn't quite put it that way, but yes, sort of. I don't think it is possible for any system, or any school, for that matter, to succeed without a significant middle class presence. Study after study demonstrate the beneficial impact of having highly involved parents and children who come from homes that place extraordinary value on education. The District's loss of most of its middle class over the past generation or two has had a searing impact on the quality of its schools.

His Parents' Old Volvo: You rock. In a single line, you told me more about Kaplowitz's view of the world than paragraphs of details. He is Mr. Runs on Diesel Safe Car. He was teaching Our Parents Can't Afford A Car kids. His automobile accident of a classroom teaching experience demonstrated that he needed the seatbelts of the upper middle class to keep his privileged rebellion in check.

Marc Fisher: Well, ok, and thanks, but Ehrmann is an example of someone from a similar background who manages to connect despite his privileged past. I think you're right in that there is a real social and cultural disconnect between some of the Teach for America folks and their inner-city students, but it doesn't have to preclude them from success.

Arlington, Va.: I am surprised that the DCPS allowed you to interview the two teachers. Did they have any comments, or try to keep you from publishing this article? Or are these mostly open secrets (no one really thinks the DCPS is a wonderful effective institution) and they had no objections?

Marc Fisher: I never asked DCPS for permission to interview anyone. The system for many years has used its public information office as a tool to fight against public knowledge about the schools. Most reporters learned long ago that effective reporting must be done directly with teachers, parents and students, and without the cooperation that other school systems grant as a matter of course.

Silver Spring, Md.: So, do you still think Paul Vance is doing a stellar job as Superintendent? Seems to me that people take their marching orders from the top -- and Seleznow's ridiculous comments about only bad teachers need to worry about teaching kids the rules shows what the major problem is.

I don't think anything good is going to happen in DCPS until someone gets the gumption to fire the principals of these lousy schools (and the deadweight in the central office), and is willing to stand up to parents. Of course, anybody who tries that will be run out of town on a rail.

Marc Fisher: I don't know that I'd say stellar, but I continue to think that Vance has many of the right ideas. Obviously, the continuing parade of bad news about the system shows that those ideas are not trickling down to all schools, and this system has proven itself impervious to much change imposed from above. That only bolsters the argument for restoring authority to the local schools, but that would require a dramatic improvement in the quality of principals, and that is a huge, nationwide problem.

Washington, D.C.: There can be no argument that the DC school system is a miserable failure.

Those of us who support vouchers, school choice, and the like feel that things are so bad, that they can't get any worse. Why not try vouchers to see if they work? If they do, great! If they don't, there was no harm done, because things are already so bad.

But yet the Leftist opponents of vouchers think that we have alterior motives. WE don't. WE just want to try something to make the schools better. The D.C. school system has been in control of the Left (and yes, the Black left) for so long, and the results are a despicable shame. When I see people like Eleanor Homes Norton's knee jerk reaction to even trying vouchers, I get so infuriated.

You had your chance. You ruined it. Let's try something new. My question for their opponents is "I support vouchers SOLELY because I want to help children. Why do you oppose them?"

Marc Fisher: I'd like to hear how vouchers would help. Sure, a few kids who otherwise might be stuck in failing schools might get a shot at a good education in a Catholic facility. But the numbers would be tiny, and more important, the church-state wall would be breached in a dangerous way. As a parent, I admire much of what is taught in religious schools. But as a citizen, I'm offended by the notion that my tax dollars would go toward supporting religious instruction. Why not instead ask those same religious institutions to take on the job of running secular charter schools?

California: Both of my parents are teachers--one moved into teaching in a mid-life career change. In California, a fully credentialed teacher is required to go through a teacher education course at an accredited university -- a "fifth-year" of college that emphasizes in-classroom training, working with a master teacher, and, of course, classwork and studies in what it means to educate, from classroom discipline to pedagogy. There is a significant movement in California, however, to eliminate teacher education and instead, provide accreditation to individuals who only have a BA and competency in their subject.

Given the experience that Josh had, as a TFA teacher without any significant teacher education, this seems like a pretty dismal idea to me, and one that will simply accelerate the cycle of new teachers in, new teachers out that we see all over the country. What do you think of the implications of your research and reporting for the policies that the District and other states implement for training teachers to teach? I believe that there is a craft to teaching that is distinct from competency in algebra, or English, or science, and that this craft must be taught in order to help teachers get around to the actual business of sharing knowledge.

Marc Fisher: Both of my parents were teachers too, and I agree that there is a craft to teaching and that elements of it can be taught. But it is also true that the quality of too much of the labor pool that chooses to go into education is simply not what it was a generation ago. As a nation, we have failed to face up to the impact of job markets opening to women over the past 35 years. As the extremely talented women in society have by and large moved into almost every field of endeavor, the schools no longer have that easy source of terrific talent. Result: We need better trained and simply better quality teachers.
Yes, you'll get some of that by increasing training. But you also need to attract some people who otherwise wouldn't consider the classroom, and Teach for America and similar programs for principals are essential to tapping mid-career and new graduates who are otherwise drawn to grad school, the law and so on.

Washington, D.C.: Of all the depressing elements of your story, the most doleful one to me was the performance of the principal. From your report, it appears that she got shunted into some sort of non-hands-on administrative job. Any chance that she'll be among the hundreds of people "downsized" from the bloated school administration this spring?

Marc Fisher: Don't bet on it. She's bounced from school to school in pretty high capacities. And she's fairly typical of administrators in this system, in that the problems are shuffled around rather than booted out.

Washington, D.C.: As a parent what are my rights when my child can not succeed due to the
disruptiveness of others? Also, do the TFA teachers meet the No Child Left Behind's definition of "Highly Qualified?" A applaud the efforts of those two candidates, but how much training can you really get during a summer program?

Marc Fisher: Good idea, but good luck pursuing that. Most of the policies and laws that have so gummed up the public schools are intended to protect failing students, not those who are assumed to be fine because of their economic status.
On the qualifications question, my sense is that many TFA teachers are better qualified than many education majors entering the system. On the other hand, of course, there are some in both categories who simply shouldn't be there.

Baton Rouge, La.. I come from a part of the world where, in some school districts, corporal punishment is not prohibited. And by corporal punishment, they don't mean grabbing a kid to break up a fight. They mean beating kids with a paddle. Always seemed strange to me that such a thing would go on in this day and age. But after reading your article, I'm beginning to think it may have its virtues.

In any case, when did teachers lose control of the schools?

Marc Fisher: Part of the lack of control that permeates too many D.C. schools comes from having teachers and principals around who permit that sort of child abuse, and it is the pervasiveness of corporal punishment that has led to the zero tolerance policies that then poison the atmosphere at other schools.

Washington, D.C.: Regarding TFA's inability to supervise its teachers -- when I joined TFA nearly 12 years ago, we were trained by TFA in the summer, then transitioned to the Houston school district's Alternative Certification Program, which included people who were not TFA. We were never employees of Teach For America, and were under their supervision only during the summer training institute. I guess my point is that, once they've been hired by a school district, Teach For America teachers are technically the same as other teachers, which includes being paid on the same pay scale and answering to school and district administration, not TFA.

Marc Fisher: Yes, that's exactly right. TFA does try to track its teachers and give them opportunities to talk about their problems and questions, but the primary job of supervision must and does come from the schools where the teachers work.

Chicago, Ill.: Marc,

I think you have done a wonderful job exposing the extreme nature of the D.C. public school system through the eyes of ambitious and eager youth. Though it is clear that one teacher found a way to make a difference, the other can't be blamed for trying.

I hope legislators, parents, and other volunteers understand that there is a fundamental inequality and flaw within the current system. These "problems" in education stem from focusing our attention on external problems. We ignore the holistic approach.

Do you believe an organization like Project 312 can inspire reform on a national scale? Do you think it will allow us to truly hit the fundamental causes of our educational system woes? Do you think it is time for teachers to learn how to inspire their students by understanding their human needs, to tackle the problems in the classroom by addressing economic, social, and cultural factors?

A Project 312 Supporter

Marc Fisher: I like what Ehrmann is doing with Project 312, which, like a number of such efforts around the city and the country, aims to follow kids all the way to college, providing learning and emotional support and involving the whole family. These are lovely efforts and I've seen them produce fabulous results. That said, they are obviously only small gifts to small groups of students, and the larger question is whether it makes sense to burden the schools with responsibility for every social problem in the land. For decades now, we've shunted onto the schools virtually all of our social ills--here, you take care of this, and by the way, don't forget to educate the kids either. It's an impossible set of demands, and it behooves politicians and voters alike to realize that schools can only do so much.

Burke, Va.: I was sickened by what appears to be the hopelessness of one inner city elementary school. What hope is there for these kids when hooligan parents have such a free reign? The incompetent, destructive principal was bad enough but allowing these ignorant, hateful, bigoted parents such liberties condemns children to failure. The crowning blow was that the spineless school system submitted to one parent's extortion by settling a ridiculous claim for $90,000. Some will say vouchers are the answer but I see vouchers as skimming the best students and their parents, leaving the remaining students even more victimized by out-of-control students and their thuggish parents.

Marc Fisher: We're over time, so just a couple more...
I agree entirely. Vouchers offer false hope and would leave those who remain behind in even worse shape.

Washington, D.C.: I read your article yesterday and enjoyed the contrast you were able to portray between two new teachers' first year in school. The setting, however, lead you to certain conclusions that I felt were misleading. You quote former DCPS Chief of Staff, Steve Selznow as saying that Emery was "reaching the level of being in real serious trouble. Of 146 schools, it was in that top 10 of schools in real conflict." This evidence you present in the story suggests that the school was to a certain extent an anomaly or at least representative of less than 10 percent of the schools. However, you launch into a social critique latter in the article.

"Who will push for change in the city's schools?

Many of Washington's most affluent and politically savvy citizens are childless. Many middle-class parents steer clear of the public schools -- they move to the suburbs or send their kids to parochial or private schools. (Sixty-five percent of students in the District's Catholic schools are not Catholic; 89 percent are black.) Or parents pull strings, stand in icy air overnight or play the new lottery to get their children into the system's best schools.

How do you attribute what is happening at Emery as a problem with DCPS versus the socio-economic isolation of the neighborhood Emery serves? Certainly, DCPS like any other institution in this metropolis has its stories of public note. But when Walt Whitman High School or the Langdon School in Montgomery County create stories of kids threatening prostitutes or cheating on exams, does the whole of MCPS or private schools need to be critiqued?

Marc Fisher: Good question. I think it's fair to say that Emery is not among the worst schools in the city; certainly, that's been the judgment of the system itself. But it's not too far from that category. Unfortunately, there are quite a few such schools in the city. So while I do not represent Emery as a typical school, it does have fairly typical characteristics for much of Washington. And my comments about the system generally are, I think, germane because the D.C. system cannot be considered a success until places such as Emery offer good, challenging schooling. But you're right--some of the same problems, as well as different ones, exist in suburban systems and in affluent schools.

Washington, D.C.: Would/do you send your kids to D.C. Public School?

Marc Fisher: Alas, no and no.

Marc Fisher: Thanks to all for joining me today and for reading the piece. I'll be back online Thursday at noon if you'd like to continue the discussion or talk about the columns or other items in the news.
Stay dry.

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