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Children in Crisis: Executive Summary

District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority
November 12, 1996

Executive Summary

The District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (the "Authority") was created by the U.S. Congress in 1995 to repair the District of Columbia's ( the District's) failing financial condition and to improve the management effectiveness of government agencies. The deplorable record of the District's public schools by every important educational and management measure has left one of the city's most important public responsibilities in a state of crisis, creating an emergency which can no longer be ignored or excused. The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is failing in its mission to educate the children of the District of Columbia. In virtually every area, and for every grade level, the system has failed to provide our children with a quality education and safe environment in which to learn. This report:

  • Details the failures of the current education system
  • Highlights the lack of accountability of its leadership
  • Examines alternative approaches used by other local governments to revitalize deficient schools
The Authority recognizes the following fundamental principles:

  • A safe, effective learning environment and a competitive education for our children is integral to the future of the District and its residents

    The current system has failed to provide this fundamental need.

  • The public schools' crisis did not occur overnight, nor will it be fixed quickly

    Reform will take time but it must begin immediately. The Authority will take steps to improve the District's public education system immediately and permanently. The status quo condemns our children to an inferior education and contributes to the further deterioration of the city while residents, concerned about their children's education, continue to leave the District for the suburbs. Although our efforts are immediate, it will take time to permanently change the face of the District's public schools.

  • The leadership is dysfunctional

    At the heart of most of the problems in the school system is the lack of leadership from the District's elected Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools. With persistent educational and managerial problems year after year, the public school leadership -- tragically -- has abdicated its responsibilities, to the city and to its children, for providing a quality education in a safe environment. More than 80,000 of the city's children suffer daily due to the absence of leadership and the resulting inability to reform a dysfunctional organization.

  • The District's public schools are not the first to face an educational crisis

    Other school systems in major urban centers have grappled with challenges such as socioeconomic factors, resource constraints, and decaying infrastructures. The Authority recognizes that much of the environment in which the public school system must operate is beyond their ability to control. It also recognizes that many talented professionals and children achieve tremendous results in the District's public schools despite daunting obstacles. Nevertheless, the Authority notes that many urban school systems with comparable problems have moved faster and more decisively to resolve similar issues. It is these schools -- and their success in helping children learn -- that have provided some guidance in our approach to saving our schools and better educating our students.

The Failures

The Authority's full report details the major failures of the DCPS. This summary highlights the unacceptable conditions that children face every day:
  • Education outcomes are well below the national norm

    District students consistently lag behind the national averages and the averages of comparable urban school districts on the major exams that test competency and student achievement.

  • Education inequity persists

    Students' test scores in wards 7 and 8, the predominantly poorer areas of the city, have declined substantially while the more affluent wards of the District have remained stable.

  • Mismanagement undermines learning

    The inability of DCPS to effectively implement long-term education and operational plans leaves students without teachers or classrooms, textbooks unordered or lost in warehouses, teachers untrained and uncertified, and students who are disabled without access. Additionally, poor resource allocation distorts priorities, ensuring that educational needs go unmet even when funds are available.

  • Unsafe environments disrupt learning

    The much publicized case of schools failing to open on schedule last September, due to fire code violations, highlights the collapsing infrastructure of the public schools. The alarming condition of facilities leaves students exposed to discomfort and even to potential harm -- boilers burst, roofs leak, firedoors stick, bathrooms crumble, and poor security permits unauthorized individuals to gain access, threatening the safety of students. Such conditions make it almost impossible to focus on the primary mission of educating the children.

  • Unacceptable service provision affects students

    Poor contract management in the public schools has left an indelible mark on our children -- who, among other things, have been forced to eat cold cereal for lunch and have been subjected to unqualified individuals operating school facilities, such as at the Kedar School.

Accountability

By law, the Board of Education and Superintendent are responsible and accountable for the performance of our public schools. Because the authority for overseeing DCPS has been delegated throughout the system, identifying who is responsible for its mismanagement is often difficult.1 Ultimately, no one is held accountable.

Radical change is necessary to implement an organizational structure within the public school system that holds its leadership accountable for educational quality, academic achievement, financial and personnel management, and procurement.

Alternative Approaches

In committing itself to reform, the Authority has examined alternative approaches now being used in other urban jurisdictions which faced similar crises. In most cases, including Chicago and Newark, the existing leadership structures were suspended, subsumed, or abolished. They were replaced by structures more accountable for public education performance, less bureaucratic, and less sensitive to the politics that can impede the education process. The goal of these reforms is to not only improve management efficiency, but also, more importantly, educational effectiveness. The mission of any school system is to educate students; failing in this mission provides a compelling basis for intervention.

Change is positive, and both Chicago and Newark have realized the benefits of effective reform. In its first year, for instance, the Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees:

  • Eliminated the District's $1.3 billion deficit
  • Restored its credit rating
  • Eliminated the unwritten policy of social promotion
  • Required summer school for thousands of students in order to advance to the next grade
  • Created new educational programs for all grade levels
  • Eliminated millions of dollars in waste
  • Downsized the public school system
  • Created enhanced educational opportunities
  • Refurbished decaying facilities
Newark Public Schools in its first year:

  • Revamped educational priorities
  • Removed for cause nearly one-quarter of its school principals
  • Recruited large numbers of volunteers to work in the schools
  • Improved the condition of school facilities
  • Reorganized the educational structure to better meet the needs of students
In both instances, there were almost immediate improvements in the day-to-day operations because of the changes in management. Although it is still too early to judge students' test score improvements, officials in these jurisdictions expect that their education and management improvements will quickly lead to better student performance.

Protecting Our Children

While individuals may differ over the form that restructuring might take, there should be no question that effective change must occur -- now. The Authority believes that democratic institutions must be protected in our communities. Also, like other responsible of ficials in an increasing number of urban centers faced with failed education systems, we are determined to also protect the children in our communities. In the final analysis, the schools' primary function is to educate children in an optimal learning environment.

The Authority is convinced that only fundamental change will reverse the deplorable neglect of students' educational and environmental needs. The Authority is committed to instituting a structure for the public schools that puts students first, links performance and accountability for education results, and provides a safe environment in which learning can occur. Achieving this objective requires that the District's parents and children, its teachers, and other school system employees recognize that the status quo is harmful to the goals of a quality public education and therefore is unacceptable.

Continue on to Part 2 of this report.

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