At the beginning of her second year as administrative head of the city's school system, Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie discusses a number of issues with Special Correspondent Isabel Wilkerson. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Do you feel that any parent's disillusionment about the school system is partly maybe an image problem, not so much . . . an actual problem with the school system itself?
A: Well, I'm not going to sit here and say that we don't have some problems and that there are not parts of the organization that need improving, including some school programs. But I think we are well on the way to getting a handle on that and moving to improve our school programs. And so while all the reasons that folks send their kids to private schools don't center on the quality of school itself, there is some concern in urban areas about safety. . . . If we can help the parents who are still with us feel better about their schools and about the quality of the education program, then I think that's very, very important, too. Not to say that I would not like the youngsters to come back to public schools from private schools.
Q: What do you think should be the extent of parental involvement in this process? For example, curriculum decisions and teacher selections.
A: Well, I'm not so sure that--well, with curriculum decisions, parents often say what kind of programs they want their children to have in many ways. . . . They want the youngsters to be able to do better on tests because no matter what one might think about tests, tests are given in every aspect of our lives: if you go to military, if you go to government, if you go to some places in private industry, if you go to college. So we've got to deal with these realities. Now parents are the children's first teachers. I believe very strongly that they must maintain a kind of conscious teaching role. . . . I would like probably for parents to be a little bit more conscious of their teaching role, if it's no more than making sure that the homework is done. . . . You can at least find out if there was homework, what the kid is working on presently. Listen, listen to children talk about the school and about what they care about and the teachers and the, you know, their day. That will add a lot to what we're trying to do at school.
Q: Do you think that parental involvement should be mainly in the home as . . .
A: No, I haven't said that. Now that's a very important part of the involvement that is the reinforcement at home, and we're trying to capitalize on that by developing parent handbooks that give the parent an idea of the objectives for the year -- in elementary school, instructional activities that they can work on with the child to help the child learn the objectives, and this would be the first year that this will be available to parents. So you can see why I'm excited about that. So there'll be thousands of handbooks made available to parents to work with children.
Q: This is mainly in elementary school?
A: Elementary school. But last year we had about 10,000 volunteers in our schools. The largest number we have ever had.
Q: Parent volunteers?
A: Well, some were government workers, but the majority were parents. You know a lot of people thought that the volunteers were largely coming from the government offices or other places, but I think an analysis showed that over 50 percent of the volunteers were parents and 40 some percent were men.
Q: The problem of incompetent teachers and principals still persists, and it still takes two years to fire an incompetent teacher.
A: Ah, it's according to the kind of offense. But generally, just as on any job, a person is due a length of time to prove whether they can do the job or they can't. And so, in some instances, it seems like it takes us longer when it's not clear that the teacher is not so incompetent or immoral or anything. If it's something really grave, the teacher can be removed tomorrow or a principal could be removed immediately. But in the borderline case, documentation has to be developed. Now, with our instructional program, it's a little easier to identify the teacher who isn't working out.
Q: What do you mean the instructional program?
A: Well, there are certain objectives that the children have to . . .
Q: You mean the CBC Competency-Based Curriculum ?
A: That's right. You've got to achieve during that year. And so, therefore, you've got to teach them. And if that class has had too much difficulty or a teacher is not able to handle the checklist or other things to account for what happens, it's not as hard to figure out this teacher is not working out. And then principals must make sure that learning is taking place, and when we find that learning is not taking place and that there's a lot of unrest, not a wholesome environment, then, of course, I need to see the regional superintendent.
Q: You can identify these, I mean, it's a large system . . .
A: Well, we're getting so that we're collecting the kind of data that will indicate when schools are having problems. And then we can work . . .
Q: You mean based on the CBC evaluation.
A: Yes, based on SPP student progress plan , based on test data, based on attendance, based on dropouts.
Q: Now what exactly is SPP? Is it a program in which you evaluate and implement the CBC program and see if its working?
A: No, no, no. You measure whether the youngsters are learning the curriculum.
Q: The child is keeping up with the CBC?
A: That's right. It's just like if in the competency based curriculum. You're teaching certain things, and so you pull from that the major objective in all of that teaching and then you check off whether the kid has learned it or not. That's the student progress plan. But the curriculum itself is that whole set, list of objectives, and instructional activities and all stuff like that.
Q: These are teachers you are zeroing in on?
A: You start with the school. You don't start zeroing in on teachers. But you use the data to look at a school to determine its health. And then you have to move from that data to try to pinpoint where the problem is.
Just as in other professions, you've got good, better, best; and a great majority of the teachers in the school district are working very, very hard. Some of our best teachers worked in the summer program, and children made a lot of progress. They did it not solely to earn money, but they really worked at helping those youngsters to be able to pass. They helped those 14- and 15-year-old adolescents [who tutored younger students] to learn that if they help a little one, that they help themselves, too.
So I don't want to be in the position of generalizing about teachers. If I do generalize, I'd say the majority are doing a good job. And sometimes what you do is based on the kind of direction that you're given. We've got to make sure in this system that we're directing our teachers and other school employes properly. That's why leadership is just [a] key to success in any school district. Because if you give a person poor instructions about what it is that you want them to do and then you don't follow up, you don't get much.
Q: Let's talk about some of the changes, the CBC and the midterm promotion. The past few years have seen a couple of changes, drastic changes really compared to the time when I went to school. . . . The concept was open classrooms.
A: Yeah, we've moved away from that a little bit.
Q: Now things are much more structured than that. It seems like you know exactly what you want to do. How successful have the mid-term promotional program and CBC worked?
A: Well, I think the competency-based curricula, the structured curriculum, have been good for the school district in that they're common objectives that youngsters are expected to learn within a given period of time. And that provides the opportunity for some consistency in instruction. If you're not careful, you'll have each school as good as the individual principal or each classroom as good as each individual teacher. So there has to be some uniformity, and the uniformity is found largely in the objectives to be taught during a year. But there is no mandate for uniformity of teaching strategies. The lessons can be just as exciting, just as dynamic, but it says that you're going to achieve these things, but we don't tell you how to do that.
We did have a recent evaluation of the competency-based curriculum in the student progress plan that was carried out by NIE [National Institute of Education] in a convenient process and the University of the District of Columbia. I think a lot of people miss that the student progress plan is [a] program to evaluate how well the youngsters have done in the competency-based curriculum.
Q: Does that include the mid-term?
A: That's right. But they're separate. One program measures how well you did in mastering the competency-based curriculum. The evaluations were critical of the mid-year promotions. And this is something that we're going to have to deal with the board on. We feel that it's very important for teachers to pause at mid-semester to assess where the students are, to make adjustments in the teaching program, to make sure youngsters are getting enough help and all of that. But to promote from one semester to the other is proving to be difficult to implement.
Q: That's because a child may do well in math and not do well in reading?
A: Yes, there are spurts in learning. I believe very strongly that promotion occur at the end of a year. So that's one we're going to have to work through.
Q: What other means would you use to determine whether a child is ready to be promoted?
A: Oh, the fact of the matter is that we have a checklist on objectives for each semester. And so it doesn't have to result in a promotion or retention. It just results in that I have reviewed this youngster's checklist and here she needs help in these areas. Either get additional help through resource personnel in school, additional aide support for that youngster or additional tutorial support which we've already done through Operation Rescue and extended days for youngsters. All of that will still be in place. Human growth and development doesn't just occur in packages. You know, all six graders and all first graders aren't at one level at the same time. In fact, some studies show that boys start off slower than girls. So it's just one of the issues that we're going to have to look at real hard.
Q: What are your goals for the coming years with CBC and SPP? What do you expect to see, for example, five years from now?
A: Five years from now I expect to see a fully implemented competency-based curriculum with a student progress plan with all the bugs worked out. I would expect to see more of the great majority of the youngsters being promoted because they indeed have had appropriate instruction. I'd expect to see a revitalized junior high school program, with those kinds of exploratory courses that would give these youngsters some experiences with some hands-on experiences with real life skills. I'd expect to see high school programs with career orientation. Almost everything leads to a career whether you go to college or not, and I would hope we will build programs where youngsters can get some career experiences as they move through high school so that they can make better life choices.
Q: What do you feel is your relationship with the board? Let me give you this quote that I gleaned from a story that was written two years ago. The board members, according to the story, said that when they were seeking a successor to Vincent Reed they said they wanted a superintendent who agreed that the board, not the superintendent, should be running the schools.
A: Wow, I'm glad I didn't read that quote before I took this job. Well, you know, it's well understood by almost everybody that the board's responsibility is the development of policy and the responsibility of the superintendent and the administration to implement that policy. There are times when it seems as if the board sometimes wants to get into the act of implementation, but I must admit that so far we have not had major problems in that area. Some minor problems, but no major problems. And I find the quote surprising because I have not for the most part experienced this. What I do experience that sometimes puts a pretty great burden on the staff is that the board's appetite for information and explanation as to what is going on is somewhat insatiable. But, you know, it keeps us on our toes.
In some ways, to provide all of the information takes us, some offices, away from the business of running the schools a little longer than perhaps they should. But the board has ideas generally about some programs and how they would like them to go. But the bottom line is that this board and this superintendent want the same thing, want children to learn. Want to demonstrate that children in this school district can learn on par with children anywhere. So we'll continue, I'm sure, to have some disagreements, but I'm very pleased that they've, the disagreements, have been pretty few so far.