Washington Post Staff Writer Sewell Chan asked four scholars and writers on educational issues to offer their advice to Clifford B. Janey, the incoming superintendent of the D.C. public schools.
Frederick M. Hess
The District's schools are certainly beset by problems with facilities, resources, instruction and professional development. However, trying to tackle these discrete problems without first addressing the larger system is like vacuuming the carpet of a burning house.
The deeper problem is a school district seemingly designed to frustrate competence. Teachers are hired, essentially for life, through haphazard recruiting processes. There is little systemic recognition for excellence. Compensation and desirable assignments are treated as rewards for longevity. Informing decisions with data is considered novel, while the very words "efficiency" and "productivity" are derided as alien.
Schools must focus on doing a few crucial things and doing them well. The superintendent should make it clear that Job One for the D.C. schools is to ensure that all children master the gatekeeping skills of reading, writing and mathematics. Everything else must come second.
Student testing should be aggressively used to identify and reward excellence and sanction ineffective schools and teachers. Meanwhile, the D.C. schools should welcome competition from charter schools and voucher schools. Officials should track student flows and use the information to help identify schools that are meeting their families' needs and those that are not.
The District can make itself into a magnet for talented and entrepreneurial teachers and leaders. The administration should radically downsize licensure requirements and should press for the freedom to reward teachers who excel in classroom teaching, mentoring or helping make their colleagues more effective.
Meanwhile, the administration should work with the union to rework the collective-bargaining agreement to make it far easier to identify ineffective educators, help them improve and remove them if they do not.
Significant investments in data management, information technology and the human resources operation are a must, even if that requires cutting staff or valued services. Effective school districts need immediate, high-quality information on how they are doing, where their money is going and whom they are hiring.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Joseph P. Viteritti
One of the basic problems in urban education is the shortage of decent schools for poor children. The District is unique in the sense that it has a vigorous charter school program and a federally funded scholarship program that allows needy children to attend private schools. Both of these programs are supported by Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Dr. Janey should embrace these programs and the mayor's support of them as a way to expand educational opportunities for underserved children. But in order for these programs to benefit students, at least two things are necessary: First, an effort must be made to make these opportunities known to parents through the dissemination of useful information about the participating schools. Next, all schools participating in the programs must be held accountable for the improvement of student performance.
In the meantime, the superintendent must work diligently to improve the overall quality of public schools, where most students will continue to go for an education.
Joseph P. Viteritti is professor of public policy at Hunter College, City University of New York.
Nearly 40 years ago when a new superintendent, William R. Manning, was selected, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled, "Better Rent Not Buy, Mr. Superintendent." Since 1967, when I wrote that piece, 10 superintendents (not counting interim and acting school chiefs) have come and gone. I offer the same advice to newly appointed Clifford B. Janey, a tough-minded, academic achievement-focused educator.
Why does the belief in a strong superintendent "saving" the D.C. schools flourish in light of so much evidence that the belief is a fairy tale? I suspect that lots of smart people consciously ignore the stubborn political facts of governing D.C. schools in order to sustain the tale of a heroic knight rescuing children from a dysfunctional system.
Consider that the entangled lines of power between federal control of the purse, local mayoral/council rule and an elected school board have strangled well-intentioned designs by one newly arrived superintendent after another. Also consider that the school system has become a hiring hall, making it very difficult to bump longtime but third-rate principals and teachers who have strong connections to political leaders. These facts account, in part, for superintendents entering and exiting the post as if it were a Metro turnstile.
Which then raises the obvious question: Why should first-rate D.C. principals and teachers listen to, much less do, what new superintendents promise and order? Stability in office -- from five to eight years -- is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition for a superintendent to succeed in reshaping teaching and learning in D.C. schools. If Janey moves central office staff and principals from their posts and has to look continually over his shoulder to see what the Board of Education, D.C. Council and mayor are doing to support or undermine his work, then he will not last more than a few years. Even a miracle worker needs longevity.
But longevity is not enough. "The superintendent is so fettered up with overhead organizations that he is practically impotent," the U.S. commissioner of education said in 1921. Chaotic governing arrangements and schools-as-employment-centers-for-adults are structural arrangements that demand remedial action within both the District and the U.S. Congress.
Improving schools requires superintendent stability in office, a careful design for instructional change that reaches into classrooms and a straightening out of federal and local governing arrangements.
Because this agenda is alien to existing political and social elites in the District and the Congress who believe in a fairy tale that lets them avoid making structural changes, what I suggest is pretty much pie in the sky. For the next few years, I think that Clifford Janey should rent, not buy.
Larry Cuban, a former D.C. public school teacher, is professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.
What can one man possibly do to repair that tragically severed connection -- the link, at the very center of the American ideal, between equal education and equal opportunity? Honestly, not much. As many big-city superintendents can attest, the choices tend to fall somewhere between compromise and martyrdom, with station stops that include appeasement, frustration and resignation.
What to suggest, in the face of such prospects? First, look at children, all children, in a way that suits the new world -- one child at a time. The information revolution, which has changed countless industries and democratized learning across the globe, has somehow never reached the schools, at least not most schools in a city like Washington. No one can be taught by a computer, of course, but the ways to tailor interactive learning to the needs of each child -- a process nourished and stoked by the engaged teacher -- are already here. The reason home-schoolers are thriving academically in the past decade is largely rooted in this change: The world can be brought to the fingertips and the naturally inquiring mind of the child.
The effects of this would be most dramatic in the areas of greatest need -- undernourished urban schools and students in various incarnations of "special ed." On the latter score, a wise superintendent would stop treating parents who get funding to educate their special-needs kids like thieves stealing money from the system and learn from their various, heart-felt improvisations. Similarly, an engaged superintendent can learn from creative efforts inside charter schools and not treat them as the enemy.
Such outside-the-system efforts are often called "skunk works" solutions by CEOs who set up teams beyond the rigid, sluggish structure of their failing companies, see what the outsiders create and then bring breakthroughs back into the wider organization.
Over the past few years, I've followed the path of two legendary characters -- Cedric Jennings, the prickly, religious student from a tough D.C. school who went to the Ivy League -- and Paul H. O'Neill, the prickly, principled Treasury secretary, who believed in embracing fearless, fact-driven analysis.
What do they share? This one truth: Whether struggling CEO, or overwhelmed superintendent, the key to success is never about defending turf. It's about learning, and growing, every day. Oddly, the same rules apply to the inner city student in a blighted school and the superintendent of all schools. A hard lesson: Education is survival.
Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of "A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League" (1999) and "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill" (2004).