D.C. schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey plans to adopt new grade-by-grade student learning standards this week, one of several steps he quickly is taking to tackle problems that have left the school system among the worst-performing in the country.
Janey, who assumed the job Sept. 16, said he will convene a meeting of teachers, principals and outside experts Thursday at Georgetown University to reach a consensus on which of two sets of standards should be selected.
Learning standards describe what students in each grade should know and be able to do in core subjects. The D.C. school system has such standards for math and reading but has implemented them unevenly. Janey said the new standards would be more rigorous and uniform and would result in the school system's 65,000 students, who now take the Stanford 9, taking a different standardized test.
Janey, 58 -- the fifth D.C. schools chief in a decade, not counting interim superintendents -- has spent his first days in office in meeting after meeting, learning about some of the problems that have frustrated his predecessors.
He held an introductory session with the system's principals during which he said that he thinks educational mantras are "overrated." He also declared himself "duplicity intolerant," promised to invigorate the arts and made clear that he understands the bureaucratic system's well-known resistance to change.
"I don't underestimate the power of the status quo," he told the principals. "While inertia has its place in science, unfortunately, it also has standing in the social sciences."
People who have met with him said he has been well received because his language is direct, his goals seem clear and his commitment is obvious.
"He is a very plain-speaking person who doesn't try to wrap the conversation in a lot of jargon that no one else in the room understands," said Iris Toyer, co-chairman of the education advocacy group Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. "He seems to be very self-assured but not exhibiting bravado."
Some principals at last week's session quietly grumbled when he asked them to write up an assessment of their schools, but others praised him.
"He gave us the impression of being serious," said Barbara Campbell, principal of Langdon Elementary in Northeast Washington. "He also gave us the impression that he wasn't there to keep us in. Every now and then, you feel punished [by administrators]. I feel like he is willing to work with us."
Janey said he plans to turn the monthly meetings with principals -- which some said have been "painful" in the past -- into professional development sessions in which they work on leadership issues rather than listen to administrative pronouncements. He also said he would include principals of the city's public charter schools for the first time, because "we are all there to help the same population of students."
Janey said he would negotiate with education unions in the city to adopt an assessment system for schools similar to the one he used as superintendent of Rochester, N.Y., public schools. He said it would be a system in which schools are rewarded with money for the progress they make but would not be left for years to flounder if they are not improving.
And he said he would conduct an audit of school curricula next month, with the goal of building coordinated curricula from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
"We can ill afford to make any assumptions about what works," Janey said in an interview late last week. "I'm in a unique position to call the question."
He is also laying the groundwork to audit weaknesses in nonacademic areas, saying academic reform is impossible unless basic infrastructure is fixed. Problems with payroll, procurement, personnel and other functions have long plagued the school system.
Janey said he would soon hire an outside company to audit the payroll and benefits system to ensure that employees are getting paid accurately and on time, a chronic problem that has hurt employee morale.
The educators participating in Thursday's meeting at GU will choose from two sets of student learning standards that are in use elsewhere in the country, Janey said. He declined to say which plans will be considered, but he said the new standards would be aligned with the National Assessment of Learning Progress, known as NAEP. The NAEP program, which started in 1969, regularly assesses the reading and math skills of a nationwide sample of students and is called the nation's report card. It would be the first time that the District's learning standards are tied to NAEP.
"When we have districtwide standards, we'll know that Algebra 1 at one school is not different from Algebra 1 at another school," Janey said.
Angela Tilghman, principal of Miner Elementary in Northeast, said she thinks Janey can make a difference because the city's politicians -- Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the D.C. Council and the Board of Education -- seem to "be on the same page" after a year of fighting about school governance.
"It's good to have someone who everybody accepts as being the person in charge," she said.