Washington Post editors and reporters interviewed Clifford B. Janey, the District's new school superintendent, on Tuesday. The transcript has been edited for space.
QWhat are your initial impressions of the school system in Washington?
AFrom a community perspective, I have found no shortage of shadow superintendents. They're omnipresent. I've also found a deep sense of despair among a wide range of parents, constituents, advocates.
On the other side of that issue, there are people who really want to see improvement and change. I've said before that I've not met very many people who don't want to have improvement, but I've met too many who do not want the change that goes along with the improvement. . . .
I've been enormously disappointed in the lack of sound management policies -- whether it's in food service . . . procurement or the audits I've read with respect to security. My impression as I have been transitioning is that it's going to take some form of dynamic intervention to get those systems right and at the same time build internal capacity. I wouldn't be interested in just somebody or some group or some firm coming in to help manage, or even to manage those systems -- in human relations, in procurement or food service or facilities -- without a plan to build internal capacity. And with some agreement on a point in time which there will be resumption of self-management. I have not come to a conclusion yet, but that's what I can see.
I have found the Board of Education refreshing. They've stayed out of my way.
One last one, I think, is that we make the work far too complicated. We make it more complicated than what it is.
The Board of Education which hired you in August has placed an emphasis on raising achievement. Even when compared to other large urban school districts, the District's children do very poorly on national and standardized assessments of academic ability. What concrete improvements may we actually see in superintendent's initiatives this year that will lead to increased student achievement?
I think we are going to not make any promises or overstate what we can derive as a result this year. We're moving from the Stanford 9 [test to a new] assessment to determine how we are complying with No Child Left Behind act. We will be doing a much better job at aligning our professional development, our acquisition of materials with instruction. We hope to bring to the table of discussion with the teachers union ways by which learning and academic achievement will be more prominent in the language of the upcoming teacher contract. I'm not going to put any stuff on the table here, of course. But in principle we would want and would expect that there be the presence of language that would demonstrate that it is a shared responsibility -- student learning and achievement. And when it goes well, it's not just, you know, the function of the teacher and the principal. When it goes poorly, it's not just the function of the superintendent not doing his job or the Board of Education. We've got to share on both accounts.
We are going to institute by the end of the first "advisory" [period] an assessment of the performance of principals. There is a new instrument that was negotiated last year, and this will be the first year for us to implement this new instrument. And it does take into consideration the leadership and management role of the principal for all student populations, all student groups, and particularly those who have disabilities. I will be able to see where there are shortfalls, where there are fault lines, where there are strengths. . . . Principals and leadership teams will be meeting with me on a monthly basis, along with principals from charter schools. We'll be focused, really, on what needs to happen to close some of these gaps. We will have, for the first year, a midyear assessment of student performance. I would have preferred to have it done quarterly, but we're not ready yet to do it.
You said you are disappointed by the lack of sound management policies. What is your impression of the top staff you've inherited? There will be some dismissals. There'll be some in response to some of these audits that painfully pointed out just irresponsible actions on the part of certain staff. My impression about the central office is that we sometimes get too focused on what occurs at the senior level, but what I have found is a need for us to look at mid-management.
Have you encountered the nepotism and the cronyism we've heard about?
It's there. I haven't got a handle on the scope. In a couple of weeks or so. But it's alive and well, unfortunately.
Can you say anything about the circumstances behind the firing, the really quick firing of the people involved in the Eastern High School fiasco [when student schedules were not ready for opening day]? You were applauded quite loudly, but nobody ever knew what that was really all about?
They had misrepresented willfully to their supervisor reports of the state of readiness for that particular school to open. All three had misrepresented to [Interim Superintendent Robert C.] Rice the readiness for that school to open. He was reassured that that school was ready to open. And they knew differently. Some principals have said that they will know you are indeed serious about reform when you tackle the facilities question . . . when you try to close down schools. How much of the system resources are locked up in those buildings? It is high on my list, the issue of facilities. It's very high. Another major issue that is on my list is the 8 million dollars we spend in the lease [for rent for the school system's headquarters] at 825 North Capitol St. NE. I'm hard-pressed to look teachers and principals in the face when my office looks like some hotel room. And I go into those schools. It's a painful contradiction. So, so, everything's going to be on the table. What did you think when you went to Capitol Hill to talk about the House of Representatives effort to repeal the city's gun laws and no one would meet with you?
I think there was a message that reminded me and reminded others of how far away we are from truly [being treated] in a democratic way. It would be obscene for someone to go to Indiana and carry out their will on communities in Indiana with respect to guns or anything else. But it's seemingly okay and fair game here. So it was repulsive. And it was a case in which the facts didn't really matter. The issue of how many guns were confiscated. How many shootings and homicides took place among youths, how many homicides took place through the use of guns with adults, the data didn't matter. People had their mind made up. They knew best for the District of Columbia. So I thought it was obscene.
You mentioned charter schools in passing. What is your assessment of the role charter schools play here? Is it helpful or do you think a distraction from what you are trying to do with the rest of the school system?
I think they can be enormously helpful. And I'm glad they're here. I think my only "however" is that it's hard work. People should not underestimate how difficult and challenging it is to establish a new school, let alone a new school with quality. And the issuance of a charter does not guarantee quality. So, it's one of the reasons I think we can do more together -- DCPS and charter schools -- than we should be allowed to do on our own, separately, with respect to professional development. What is your view of vouchers?
Well, we could have used the money differently, but it's here.
Talk about your relationship with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and what you think his role should be toward the schools.
Any mayor should use strategically the power of the bully pulpit as a way to not only bring attention but bring focus on some of the neediest aspects of this school district. And I would venture to say for me it's in the area of facilities. It took a lot of hard work to create the neglect that I see, you have seen and kids and staff members have endured over time. I mean, that doesn't come about through just a stroke of a pen. You have to work at that level of neglect. And it's one of the areas where I think he could be very, very helpful. My relationship with him is straight, open, forward, it's with candor. How committed are you to looking into outside help for operations?
I'm looking at that carefully. I haven't come to any conclusion. But the more I see, the more need there is for consideration.
The city has had a very, very ambivalent record with privatization of government functions. Would you consider turning over entire schools to private management, like Philadelphia has done ?
I'm not persuaded by that approach.
So you are looking at outsiders to take over operational systems ?
I'm looking, more precisely, at those operations that affect quality of life in schools.
But not entire schools?