If our country truly values education, what better place to show it than in Washington -- but not through charter schools and vouchers, which have shown little evidence of improving student performance. The District instead needs to change the environment in and around its public schools so that all its children can succeed.
Most D.C. public schools now fail to meet the established standards in reading, math or both. Testing data for the 2002-03 school year confirm a finding by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that African Americans perform as poorly in the District as anywhere in the country, while white elementary school students perform as well, if not better, than anywhere in the country. In other words, while most students are being failed by the D.C. system, a few schools consistently are succeeding despite being part of a dysfunctional system.
Janney School, where I recently served as principal, is one of the lucky ones. It is protected by parents who contribute money and effort to its success. Janney succeeds by mitigating the ills that other schools cannot escape.
Janney's PTA, for instance, can extend a loan to a new teacher if she fails to get a paycheck on time. It can pay for repairs to an aging electrical system and replace outdated playground equipment.
The Janney PTA also can finance basic operating expenses when the District prohibits schools from accessing more than 10 percent of their discretionary budgets before March because of congressional delays in sanctioning the city's budget.
The purchasing power of schools throughout the District has dwindled over the past three years. The school system guarantees funding for a certain minimum level of services, but each year more costs get passed down to the schools. For example, the teacher salary increase, while needed, resulted in the loss of other resources, including staff positions, in order to maintain school solvency. Janney lost eight positions, including instructional assistants, a librarian, a custodian and an art teacher.
A new superintendent, no matter how good or experienced, will not be able to ride into town and solve the problems that face the public schools -- not without the creation of a dramatically changed environment in the school system. To create an environment that will promote District-wide school quality, we will need to:
* Strive for more than the bare minimum.
If we value literacy, schools must be funded to have library books, librarians and reading specialists. If we value the arts and the need to learn about other cultures, then every school must have an art teacher and offer foreign-language opportunities. We need to have a broad community conversation about what schools need and what is valued most.
* Stop the blame game.
The D.C. Council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) blame the D.C. Board of Education, and the board blames the mayor and council for the poor performance of the public schools. All three blame the congressional committees that have oversight for D.C. appropriations. This finger-pointing must end. One entity must take responsibility for the public schools and hold full fiscal control so it can be held accountable for instructional improvement.
* Invest in general education and special education.
Private advocates and lawyers are feasting on the city's public schools by finding ways for their clients to attend private schools on public school money. This cannot continue.
Most of the children who now go to private schools could receive a free and appropriate education within the public school system. Special education costs will not fall substantially, however, without an enormous investment in professional development to improve general education and the quality of special education in the public schools. In addition, more city attorneys must be ready to defend the programs and services that the public schools can offer.
* Establish incentives to share excellence.
The system has good teachers and good principals, but they hide. Excellence must be rewarded, and the sharing of excellence must be valued. The next teacher contract, when negotiated, must find a way to reward performance, not just seniority and educational level.
* Support focused professional development.
The next union contract must establish more time for teachers to meet, attend sustained learning opportunities and work with administrators to promote instructional improvement.
To challenge the status quo will require a new response from universities, nonprofits, businesses, Congress, city government, parents and educators. But if the nation's leaders truly care about children, they will do what is necessary to make the District's schools a symbol of fine public education for the country and the world.
-- Charles Abelmann
served as the principal of Janney Elementary School for three years while on external service from the World Bank.