Last Wednesday, Floretta D. McKenzie was named superintendent of the District's public schools. She takes over July 1. Here, in an interview with Juan Williams of the editorial page staff, are some of her thoughts as she faces her new job:
Q. Why did you take this job ?
A: I have a strong commitment to urban school systems. The core of my interest is to work in an urban school system, so I've wound my way around to this, one of the more difficult situations for a professional educator. But if we are not able to solve the educational problems of our urban centers, then this country is in deep, deep trouble. And I particularly want to be a part of the solution.
Q. As you begin the job of superintendent, what do you see as the school system's chief problems ?
A. One of the problems in an urban school system is the largeness, the largeness and depersonalization that takes place in a city. It appears sometimes that parents arenot as supportive of youngsters in their schooling in a city. And sometimes it appears that city schools are not anxious to have parents involved. . . . This is caused by the diverse population in a city, by the large number of disadvantaged young people. So when you put that situation on top of the real purpose of a school -- to teach a child to read and write, to speak effectively and to have some sense of aesthetics and citizenship -- well, you don't have all the things going for you that you might in a rural situation where there are closer family ties, or even in a suburban school where the school is the center of community social activity.
Q: Does that mean that city schools are bound to fail?
A: No. I'm more certain of youngsters' ability to learn than I am of educators' ability to teach. That is to say that people learn naturally. . . .
Q: How good are the District public schools?
A: Well, there are problems here. Problems with respect to adequate financial support, problems with respect to the belief that the schools cannot do the kind of job the community wants. But the city schools have to deliver. For so many kinds, whether black, Hispanic or Vietnamese, schools are still the route for upward mobility. If we are going to make the dream of this country real for our children, it is going to be to a large extent through out public school systems.
Q: Suppose you are a young black man in the District, starting to earn a good salary, and you want your upward mobility to continue for your children. Are the schools here so bad that you would move to the suburbs ?
A. I don't think the schools are so bad that the children can't get an education. My own children went through the public school system. The last one graduated on Tuesday, and I think she is well prepared to continue her education. . . . Suburban and rural schools are smaller, they have a better support system for students that enhances the chances of the schools' doing a better job.
Q: If that it true, then wouldn't it be best for parents to move out of the city to allow their child to go to the suburban or rural school ?
A: I don't see it that way. The majority of our citizens in this country live in the cities. And I prefer a city. I don't think that I've sacrificed the quality of my children's education by staying in the city.I'm not saying parents who stay in the city are abdicating their responsibility to their children if they are leaving the school system. . . . A lot of city parents who could be sending their children to private schools or live in the suburbs are still sending their children to District schools. They act as parents anywhere by adding to the education through their own resources. But what I'm concerned about is that the level of confidence in our school system rise. I want more and more parents to believe that they can leave their child with us and work with us to provide their child with the kind of education that will allow their child to be successful.
Q: So how good are the District schools? Are they good enough for parents to expect that they will prepare a student for college?
A: Of course. The college-going rate here is 40 or 45 percent. My own daughter had no difficulty getting into a number of colleges. . . . She is going to Spelman College.
Q: So you think that if someone is interested in his child and is willing to work with the D.C. public schools, there is no reason not to put the child in the public schools?
A: Oh, yes. That is it. That is my very, very strong feeling.
Q: What the common parental worry about drugs and violence in city schools?
A: Drugs, at least, are everywhere. People tend to attribute that behavior to poor people and to city schools, but that is not necessarily real. . . . I know in suburban schools drug-use problems are severe; in some cases, it is because the kids have more money to buy what they want.
Q: What about violence? Is there more in city schools.
A: When you have a diverse population in a school, socioeconomic and racial, you have to work to bring those groups together. And if you don't really make the mix work, then you'll have some acting out.
In Montgomery County, we tried to work to develop volunteer programs in all schools for parents. The parents would do necessary functions that the school needed. And they would be there to say to students: "Look, we support the school. We're here helping." And that helps with the kids' behavior because if you see someone from your neighborhood there, you don't carry on. . . . I'd like to start that kind of thing here.
Q: You think that the District schools have the potential to be good. What do you think is stopping them from being good now ?
A: The schools have to have an instructional program that the whole school system follows. The competency-based curriculm has the potential to give that direction to the activities in instruction. Now, I have not looked at the competency-based curriculum very carefuly, but I think that they are on to a good notion. It provides some evidence of result orientation, not just delivery of subject matter without indicating what it is that you expect kids to get from it . . . From my perception of it, the competency-based curriculum has been implemented from the central office. What I would project is that, after a very close assessment and development of plans, I would move the competency-bases curiculum so that it becomes an individual school implemented program.
Let me explain that. Change generally takes place in school units, not system-wide. In an urban school system, that is too large to deal with. So the best strategy is to develop local school plans based on assessed needs of what direction you should be going, whether math is the problem in your school, or reading, and then develop your school plan. It might be staff training for teachers of greater emphasis on certain skills for kids or spending more time on tasks in particular areas. If within a certain time there is no progress, then you've got a problem that in time might mean that you have to look at your staff.
Q: What would you do with a bad teacher ?
A: The key to a school is its leadership, the principal. We would be looking at the leadership very closely. And the leadership should be looking at his or her team to make sure that the team is capable. . . . You can't always select your own team, but if you've done all the things available to you to help the person develop and the person cannot develop, then you follow steps to help the person into another career. . . . Teachers want clear directions, and they want to know that the people who supervise them know what they are doing. . . . I'm not saying go out there and wholesale start firing folks, but I am saying the you have to be willing to do the difficult when it comes to the education of kids. You cannot sit by and let kids be miseducated while pointed at some regulation.
Q: Few D.C. school graduates can qualify for the white-collar jobs that are the bread and butter of this city's job market. Do you hope to change that?
A: By all means. The clerical jobs, the word-processing jobs -- the federal government should not have to recruit for those from West Virginia or Kansas. We should be able to get kids placed in those jobs better than we do now. . . . We want to know the requirements of the employer and be sure that we are teaching to those requirements. There is no excuse for not knowing what the federal government's requirements are with respect to shorthand . . . If hotel management is one of our key industries here, then we have to have a hotel management program in the schools.
Q: What about standardized tests? Do you accept them as the measure by which all things in a school system should be judged?
A: No. I think there are many indicators for the success of a school system.Improved dropout rate is an indicator, imporved attendance. You need to look at grades and see how many children are getting good grades. The research indicates, particulary with respect to the SAT's, that the grades a student makes in high school are a better indicator of his likelihood to do well in college than his scores on the test. While tests are important, they are not the only indicator of whether a school system is being successful.
Whether we have a viable PTA, a viable extracurricular program -- all of these are really indicators of a good school and a good school system. . . . Now, General Motors makes cars. School systems teach kids to read, write, compute. So make no mistake, I'm not in the social work business or any other business. I don't make cars. I'm here to see that kids learn . . . I know what the mission of a school system is.
Q: What makes you think that you will succeed in this job, given the history of failed superintendents in this system?
A: I'm a good manager. I'm a good leader. I know how to put a team together . . . . I'm not saying I'm going to turn the world around. I'm no miracle worker. There is no such thing as a quick fix in urban school systems. . . . People will always have the free choice to go to a rpivate school, or move to the suburbs for those schools. But I want the public school to be a real choice. I want people to say that our schools are a viable choice.