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DC Schools: Here We Go Again


Here we go again. In Saturday’s Washington Post, Colbert King confirms the rumors that have been echoing around the back rooms of the city: School Superintendent Clifford Janey does not have the confidence of key players in the city. King writes that the powerful Federal City Council “Has let it be known that a broad swath of the business community is unhappy with the performance of schools Superintendent Clifford Janey (as is [Mayor-elect Adrian] Fenty).” The Superintendent’s precarious position can hardly be news to anyone who has followed the election of Adrian Fenty as Mayor and Robert Bobb as president of the School Board, and their competing plans for “reform” of the D.C. Schools. Mr. Fenty recently announced the appointment of Victor Reinoso as deputy mayor for education. Mr. Reinoso is also a current member of the School Board, and, notably, the chief operating officer of the Federal City Council.

On Tuesday night this week, Superintendent Janey will give an address on his plan and progress in overhauling the D.C. Schools. Whether this moment will be his salvation or valedictory remains to be seen.

Here’s what I do know: too many bosses can ruin a school system. When Superintendent Arlene Ackerman left the D.C. Schools in utter frustration in 2000, I wrote this in an op-ed in the Washington Post (May 18, 2000): “The number of people who claim to have solutions to the problems of the D.C. schools seems to rise inversely to the real talent available to fix the deep and chronic ills…the chronic political interference masquerading as legitimate oversight reached its nadir during Ackerman’s tenure, as scores of politicians–elected, appointed and self-appointed–laid claim to governance roles whose inherent conflicts and confusions bound the superintendent in a Lilliputian web. Few, if any, of those responsible have real expertise in what it takes to educate children and their teachers, but ignorance rarely stops the political process in the District of Columbia…The eagerness to dictate actions in complete disregard of the expertise of the person responsible for results is the main reason why the District is now, once again, searching for a school superintendent. The search will be hugely difficult, because the risks are appalling; imposing responsibility without granting authority and freedom to do the job is a proven formula for failure.”

I stand by those words today. I hope that Superintendent Janey can rise above the politics to persist in the job. The D.C. Schools need stability of leadership and public confidence. I know many of the people involved with this long-running drama in the D.C. Schools (with whom Trinity works closely), the Federal City Council (of which I am a member), the business community and the community at-large. To all of them I say: enough! Stop the power grabs and chronic bickering and second-guessing, and give the Superintendent the space do his job — which, by the way, will take many years to show permanent results, given the protracted problems in the system.

Yes, political contentiousness is part of the scene in all urban public school systems, as Dr. Ackerman learned in San Francisco, where she was largely successful but plagued by public critics. Other big city superintendents have similar stories. But the D.C. situation is notorious as a hostile educational setting well beyond the problems of other cities.

As the private university that educates more D.C. Public School graduates than any other private institution in the nation, Trinity knows well the educational challenges of this school system. The educational deficiencies are tragic. A recent report by the State Education Office found that only 9 of 100 current DCPS 9th graders will be likely to achieve a college degree. This is the worst collegiate success rate of any major city in the nation — and truly shameful for the nation’s capitol. But this disgrace didn’t just happen; the educational deficiencies are a deeply ingrained part of the city’s fabric, exacerbated by chronic political interference.

As professional educators, we also know that real educational reform cannot occur in one or two years; it takes generations to remedy the educational catastrophes of parental illiteracy, chronic poverty and racism, historic under-funding and repeated failures of political common sense in this city.

The last thing this suffering educational system needs is more time wasted in governance squabbles and superintendent searches. Let the Superintendent implement his plans. Hold him accountable, yes, but stop the interference — for the sake of the children who need all of our energy focused on their educational success.

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One Response to DC Schools: Here We Go Again

  1. Pingback: Remembering Arlene Ackerman | President's Office - Trinity Washington University

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: