Today’s press conference announcing Michelle Rhee’s resignation as D.C. Public Schools Chancellor was a class act all the way around. The show of unity and continuity between Outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty and presumptive next Mayor Vincent Gray was encouraging. Chancellor Rhee was gracious and upbeat. Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson was astutely positive, and brief.
Had this level of graciousness and comity been available during the last few years of school reform efforts in DC, today’s press conference might never have happened. Style counts for a lot with the electorate and school communities, and the style of the outgoing administration led to their collective departure.
Michelle Rhee will be fine. She’s young, now a rock star in education reform circles, and highly marketable.
Adrian Fenty will also be very fine. Look for him to show up at many entrepreneurial tables going forward.
Vincent Gray has his work cut out for him. He’s a fine human being, a devoted leader for DC, and a champion of great education. Those concerned about the future of education reform under his leadership should not fear, he will certainly make progress a top priority. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Chairman Gray in his various roles over the years, and Trinity and I will do what we can to contribute in a very positive way to school reform.
Kaya Henderson will be a fine manager for the interim period, and possibly permanently. She worked with Trinity’s School of Education when she was with Teach for America, and we learned a great deal from her. She and her team have our full support as they continue their important work.
Not surprisingly, of course, I do have some thoughts for the next leader of the D.C. Public Schools, formed through now-many decades of experience with these troubled places. My first encounter with DCPS was as a Street Law teacher at Coolidge High School in my second year of law school in 1977, an experience that gave me direct experience with the challenges teachers face in classrooms. Most of those challenges have not changed over the years, or if anything, they’ve become worse.
I spent my first five years after law school as the clinical supervisor for the Street Law program, regularly visiting every senior high school in the District. I saw some brilliance in some places, but too often, I encountered educational despair. I talked about the challenges with the legendary superintendents of those days, Vincent Reed and Floretta McKenzie. They were terrific school leaders but plagued by all of the familiar problems of poverty, neighborhood dysfunctions, dyspeptic personnel and ruined buildings.
Later, as Trinity’s president, I came to know each successive superintendent in the last 20 years, from Franklin Smith to Julius Becton to Arlene Ackerman to Paul Vance and Clifford Janey. Unlike Chancellor Rhee, those superintendents made serious efforts to include higher education in the focus on reform of schools and teacher preparation. We would make progress, only to be set back by political turmoil. When Arlene Ackerman — in my book, the best superintendent here in modern times — was forced out in May 2000, I wrote this in an op-ed in the Washington Post: “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.”
Then-Mayor Anthony Williams did not care for my condemnation of “chronic political interference masquerading as legitimate oversight” so he challenged me to step up in a surprising way: he appointed me to the the Education Committee of the Financial Control Board, the body that functioned as an interim school board. That was an eye-opening experience for me. In the end, we selected an experienced school leader, Paul Vance, to serve as interim superintendent in D.C. Dr. Vance was successful in Montgomery County, but he, too, could not pull the sword from the stone in D.C. Neither could his successor, Dr. Janey, try as he might to develop the right plan and put the right processes into place. Some of his reforms are actually bearing fruit today, but he was long gone before they had time to germinate.
I recite this now-old history simply to lay the foundation for claiming some experience through which to offer these thoughts for the next mayor and superintendent:
1. Parents are central players in the ability of children to learn. We must find new and more effective ways to educate parents about their responsibilities to foster learning. We could start by treating the 35% adult illiteracy rate in D.C. as a serious problem with long-term impact on K-12 results. Any school reform effort MUST include adult basic education to ensure that parents know how to read and, even more important, value their own ability to be the best possible role models for learning. School reformers must stop excluding parents from meaningful engagement with school reform — and not just well-to-do parents west of Rock Creek Park, but in particular, the parents in the eastern half of the city who need learning support, too, as well as a profound sense of respect for their central role.
2. Poverty matters. School reformers who say that poverty and other social dysfunctions are “an excuse” are just plain wrong, and their obtuseness on this topic is doing grave damage to the effort to improve student learning outcomes. Poverty has all kinds of implications for the ability of children to learn — poverty causes hunger, violence, illiteracy, and severe health problems that manifest themselves daily in classrooms. Serious education reform leaders will also be serious and loud advocates for programs that tackle the conditions that block learning.
3. Teachers deserve respect, not condemnation. I just don’t get it about school reformers who think they can create change by driving people out of the teaching profession. Sure, people who are bad at teaching should be dismissed, of course! But the wholesale attack on teachers as the one and only problem impeding great education is a dangerous and discouraging myth.
4. Universities have a serious role to play in working alongside school leaders, principals and teachers to improve student learning outcomes. In the last four years, we were largely excluded from the school reform efforts, and we all have watched enrollments in our teacher education programs decline as the new thinking dismissed master’s degrees as irrelevant. By disrespecting advanced learning for teachers, the reformers are undermining their entire premise about educational achievement. If the reformers think that we need to reform or teacher ed curricula, then tell us that, and what is expected, and work with us to create new models for teacher education.
5. Superintendent is a very good title, and proportionately just right. Let’s get rid of that “Chancellor” thing that raises images of Cardinal Wolsey signing death warrants. While we’re at it, let’s also get rid of the cult of personality in the front office. The chief school officer should be a model servant leader, someone who empowers and motivates the rest of the team to achieve more than they ever thought possible. Mayor Gray should insist that the next school leader have no national interviews until such time as there are serious and sustained results in student learning outcomes at all levels.
Of course, in addition to being influenced by my early and collateral encounters with the public schools, described above, my thoughts about school reform are also shaped by Trinity’s long, often arduous, experience with the collegiate education of D.C.P.S. graduates. These are students who, by and large, have great ambition and very fine minds, but too often, seriously deficient preparatory education which causes immense frustration for students and teachers alike, elongated pathways to college degrees, and the tendency to stop out, exhausted, prior to completion.
I was at a meeting this very morning in which a local business leader, trying to be bold about school reform, actually said that maybe the colleges and universities in D.C. should stop accepting D.C.P.S. graduates who are ill-prepared for the rigors of the collegiate curriculum to send a message about school reform. While expressing horror at this draconian strategy, I used the moment to make the case that, here at Trinity, our faculty and staff have thought long and hard about school reform, though probably not quite with that terminology.
We do have a lot of on-the-ground practical experience to offer the next superintendent about how to achieve great educational results in challenging circumstances. Our methods are based on respect for both students and teachers, and a clear understanding of the total social context that students bring to class each day. It’s hugely hard work, and there are no magic bullets. We must care for every student every day at the level that touches her most effectively. We do this as a matter of mission, deeply rooted in our Catholic sense of social justice. If we don’t educate our students, who will? Education remains the most important gateway to economic security and lifelong fulfillment.
The issue must never be about excluding a student from the opportunity to learn. The only issue should be about the most effective ways to reach that student — in the classroom and outside of the classroom, since all the good teaching in the world means nothing if the student has no home or goes home to violence, is always hungry or sick, or feels that her education does not really matter to anyone at all because she has no one to encourage her dreams. School reform must include more attention to social reform, and we need our next set of leaders to stop denying that reality.
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See the discussion “On Success” at the washingtonpost.com