An Education Manifesto

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Please, please read this revealing and sobering description of the education reform in DC Public Schools by school Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, who are both loosing their jobs.  It nothing else, read the last five paragraphs that explain what is missing in the current reform movement.  Highlights:

Our time in office and in charge of the school system of Washington, D.C., is quickly drawing to an end. Monday is Michelle’s last day as schools chancellor…  During our nearly four years in office we pressed forward an aggressive educational reform agenda. We were determined to turn around D.C.’s public schools and to put children above the political fray, no matter what the ramifications might be for ourselves or other public officials.  [W]e believe it is important to explain what we did in Washington, to share the lessons of our experience, and to offer some thoughts on what the rest of the country might learn from our successes and our mistakes.

Public education in America, particularly in our most troubled urban neighborhoods, has been broken for a long time…  [D.C.’s s]chools regularly failed to open on time for the new school year, due to leaking roofs and broken plumbing. Textbooks and supplies arrived months after classes began—if at all.  At Sousa Middle School, …[t]he lights were broken, and graffiti covered the walls. Kids ran through the hallways and skipped classes with impunity.

[When] D.C. instituted mayoral control of the public schools in 2007, we were able to chart a new course: to make all of the politically unpopular choices that had been put off for decades. With student achievement almost as low as it could go and enrollment dropping every year, our students had no time for us to tread softly. So we moved ahead with all the urgency that the problem deserved.

[T]he longest and most difficult of our fights was the effort to reshape the district’s teachers’ contract. As in many other cities, D.C.’s contract tied the hands of principals, administrators and, yes, even teachers. We bargained with the teachers’ union for 2½ years…  In 2008, we put a proposal on the table that we considered rather bold. In exchange for giving up tenure and linking pay to performance, teachers would be able to earn up to $130,000 a year. At first, union leadership was dead-set against it and simply refused to allow their members to vote.  We did not give up that easily. D.C. went for more than two years without a new teachers’ contract, but we kept at it.

That D.C.’s teachers finally endorsed this revolutionary new contract shows that they, too, are ready for change. When we were negotiating with the union, we heard one thing over and over again from the leadership: “Our members are never going to accept this.” In truth, when the union finally allowed them to vote, the teachers passed it overwhelmingly, by 80% to 20%. Given the chance to be treated as professionals and to be rewarded for their achievements, they grabbed it.

Though it’s obviously too early to judge the results of this new contract, we can take pride in some of the other results from our four years in office. Washington went from being the worst performing school district in the country to leading the nation in gains on [a] national gold-standard test…  When we told teachers at Sousa that we didn’t expect such huge gains every year, they replied that “the horse is out of the barn now.”

We believe that the people in D.C. who want change were, and still are, the majority. But they face special interests—unions, administrators and opportunistic politicians—who are vocal and committed. These organized interests have a significant advantage over the public officials who are willing to do what is unpopular but right for the students. We see this not only in the District, of course, but nationwide. We need reform groups of our own, as powerful as these others but representing only the interests of schoolchildren and ready to take political action.

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