Tests show that in reading and math, the District's public school students score at the bottom among 11 major city school systems, even when poor children are compared only with other poor children. Thirty-three percent of poor fourth-graders across the nation lacked basic skills in math, but in the District, the figure was 62 percent. It was 74 percent for D.C. eighth-graders, compared with 49 percent nationally.The most disturbing of these statistics is not the poor grades, lack of qualified teachers, or even the exorbitant amounts spent on administration. The most troubling issue is safety, by which I mean the incidences of crime and the poor cleanliness of the buildings themselves. Literally hundreds of psychological studies will point to environment affecting mood and motivation. If the schools are dirty, dingy and unsafe, few people, particularly young children, are going to be motivated to learn. Teachers in dirty classrooms are more likely to feel unmotivated if they must work in an unclean room. When it comes to personal safety, no teacher and no student should fear for their personal safety due to crime in the schools. For many students, through factors beyond their control, their school may be the cleanest and safest place for them and the city should not disappoint them through bureaucratic failure.
The District spends $12,979 per pupil each year, ranking it third-highest among the 100 largest districts in the nation. But most of that money does not get to the classroom. D.C. schools rank first in the share of the budget spent on administration, last in spending on teachers and instruction.
Principals reporting dangerous conditions or urgently needed repairs in their buildings wait, on average, 379 days -- a year and two weeks -- for the problems to be fixed. Of 146 school buildings, 113 have a repair request pending for a leaking roof, a Washington Post analysis of school records shows.
The schools spent $25 million on a computer system to manage personnel that had to be discarded because there was no accurate list of employees to use as a starting point. The school system relies on paper records stacked in 200 cardboard boxes to keep track of its employees, and in some cases is five years behind in processing staff paperwork. It also lacks an accurate list of its 55,000-plus students, although it pays $900,000 to a consultant each year to keep count.
Many students and teachers spend their days in an environment hostile to learning. Just over half of teenage students attend schools that meet the District's definition of "persistently dangerous" because of the number of violent crimes, according to an analysis of school reports. Across the city, nine violent incidents are reported on a typical day, including fights and attacks with weapons. Fire officials receive about one complaint a week of locked fire doors, and health inspections show that more than a third of schools have been infested by mice.
Most people are likely to suggest Mayor Fenty focus on getting more qualified teachers or getting test scores up. But quality of life in the schools is probably as important, if not more important, that other measures. Parents and neighborhood officials should take pride in the physical plant of the schools. If you are proud of your local school, people become more engaged and the cascading effect can produce better test scores even without massive curricular changes. People will measure competency by what they can see right now. Neighbors and parents can see a clean building where a dirty one once stood. They can see a safe school immediately. Parents and neighbors can’t “see” a cadre of highly qualified teachers or a new fangled curriculum. While they may “see” rising test scores, those will come later.
Physical safety is paramount and should be the first thing addressed by Mayor Fenty. He essentially has two full months to get the schools physically clean and it needn’t cost tens of millions of dollars. I will even make a suggestion for free. What the Mayor needs is cheap, reliable labor who understand the concept of “clean.” For perhaps $10-15 a day, the Mayor can hire some of the thousands of young military personnel in the DC area to come in and clean to the point of a white glove inspection by the most heinous Sergeant Major. The Mayor would have to pay no benefits (the enlisted personnel don’t need them) and they are used to hard work.
Kevin Carey noted that no incoming superintendant will even acknowledge that incompetence is the key factor in the failure of a school district:
The article, which is worth reading in full, is a litany of bureaucratic incompetence. It also highlights one of the real challenges of urban school reform. When new leaders are hired, they naturally focus on reforms tied directly to classroom learning. You'll never hear a new superintendant say something like this at his or her first press conference:Carey concludes:
"We're not going to adopt any innovative or fashionable reforms. Nor are we going to implement wholesale changes to the curriculum or recruit new learning specialists and teachers. Instead, we're going to start by getting to a basic level of competence in running this place. There are no new ideas here, we're just going to work at not doing things that will make us subject to ridicule. Only after we've gotten there--and it's going to take some time--will we move ahead with the rest."
Yet that might be exactly the right thing to do. Most people are able to keep their sanity in the face of constant absurdity, but it tends to sap their motivation and will, breeding cynicism and hopelessness. It prevent legitimate reforms from taking root.
poverty is drag on educational attainment, but so is gross incompetence, and the effects of the two seem to be pretty comparable. And of course, most DCPS students have the soul-crushing misfortune of experiencing both at the same time.So waht should be done? Well,David Frum has a radical idea:
This hypothesis suggests that the latest reform attempt by newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty is again almost certain to fail.I don't know if I am ready for the bulldozer approach, which among other things, fails to address where all these students are going to go to school. But still, in a city where multiple reform efforts have failed, perhaps something radical is needed, beginning with a whole sale housecleaning of staff. Everyone, from the highest paid administrator to the newest hired teacher should reapply for their jobs. Fenty should also focus on getting staffing to a level much more on par with other districts of similar size, since, I am sure, there are more administrators per student than any other district in the country.
Indeed, it suggests that we may have to accept that the DC schools are unreformable.
Let me suggest a different approach. Give up.
Of the District's 130 schools, only 19 have a majority of students performing at a "proficient" level. So start by closing the 111 failing schools. Then close the DC board of education and every educational administrative agency. Sell the school buildings, and use the proceeds to help finance severance payments for the discharged teachers and administrators.
In the 19 non-failing schools, offer teachers and principals an option: In lieu of severance, they can have the building and all its contents, plus a charter to continue operating as they think best.
Then divide the educational budget into vouchers. DC spends almost $13,000 per child per year. Create a standard voucher of $10,000. Children from poor families and children rated as English-Language Learners would get a voucher worth the full $13,000. Children rated as Special Needs would get more still.
It's a crude idea, subject to many improvements. But the core insight is: stop trying to fix the unfixable. DC has failed too many kids for too long. Things are not going to improve. It's time for the bulldozers.
But to start, Mayor Fenty should focus on safey and cleanliness. If he does a good job there, he will buy himself some time to address learning issues.