Monday, February 04, 2008

D.C School Closures

Despite all the "reported" brouhaha over DC Schools Chancellor Michlee Rhee's effort to close 23 District schools, primarly due to under enrollment, there was far less opposition than was portrayed by the media (shocking, I know).
The big protest rally was supposed to draw thousands of people, but only dozens showed up. The boycott was going to paralyze the school system, but hardly anyone noticed. The city sent top administrators to every neighborhood to conduct 23 simultaneous public hearings, and at some places, not a single person showed up -- not one.
One of the biggest blow-hards was former mayor, and current Councilman Marion Barry who railed against the school closures, but recently switched his position by a full 180 degrees.
Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, still the reigning champion of winning time on the TV news, issued one outraged statement after another, showed up at every protest and, as late as Thursday, was on the tube railing against Rhee: "The chancellor's just being bullheaded. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"

Less than 24 hours later, a different Barry shook the mayor's hand and stepped before the cameras at a news conference announcing the final list of schools to be closed. "This is a historic day," the Mayor for Life said with a big smile. "Mayor Fenty took the bold action of making education number one." The closings -- the very same closings Barry had spent the previous two months slamming at every turn -- were suddenly an essential, empowering act of excellence.

"We have not a broken system, but a very, very, very broken system," Barry explained.
When asked about Barry's rapid change of heart, Mayor Adrian Fenty replied that former mayor saw which way the winds were blowing and had a "fascinating" change of heart as Rhee called it.
The school closings are no mere breeze. They're the latest gust from a storm system composed of a mayor who won every precinct in the city and a chancellor who has no past and no great desire to have a future in the school superintendent business, credentials that buy an unusual amount of independence.

Rhee and Fenty pushed through the closings of 18 schools this year and five more in the next three years with vastly less opposition than there appeared to be -- "certainly less than the media portrayed," Rhee says.

The news feeds on conflict. When opposition isn't huge, it is sometimes made to look as if it is. At Thursday's rally, TV camera guys coaxed protesters to move closer together so the on-air picture would look like a substantial gathering.

The fact is that despite the loud protests of a relative handful of activists, remarkably few of whom are parents, the overall reaction to Rhee and Fenty's school reform efforts has been a surprising quiet above a foundation of overwhelming support, as measured in last month's Washington Post poll.
The fact is that parental apathy may very well be at the heart of DC schools larger problems. The fact that not one parent came to protest a school closing is simply a reaffirmation of the larger problem.

That the media over-portrayed the closures is not all that surprising, but the moves to magnify the conflict are rediculous. The DC schools have enough problems without the media making more.

I don't know how much money Rhee's move will save in the longer term, but combined with other changes, the savings may be significant. however, not everyone is enamoured of Rhee's efforts at change. In another op-ed, teacher and parent Mark Simon questioned Rhee's focus on facilities and bureaucracy instead of teaching an learning. Simon's is a valid question, but for the nearly two decades in Wahsington DC, the performance of students have not changed despite all the fancy reforms for teaching and learning that have been tried. So rather than focus on teaching and learning right away, Rhee is making the school system more responsive in its entire tone, from the central office bureaucracy to the nature of the facilities. While Rhee's efforts thus far have not lead to changes in teaching and learning, they are bound to change attitudes at the top of the school pyramid, which can lead to a betterment of morale at the lower levels, where no doubt teachers like Simon feel powerless against the entrenched bureaucracy that is now being shaken by Rhee.

Over the summer Rhee made it her priority to get principals and teachers in teh schools. This school year it has been bureaucracy and buildings. Next summer it may very well be training of teachers and principals. While we may all want immediate reform, the fact of the matter that substantive and long-term changes don't happen over night or even in a year. Rhee's approach is new and in teh end, it may be the most effective.

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