Since I began my teaching career in 2005, the state of public education in DC has been the source of much speculation and experimentation. If I retreat even further to 1995, when my wife and I moved from New York back to our native Washington and enrolled our three daughters in DC public schools, I am almost blinded by the rush of solutions whizzing by.
In 1995, on the heels of then-Mayor Marion Barry’s post-incarceration election, Congress stripped the office of considerable authority and appointed a Financial Control Board to manage the city’s money. Congress also decided to seed the growing charter school movement by using DC as the testing ground. Then, in 1996, our second year in the “system,” the Control Board expanded its arm, assumed power over the schools, dismissed the locally-elected school board, and appointed General Becton superintendent, all the while brandishing a study for all to read that concluded, among other things, that “the longer a child remained in the DC public school system,” the further behind national standards they became.
Naturally, as an American, I resented the notion of Congressional interference and imposed trustee control outside the reach of voters. I publicly mourned for the semblance of parental input I enjoyed in New York, and I “grieved” for the loss of democracy, still so young and so fragile, in our nation’s capital (when he first assumed office in 1979, Barry was only the second elected mayor in the city’s entire history). But as a parent with children in the schools, I knew the implications of that devastating indictment against DCPS all too well.
My oldest daughter transferred from renowned Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan to School Without Walls here in DC. We considered Banneker High School, another city-wide school and the crown jewel among black achievers, but its rigid structure was not a good match for our child. The neighborhood high school, which had once nurtured the children of middle-class strivers, was completely dysfunctional and ignored.
The education she received at Walls was adequate, at times superlative, and she excelled academically, although I do not think she ever felt comfortable in the prescribed routines that too often define black teen life in this Southern city.
For our two youngest, one entering kindergarten and the other fourth grade, we opted to try the local elementary school my wife and brother-in-law once attended. We met with the local principal over the summer and found him warm and engaging. Then September arrived, and we entered the “madness” passing for education in the black parts of town. The fourth grade teachers assigned no homework. When we challenged one math veteran, she admitted that the majority of her students did not even know their times tables. Worst, she had no plan to rectify that deficiency. The principal indicated he was powerless to intervene.
Kindergarten began for our four-year-old in a way I could never imagine. My wife and I dressed our youngest in a bright, first-day-of-school yellow dress and escorted her to school only to be turned away by the teacher, who indicated she “was not ready” and would be beginning class the next day. She never even spoke to our daughter. I can still taste her dejection as we held her hand and walked her back home.
A parent advocate in New York, I reached out to the PTA for assistance. I met with a neighborhood associate of the principal who had no children in the school but bore the title of president. It was then I discovered that the lack of parental involvement in DC public schools was not accidental, but planned. Having already committed to complete the year, my wife and I worked hard to seize what community we could find and supplement our children’s school work at home. To be sure, there were whiffs of education brewing in that building, but they were too weak to gather steam.
During the course of that year, I contacted anyone who would listen. I spoke with parent groups; most, I noticed, were based west of Rock Creek Park in Ward 3, a majority white part of town. I talked my way into a face-to-face meeting with Superintendent Becton, and I told him he had to empower parents if he wanted lasting change. He seemed excited in our meeting, but never scheduled a second one. I later met with a member of the Trustees who also was intrigued, but not enough to meet again. I even testified before a Senate Subcommittee pushing for vouchers in DC as the latest fix, but I was the last speaker, and, by the time I got my turn at the microphone, the room stood nearly empty, and the echo of my plea for meaningful parental involvement drifted out the ornate room and down the vacant hall.
Over at Walls, my work with the Home School Association (the upscale version of the PTA) yielded a contact. I used it to transfer my two youngest “out of boundary” to a majority white elementary school across town. It was then I discovered the color line at the root of so many problems in DC. For white parents in white neighborhoods, excellent elementary schools awaited. The challenge for these parents came in the larger middle school and high school, where their numbers shrunk and black majorities became the rule. To address that demographic reality and the need for those large buildings to draw “outsiders” to fill their rooms, special programs and “schools-within-a-school” were established to keep higher income parents enrolled. Most fled to private school anyway, but some remained.
To this day, the larger post-elementary schools in the most affluent wards juggle an interesting racial compromise where touted academic programs are almost all-white, and other more traditional athletic teams are not. White parents who have successfully navigated the system know a high quality education in DC can be found for the diligent, and they are to be commended for their strong belief in public education.
For a black parent threading a child through the DC public schools, however, the choices are more limited and problematic. While their grades and test scores admitted my children into the “special” programs cocooned within the larger, middle school population, their experiences were uneven. Too many teachers, black and white, saw them as interlopers who did not really belong. After two years out of elementary school, we sent our middle daughter kicking and screaming to an integrated, Catholic high school.
For our youngest, we tried one year at a charter school whose publicity far outpaced its practice (I will never forget meeting with one of her young, white teachers who told me in her sincerest voice that she truly believed my daughter might have a chance to make it to college. I will never forget the look on her face when I informed her that my daughter’s great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother were all college graduates. Why wouldn’t she go?). She then entered and later graduated from a city-wide, specialized, public high school with an overwhelmingly black student body. The education she received there was uneven–at times stimulating, at times fill-in-the-blanks.
I once met with Arlene Ackerman, then superintendent after Becton’s ouster, trying to push my crazy idea that a parental presence in all schools with mandated involvement in decision-making would go a long way to improve instruction and administrative accountability. I argued for the type of involvement I routinely found in the majority white schools, though, even there, parents held no real authority, only inordinate means of applying pressure and generous fund-raising gifts. Again, I was politely thanked for my concerns and sent on my way.
Somehow, everyone assumed that, in the black parts of town, the last thing anyone needed was undereducated parents in school buildings demanding anything. Apparently, low-income parents (if they are black, they are always “poor”) were even more of a problem than the complacent, veteran teachers who miseducated their ill-prepared children. The fact that both these teachers and the students were mostly black remained the mystery no one could solve. If black superintendents overseeing an urban school district with mostly black teachers could not achieve measurable improvements for black students, then who could? During legal segregation, black teachers had been the bedrock of advancement for the children in their charge. What happened, and were white students in certain DC public schools (and black students at relatively tiny. selective Banneker) destined to be the only consistent success story?
In 2004, Superintendent Clifford Janey arrived (succeeding Vance, Massie, and Rice), hailed for his record of reducing the “achievement gap” between whites and students of color. He tried to answer the question. Building on his successors’ work, he sought to establish core curriculum standards across the city, require certified teachers in every classroom, effective principals in every school, and greater accountability for operations in the Central Office. He was fired in 2007.
Enter Michelle Rhee. Is it any wonder why her brand of educational reform was so enticing? Here she was, a young, feisty, first generation Korean-American who argued she had the long-elusive answer. Riding a resume claiming to have lifted 90% of poor black children into the 90th percentile on achievement test in under three years, Rhee built her career on her assertion that the solution was clear, and she came to DC promising to wield a firm hand with no apologies. Poverty would no longer be an excuse for poor performing schools.
Her remedy was simple. Remove from the classroom those veteran, teacher college graduates still pining for the old days. Those teachers, mostly black and female, had grown distrustful of their students and outdated in their pedagogy. Replace them with young, mostly white, college graduates with no damaging exposure to formal teaching instruction or harmful methodology. Require these young rebels to only work for at least two years in our nation’s poorest, darkest schools. In exchange for lucrative college loan abatement and a surefire resume booster, these pioneers would infuse the classrooms with new energy and solid content knowledge. Entice these fresh practitioners further with the promise of merit pay, weakened seniority protections, philanthropic attention, and data-driven curriculum, and enough of them might stay long enough to turn everything around. After all, she had done it in Baltimore, even though no one seemed able to actually prove it.
Now that Rhee is gone, the challenges she attempted to hurdle, albeit clumsily, remain. How can the color line which still shapes so much of quality options in DC, a very segregated system, be addressed without pursuing a “charter school in every pot” strategy? How can the children of highly educated parents share space and a motivated teacher with the larger number of children of lesser means without triggering flight? How can the teacher corp be revitalized without dismissing the benefits experience brings, or reducing the art of teaching to a colorful IMPACT evaluation wheel? How can student progress be gauged without resorting to test worship and a skinny curriculum? How can low-income students be engaged without employing militaristic policies and lengthy days, as too many charters do? How do we truly involve parents, including the poor, in the education of their children without dousing them with paternalism and condescension? How can we ensure that parental influence, once empowered, will be constructive and not divisive? And, finally, what assessments do we use to decide if what we have done is even working?
As the next chapter in our nation’s experiment with DC education unfolds, I think back on my own experiences and realize I became a teacher because that was the only answer that made sense to me. Only by stepping into a classroom myself could some modicum of change be instituted to my satisfaction. Teaching seemed to be the only option I could control, the only real contribution I could make.
Through my days, good and bad, as chancellors and superintendents, theories and magic beans, come and go, I try to keep my eyes focused on the students facing me. I try to study their eyes and their words. I try to give them the education I received. I try to look past their circumstance–favorable and unfavorable–and see them for who they are–miracles unfolding in front of me who have every right to know. Since entering the classroom, I have met teachers, old and young, of every stripe who are similarly motivated, and parents and grandparents who are stubbornly involved. Not all, not even most, but some. Perhaps the only immediate solution resides there.
Still, I wonder who the powers-that-be will crown next.