Try to “Rhee-member”

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.



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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9 Responses to Try to “Rhee-member”

  1. Judith Claire says:

    “we entered the madness passing for education in the black parts of town.” Hmmmmm …this is not helpful in your “truthiness” in the rest of your columns.”

  2. teacherman01 says:

    Hyperbole can sometimes be a weakness of mine. But the truth is the quality of educational options available to me was not as great as it was across Rock Creek Park. Zip code really did seem to matter. Hence my “out of boundary” exodus.

  3. Sean says:

    The change at the top is nothing new. I have been teaching for 30 years and have had 12 different superintendents in that time. All have said they were in it for the “kids” but most moved to a better paying job as soon as one came open.
    Do bad teachers need to be let go? Yes, but the problem with that asks the question ” who makes that decision?” I have seen teachers let go because they didn’t coach the right sport, or they were forced to retire because they were at the top of the pay scale. ( Why keep a good teacher when we can get a freshly minted college grad with no experience, who ( they hope)may become disgusted in 5 years and leave education.)
    Every 2-3 years there is a new whiz-bang teaching strategy come through, and we never keep it long enough to see it will work. Texas is flirting with a program called CSCOPE. Its’ math program is doomed to failure. In algebra, the kids are taught 4 different ways to solve a problem. The idea behind this is that the kids will chose the method that works for them. In reality, the kids are confused, not knowing which formula to use.
    This is my last year in the classroom. I am tired, I am old. I will file for my retirement at Christmas. I will have grandkids in the not so distant future, and I may volunteer to home-school them. I can’t think of a better instructor.

  4. louisewagner says:

    Great post, will you miss Rhee in the job? Do you think she brought any positive changes?

    • teacherman01 says:

      Actually, I think all the superintendents did some things to improve the schools. They are better now then they were in ’95. Substance is sometimes hard to separate from style, but I wish Rhee had focused at least as much on curriculum as she did on data. Interestingly, none of the superintendents during this period pushed for meaningful parent involvement in schools. Believe it or not, parents really do tend to know where the problems are.

  5. CB says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that parents are not only the first teachers but should continue to ‘assist’ with teaching once school starts. I cannot tell you how many times I have been to a PTA meeting to see the same 10 faces I normally see in a school of 600+ students. Some parents treat schools like a babysitting service and have no desire to push their kids forward and it makes me sad because these children that are struggling are my daughter’s friends but I have to be the bad guy and limit her interaction to birthday parties and play-dates that I set up and control. I am a product of DCPS with a degree and working on my second now and I’m trying very to keep the faith in DCPS but the older she gets, the harder it gets. Out of boundary may be the way I go next year because the schools in my upper northwest neighborhood just aren’t getting it anymore.

  6. Chana says:

    Everyone who cares about young people cares about our
    schools. Our best schools nurture our children, make them feel safe, and able
    to take the risks they need to in order to learn. But our schools are in danger
    of becoming even more narrowly focused on test preparation, while class sizes
    rise, and teachers are blamed for the ravages poverty inflicts on their

    We are responding. We love our schools. We declare
    Valentine’s Day, 2011, to be I Love Public Education Blog Day. On this day we
    will write our hearts out, about why it is that public education is so
    important to us, our children, and our democratic society. If you or your readers will join us and tell why you love public education too, send your comments and posts to
    Writing will be displayed at the website, and will be tweeted with the
    hashtag #LovePublicEd. We offer the march and events of July 28 to 31st
    in Washington, DC, as a focal point for this movement, and we ask participants
    to link to this event, so we can build momentum for our efforts.

  7. lovetopaint says:

    Thanks. A few weeks ago I watched Waiting for Superman and when it said in the movie that Michelle Rhee only had 3 years teaching experience, i was concerned and skeptical. I have my master’s in education and I learned a lot! All the ways people put down teacher education are simply unfair and untrue. My program was aimed at equipping us to be good teachers in an urban setting–and it did just that. One book that I particularly liked was The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings. Have you read it? If you have, what did you think of it? As I watched Waiting for Superman, I felt deep concern. I feel like there’s so many fingers being pointed at what they think “the source” of the problem is, but I think everyone’s missing the point. There’s many sources. 1) Teachers need to be supported and empowered by administration to do their jobs. 2) Teachers need to be respected–their authority in the classroom needs to be respected by students and by parents (they need to be backed by parents). They also NEED to be good custodians of that respect. 3) The Parents need to support and value education. They need to get their kids to school. 4) Teachers need to receive training and ongoing continuing ed to tackle the unique challenges of urban ed. 5) Testing IS NOT the answer. Children are all different. We need to challenge them to be the best they can be, but no every child’s strengths are going to be academic. I saw this when I taught 14-60 year olds math for a community college’s GED preparation program. The emphasis on testing is horrible, in my opinion and I grow more and more concerned about it. 6) Parents, students, teachers, and administrators need to work together. The more I read about Michelle Rhee’s policies, the more I realize that she didn’t understand this. You can’t turn on your teachers. I was in that situation one year. I had an assistant principal tell me that I just needed to let a parent yell at me for 45 minutes because of something his child had done wrong in my classroom. What??? Obviously, when we moved four months later, I was relieved and had no intention of ever teaching at that school again. That school burned me out in 4 months because I had no support from administration. I cared. I was trained. I was a good teacher. I tried. I left. I’m not sure if I could go back into the classroom again. I home school now. It’s where I’m supposed to be right now–with my 3 kids. I’m learning a lot and I probably would be a better teacher than I was if I went back. We’ll see what the Lord has for me down the road… I apologize for this long response, but I wanted to let you know that I’m glad you wrote on your blog what you did and shared your experience. More than that, i’m glad you’ve chosen to enter the classroom and care about your students! Good luck this year!

  8. I came to your post via Ravitch Tweet of Levy post. Thank you. I have a history in DC too, however not from DC. Keep fighting the good fight, I believe you are right… we can only do what we do and influence progressive change in our own microcosms.

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