|ast week the chief facilities officer of the
DC public schools resigned days before the scheduled release of a second audit expected to
be critical of his handling of roof repairs. Facilities chief Rt. General Charles
Williams, and his boss CEO of Schools Rt. General Julius Becton allocated funds and
disbursed troops to deal with what they perceived was a disaster that needed crisis
response. They are now under attack for bending procurement rules, paying unnecessary
millions for rush services and supplies and adopting schedules that could not be met, all
to address a crisis that few people acknowledge existed.
Williams is both a cause and a
casualty of the hype around the DC public schools thats causing the Nation to view
DC schools in almost comic book script: the mythically bad, slovenly, most
under-performing system in the US does battle with the New Team sent in by Congress to
secure the situation in four years. The analogies of war and crisis have been useful in
securing commitment to an extraordinary effort to reform the DC schools and for installing
Becton and his new administrative team and replacing the elected Board of Education with
appointed Trustees. Operationally, however, the emergency state of mind is getting in the
way of sound planning, execution and processes that would help create a viable reform.
The new team, instantly dubbed DCs last chance by the media and
Congress, enjoys the status of a Dream Team beamed down to make it so with
permission to bypass the messy process of hearings and oversight by Board of Education or
City Council. Believing that they have a mandate from above, neither the administrative
team or the Trustees have felt a need to lower themselves to explain their vision and
direction and or to conduct the dialogue to get buy-in from parents, communities and
advocacy groups for their decisions.
This team isnt the schools last chance, but hysterically describing it as
such and giving it an imprudently strong mandate for action may just waste the next two
years and a great deal of District money. It would help to calmly assess the situation:
- the District did as well (or as badly) on the Sanford 9 as did 50% of the cities
participating, according to the DC schools director of student assessment. The system has
20 targeted and assisted schools out of 140. This means that the District and a lot of
other cities are performing unacceptably and that at least 20 of our schools are
mythically bad. Other measures indicate failure in numerous other areas. Theres
little to be proud of here and the District desperately wants to do better.
- the District also has schools and programs and individual educators that are performing
well, that are responding to parent and community expectations and that could be used as
at least models for building new systems and restructuring existing schools.
- the Dream Team, which is still being assembled 15 months into the four year period, has
never worked together, its members are mostly from out of town and unfamiliar with the
District and are surprising short on experience with turning around big city schools
systems. This team will work miracles only if it uses best administrative practices and
starts working with its public to craft strong systems to deliver quality education
- The governance part of this team temporarily the appointed Board of Trustees
has chosen to work almost entirely behind closed doors and has failed to be
explicit in public about its decisions and policies. As a result, the administrative team
appears to be operating on the vague directive to fix the system and its
actions are often seen as arbitrary and poorly timed. Most concerning, this substitute
governance board has done little to help the administrators to work with its public.
The task assigned our new team is not to fight a war, but to design and implement a
coherent reform complete with viable school governance, systems that work and
administrators capable of developing and delivering education that meets expected
standards and honors the values and vision of its residents all to be in place and
working in the next two years. This means working out with all the players the
elected and/or appointed boards, parent and advocacy groups, the local school leaders, the
teachers and teachers union until all are functioning as a team on par with other
teams running successful public school systems across the US.
Thats the scope of work and the useful analogy is not war and disaster. Its
just simply time to get serious about administering a sustainable education reform that
attracts and educates a large percentage of the publics children.
The job requires not super heroes, but diligent administrators who:
Are clear on who they report to: District residents struggle under dysfunctional layers
of overseers so they sympathize with the new teams confusion over whos in
charge. The administrators and Trustees can choose to pander to members of Congress and
other non-participants or work with District parents, communities and elected/appointed
officials to craft a workable reform. Ideally, they will take advice from successful
administrator DCs Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams. He works openly and
candidly to determine what serves the District best and then sells that approach to the
Control Board, Congress and others. The District is strengthened through his process and
thats ultimately what even Congress wants.
Maintain high professional standards: The new team must stop justifying its decisions
by comparisons to previous problems of past administrations. Statements like that found in
the DCPS budget submission, No administration in recent history has reviewed the
budget at this level of detail
or tried to align the budget w/academic initiatives
or attempted to give shape to an exemplary academic program
, misses the point. Its not enough that the new team be better than the
old or pretend that anything different is necessarily better. The reality is that its
budget lacks detail on the academic plans and fails to program $13.9 million in
enhancements, and provides no performance measures for many of the budget
centers, including for the CEO. The public knows less about per student expenditures,
staffing and planning than it did two years ago when the crisis began. And, as
City Council members Kathy Paterson and Kevin Chavous noted at recent hearings, the budget
fails to justify the requested $85 million increase in the schools budget. Better
than here falls short of the standard for aligned, persuasive budgeting.
Manage change in the District. Seasoned administrators know that if they want to sell
reform they must involve, seek counsel from and inform those who will be affected by the
changes. District residents may not agree with the new team, but they will have more trust
and confidence in its decisions if kept in the loop. The new team has got to get its
phones working, strengthen its public information services, figure out how to communicate
rapidly with local school leaders and design channels for two-way communication with
parents and school leaders as well as advocacy groups. Adopting a student promotion policy
heavily based on a newly-adopted test is a seismic change; coming public with the details
a few months before students will be retained for the first time based on their failure to
meet new standards makes it difficult for parents to accept what might be a good idea.
Remain open to constructive analysis, problem-solving and ideas: In public school
systems across the US, parent, civic and education groups contribute clear thinking,
analysis and an open exchange of ideas. The new team cuts itself off from resources when
it assumes that those who disagree or suggest a different approach are aligned with an old
regime or merely defending the status quo of good enough. The team needs to
hear from people who know their communities and who have a vested interest in making sure
that administrative rhetoric and political promises match the realties for their children
in their schools and classrooms.
Understand the mission and align the budget accordingly: The District wants those
weekday hours between 8:30 am and 3:30 pm filled with the strongest instructional programs
possible. Recruit and/or retain the best teachers, principals and administrators. Pay them
competitively and provide them with professional training. Show how facilities
modernization supports the core program. District and federal taxpayers will pay the price
tag for quality.
The new team has reason to be confused about the mission and performance targets of the
District Public schools. In the US, public schools missions are established by the elected
or appointed governance boards
which reflect or represent the values and desired direction of their taxpayers. These
governing boards set performance guidelines for their administrators, not the reverse.
Decisions about such things as promotion gates, college preparatory classes and Advanced
Placement courses, local school governance and inclusions of special education students in
regular classes are public policy decisions made by local governance bodies,
In an unhealthy role reversal, the schools new administrators and the Trustees not only
make their policies behind closed doors, but fail to explain and disseminate them. The
result: a confusing first year without a permanent academic officer, a near total focus on
school closings and facilities to the exclusion of academics, curtailed summer programs
and a three week delay in school opening. This year began with the Trustees hiring a firm
to establish academic standards, but not explaining publicly what these standards and the
new Stanford 9 tests implied for student promotion until mid February.
Fifteen months of being in the dark about policies that impact their children have
caused parent groups and education advocacy groups across the city to demand the DC public
- Open the process of decision-making; and
- Set clear performance targets and meet them with aligned budgets, implementation
schedules and performance monitored by public reporting and community oversight; and
- Begin now to make the transition back to public oversight or the public school system,
with an elected school board working with organized parents and community groups in an
open, respectful and accountable manner.
In short, it is time for the new team to stop being new, stop dreaming about magic
solutions and become part of the on-going process of improving public education.