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Bonnie Cain
Emergency State of Mind Getting in Way of School Reform
March 1998




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droplwhi.jpg (1224 bytes)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 that’s 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 “DC’s 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 isn’t 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. There’s 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 opportunities.
  • 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.

That’s the scope of work and the useful analogy is not war and disaster. It’s just simply time to get serious about administering a sustainable education reform that attracts and educates a large percentage of the public’s 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 team’s confusion over who’s 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 DC’s 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 that’s 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 and programs … or attempted to give shape to an exemplary academic program …,” misses the point. It’s 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, not administrators.

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 schools:

  • 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.

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