News & Politics

Avoiding Reform Rollback

Five DC Public Schools initiatives Vincent Gray should keep, expand, or validate after Michelle Rhee’s departure

“We cannot and will not revert to the days of incrementalism in our schools,” presumptive mayor Vincent Gray said at the Mayflower Hotel this morning as he and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced she’ll step down at the end of October. Mayor Adrian Fenty has appointed Rhee’s deputy, Kaya Henderson, as interim chancellor, and Gray said other senior Public Schools staff have agreed to say on board to “minimize any disruption for our students.” That’s one important goal. But if Gray is to strengthen confidence in long-term education reform in DC, here are five things he can do to extend and improve upon Rhee’s efforts.

1. Don’t immediately hire back teachers that Rhee fired. The American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Government Employees both ran ads during the primary campaign criticizing Fenty for firing public employees. Gray might feel pressure to make them happy by reversing those dismissals. But fired teachers can still reapply for open DCPS jobs. Sticking to that process lets Gray show confidence in principals’ hiring decisions and avoid accusations that he’s undermining a merit system.

2. That said, Gray should ask Henderson to review the IMPACT teacher evaluation system that Rhee rolled out in 2009 and to present the results of that audit to the DC Council. Accountability measures only feel good if teachers, parents, students, and legislators are confident that they’re credible and fair.

3. Keep in place the Saturday Academy program, which provides supplemental tutoring, including for students that are aiming to take Advanced Placement exams. So much of the conversation about DC’s public schools involves raising expectations—for facilities, teaching, and student performance—up to acceptable levels. But DCPS should simultaneously invest in and expand enrichment programs for students who are ready for more academic challenges. Schools should be engines of inspiration and upward mobility, not just producers of low-level basic competence.

4. And speaking of inspiration, Gray should continue to explore plans for moving the Duke Ellington School for the Arts to a more central location in the city. Just because Rhee’s plans to move the acclaimed arts school to the former Logan Elementary School building upset community and school leaders—who called the proposed site inadequate—doesn’t mean that a move is a bad idea. Bringing the school closer to the center of the city could bring Ellington closer to the students it serves and create a performance destination near Union Station. But any move should be squarely aimed at making Ellington an even more desirable school than it is now, not simply aimed at creating a high school for Ward 2.

5. The hue and cry over moving Ellington to the Logan site at 215 G Street, Northeast, illustrates one DCPS official Gray should definitely lock down: facilities-modernization director Allen Lew. DC public-school students need teaching that will allow them to meet and exceed academic-performance standards. But they also need safe, clean, inviting spaces in which to learn. Gray has praised Lew’s work at recent forums and should make sure he stays beyond the end of the school year and the transition period following Rhee’s departure.

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