Friday, September 17, 2010

Parents and Teachers

We just had an election--well, a primary--here in D.C. that had education as one major issue, aside from the usual issue which was whether the incumbent mayor was perceived as black enough for the majority black city. Mayor Fenty was serious about reforming the wildly unperforming and expensive city school system; he named a young woman in her late 30s, Michelle Rhee, as chancellor. Her only real experience was in an administrative post at Teach for America.

She's not been perfect. But she has done a lot and stepped on a lot of toes. Some of them were those of the teachers union here. Nevertheless, she also managed to reach a contract with the union this year. Randi Weingarten, the national AFT president, got involved and probably made Ms. Rhee realize what she still needed to learn about negotiating as Ms. Weingarten is a real pro. She is not a union hack. She is for improved schools and protecting good teachers. As for the local leaders, they seem all right but a few years ago the union leadership went to jail for stealing hundreds of thousands in member funds.

Michelle Rhee definitely did not bother to touch base with some of the local power brokers. She built up good credibility with foundations, secured much grant funding for the DC schools, and has been showing progress in school performance. The Washington Post supports her but did her no favors in reporting on this year's scores. The paper emphasized the increased variance between scores of black and white students. The paper did not bother to note that this occurred as all scores went up, black and white. Yes, white students' scores went up more, but everyone's rose.

Now Fenty has lost the primary and Rhee has become involved more than she should have in politics. It remains to be seen whether the presumptive mayor-elect, Vincent Gray, will follow through on his promises to keep school reform going. He says Fenty and Rhee failed to involve parents and the community.

In my view, parents have the job of providing a good home atmosphere, inculcating a receptivity if not a love of learning, and making sure that students get to school on time every day. Professional educators have not distinguished themselves in running school systems, but what makes anyone think that parents should have a major say? Most parents do not know much about what works in education. But involving parents in major school decisions--more by way of show than for real--has become a totem of our modern school systems, and it is stupid.

The community knows even less. I always liked the iron control the New York Board of Regents had on curricula in the state's schools because you knew that every school system was not going to force its own weird ideas of what was important on students. True, in some states in the South you get creationists and other yo-yos determining curricula, but in New York, the state kept many districts on the mark.

Good school systems make sure that both those who need extra help and those who are gifted and need extra challenges are well served. Rhee made some mistakes. She once goofed bigtime by accusing some of the teachers she was firing of being sex abusers. It turned out she had no basis for this irresponsible and hurtful comment. She is not yet 40. She made mistakes. But on the whole she tried to do what was right and what was needed. In one sense she resembles Rudy Giuliani, who in general is an unpleasant type who deserves little credit just for acting sensibly most of the time after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. But Giuliani was needed in New York City to clean up the mess that other politicians had been afraid or reluctant to touch. No one needs him now but he was needed when he arrived as mayor.

In the end, D.C. will get the schools it deserves. I do hope Gray isn't just blowing smoke by claiming he's for reform. I saw legions of hacks come and go from the school headquarters over the years. My daughter was in the system for a few years and her school had good teachers and a good principal. They only succeeded by fending off the central headquarters. It would be good if whoever follows Rhee is willing to continue the hard work she began here.

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