Teach our Children Well

Anyone involved in education knows that children look to model their behaviors after the adults in their lives.  We watch what we say, what we do, and how we interact with others.  Even the youngest of children can start parroting the behaviors of parents and authority figures.  And I say that as a proud father of a one-year-old boy who will try to mimick and action or sound I make.

At the same time, those in education policy know the value of modeling “best practices.”  We learn from what others do well.  We benefit from their experiences, crafting our actions and words around what has worked, and what has not, for those in similar situations or those dealing with similar demographics or similar concerns.  When enacting reforms, we inevitably talk about who has done the same thing and reaped the benefits.

But it is just baffling what DC education officials have done.  For those who have missed it, The Washington Post led the charge in pulling the curtain back on this doozy. 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/08/AR2007050802047.html?nav=emailpage  The Mayor’s famed takeover of DCPS seems to be well rooted in the bustle of North Carolina.

No one is questioning the merits of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s strategic plan.  They are a top school district.  But what does it say to the teachers and students of DCPS when Mayor Fenty and his staff can’t do their own work?  What message does it send when you are cribbing from the better prepared school system in the room?

I recognize the Mayor has issued his apologies.  And I know that his staff has been run through the ringer by the media, by elected officials, by the education blob, and by just about anyone who seems to care about the fate of DCPS.  They made a mistake.  And their words and actions sent the wrong signal to those who are trusting them to do right. 

But what does all this mean for DCPS?  How does one effectively talk and write about the future of DCPS after an “issue” such as this?  How does the Mayor effectively communicate his plan for the future of DCPS at this stage?

First, he needs to publicly embrace the notion that DCPS should be modeling their words and actions after a number of school districts.  His error was limiting himself to Charlotte.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a good district.  But it is not Washington, DC.  There are size differences, budget differences, demographic differences, and vast political differences.  What may work in Charlotte might not work in DC.  So let’s not put all of our eggs in become Charlotte-Mecklenburg Version 2.0.

Instead, DC should be modeling and promoting the best practices of a multitude of school districts.  Let’s assemble a Frankenstein of plans.  Borrow the charter school successes of Los Angeles.  The testing efforts of New York City.  Career academies in Miami-Dade.   Or the programs and accountability efforts found in any number of Broad Prize winners.  Take the best from everyone, and do so intentionally and publicly.

Second, and more importantly, credit those who are doing well, those you are “borrowing” from.  Not only does this help avoid issues like those raised in The Washington Post, but it gives DC and Mayor Fenty a little credibility.  The takeover of DCPS is just the latest in a long line of “last ditch fixes” for the public schools in our nation’s capitol.  The revolving door of superintendents, the constant shifting of final-say authority, charter schools, vouchers, magnets, and everything in between has turned DCPS into a glittering target for the latest silver bullets.  DC residents (and those in the surrounding areas) are sick of it.  At the end of the day, the District needs a strong investment in what is proven effective.  And implementing those programs that have worked in other cities — cities with high poverty, struggling schools, and a desire to improve — is the best way to do that.  Using those best practices, and publicly crediting those cities for “lending” those best practices for the improvement of the public schools in our nation’s capitol, is the best way for the Mayor to gain some gravitas on his schools ideas.

At the end of the day, though, words are much easier to use at the start of a reform that in the middle or end of it.  Mayor Fenty can be bold about intentions, but he needs to quickly talk about results.  Let’s hear about the impact charter schools have had in DC, particularly with regard to graduation rates.  Let’s hear about the impact vouchers have had in improving opportunities for DC students.  And let’s hear how the Mayor is going to implement the accountability measures so we know that DC, and U.S. taxpayer, dollars are being wisely spent on reform efforts proven effective in boosting student achievement in schools like Washington’s.

Mayor Fenty, feel free to crib away form those cities who have done well, just be sure to credit them.  But at the end of the day, be sure we are also modeling their assessment and their impact.  It is the end result, and not the process that matters.  We’re watching your actions, and we are hoping you’ll give other cities something to model.

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