Bad to the bone

Mayor Adrian Fenty is taking over the school system in Washington, D.C. today. Mayoral control is the latest in a series of reforms that have left D.C. schools shot through with “silver bullets,” reports the Washington Post.

The revolving door of school superintendents — six in the past 10 years alone — has meant that few reforms had time to filter down to the classrooms. Isolated gains achieved under one reform theory were tossed aside, lost or forgotten in the next. Some reforms that did have an impact went awry, accelerating inequality, distrust and decline.

This morning, Fenty fired the superintendent and named Michelle Rhee, head of The New Teacher Project, to take over.

How bad are D.C. schools?

Tests show that in reading and math, the District’s public school students score at the bottom among 11 major city school systems, even when poor children are compared only with other poor children. Thirty-three percent of poor fourth-graders across the nation lacked basic skills in math, but in the District, the figure was 62 percent. It was 74 percent for D.C. eighth-graders, compared with 49 percent nationally.

The District spends $12,979 per pupil each year, ranking it third-highest among the 100 largest districts in the nation. But most of that money does not get to the classroom. D.C. schools rank first in the share of the budget spent on administration, last in spending on teachers and instruction.

On average, it takes more than a year for repairs to be made, even if the problem is reported as “dangerous.”

The school system doesn’t have an accurate list of employees or students. Records are kept on paper in cardboard boxes. The story tells of a principal who was told she’d overspent her budget. She checked and discovered she was being charged payroll costs for two teachers who’d never taught at her school. She’d never heard of them.

One quarter of D.C. students now attend charters. Charter test scores were behind district-run schools in 2003 but passed them in 2005.

Here’s a link to the Post series, which is ongoing.

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  1. I predict change, but no progress. Anyone who becomes a politician probably lacks the genuine risk-taking and aversion to popularity polls required to effect systemic change.

  2. Six superintendents in ten years? That doesn’t seem all that outrageous to me. Someone has to take it in the neck periodically – like after a local newspaper does a six-part series on the awful state of every facet of the district.

    While you hear plenty about superintendents being canned you never seem to hear about the brilliant successes. The superintendent who turns a creaking wreck of a school district into a lean, mean teachin’ machine. There’s got to be a superstar or two out there, right?

    Maybe not.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    There is no chance of turning the DC schools around. Absolutely no one on the city council or any of the powerful politicians send their children to DC public schools. Thus, the politicians never feel the pain of having such a pathetic school system. For the politicians, the school system is more about teachers unions, contracts, and government jobs than it is about learning.