Challenging Business as Usual
Despite spending more per student than all but two states, maintaining a 14:1 student-to-teacher ratio, and offering among the higher teacher salaries in the nation, Washington, D.C., has long had the absolute worst public school system in the nation. The District’s schools rank dead last in math and reading, as assessed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress evaluations. Washington has struggled for decades to change this culture of academic failure, but to no avail.
But, as Newsweek recently reported, the District is now in the midst of a paradigm-shift regarding the way that schooling is done. The first break from tradition came with the District’s successful introduction of dozens of charter schools. Shortly thereafter, Congress authorized a scholarship program that allows more than 1,800 low-income students (the program had four times that many applicants) to attend the best available schools, whether public or private. Then, shortly after his election in 2006, Mayor Adrian Fenty stripped authority from the school board and appointed Michelle Rhee as the chancellor of Washington’s public schools.
The article does an excellent job of highlighting how the city’s schools had been paralyzed by the teachers’ unions’ staunch opposition to any changes that would have made it easier to remove ineffective administrators and educators, and it gives a snapshot of how D.C.’s leadership is making its first concerted effort to transform the city’s public education landscape in a fundamental way. In addition to their willingness to consolidate underpopulated schools and fire ineffective-but-popular administrators, Rhee and Mayor Fenty have raised the possibility of nearly doubling the salaries of the city’s teachers, provided that they are willing to abandon the security of tenure. These changes are terrifying for the educational establishment, which has mobilized an enormous effort to try and maintain the status quo, but these are precisely the kinds of fundamental reforms necessary to ensure that public schools are more focused on meeting the needs of their children than they are on creating job security for education professionals.
Given that St. Louis shares many of the same challenges facing Washington, D.C., the city would be wise to watch Washington’s progress as we evaluate the future of our own school system.