Monday, January 05, 2009

Time To Shake Things Up 1

Recently I had an e-mail exchange with Jonathan Mallard, my fellow also-ran in the Fourth District school board race. Jonathan had asked me what I thought of his analysis of the Request for Procurement (RFP) for renovations to make Fox Elementary School compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. You can find Jonathan’s analysis at

Here is how I replied to Jonathan:

Unfortunately, RPS has developed a corporate culture of indifference. We have had mediocrity or even incompetence for so long that it has become the standard of performance. I have seen this before in the District of Columbia government and the Department of Defense.
Things will only change when either the superintendent or the school board demand competency. The attitude must come from the top. The school leadership needs to communicate to all RPS employees that mediocrity or incompetence will no longer be tolerated. Employees should be given a period of time to improve. If they do not, they should be replaced with other employees who are competent.

Maven, how can you say such things? You are being terribly unfair to all the RPS people who work really hard and are doing a good job. Besides, didn’t you lambast Keith West for saying similar things last year?

Vigilant reader, you are right. There are many many RPS employees who are doing an exemplary job. But, I was not talking about individual performance. I was talking about an attitude. It’s like the old saying “Close enough for government work.” Clearly there are lots of government employees who take their jobs very seriously and will not settle for “close enough.” On the other hand, there are enough of the other kind of employee to have given birth to the stereotype.

As to Keith West, I remember two posts I wrote about him. Just about a year ago, I did lambast him for his decision, after losing his challenge to George Braxton to be chair of the school board, to walk away from his responsibilities to the children of Richmond. Keith, It’s All About The Kids Then I wrote another piece responding to his Style Weekly revelation that he and his wife had decided not to send their children to RPS because of their fears they could not receive a decent education. We Have Nothing to Fear but . . .

In Style Weekly, Mr. West said:

Will your children learn the value of honesty and hard work? Is cheating really tolerated in some classes? Will they show and receive proper respect and courtesy? Will they learn to love learning? In some classrooms the answer is yes. In a few schools the answer is yes. But consistently across the entire school system, the answer is no.

I replied:

I guess I must be lucky, because in the schools in which I have been I have seen the children learning the value of honesty and hard work. I have seen no example of cheating, let alone cheating being tolerated. I have seen children showing each other and their teachers respect and courtesy. I have seen so many young faces glowing with the love of learning.

Mr. West then said:

In every job category from custodian to central-office administrator you will find sterling examples of effort and ability working alongside people who aren’t doing their jobs and shouldn’t be drawing a paycheck. You will find some teachers who are imbuing a love of literature in their students, and others writing evaluations with made-up words and nonexistent grammar. You will find some principals prowling the halls gently correcting the transgressions of their little ones, and others hiding in their offices.

My response was:

Again, I have not been in the schools in which the support staff does not earn their pay, where the teachers are unqualified, and where the principals hide. In the schools that I frequent, I have seen just the opposite.

In my post I acknowledge that as a school board member Mr. West had been in a lot more schools than I have. I was just saying that I had not seen the poor performance that he had seen.

Since that time I have been educated by many Richmond parents. I have a list of “horror stories” on my computer testifying to the instances in which Richmond Public Schools or its employees have not done well by particular students.

But, again dear reader, I am talking about an attitude, not individual performance. What I was saying to Jonathan was that because nobody at the top of Richmond Public School’s administration demands excellence there is a belief that what we are doing is good enough. I will go beyond that to say that the citizens of Richmond are also not demanding excellence from RPS and its staff. During the school board campaign I asked Antione Green (President of the Crusade for Voters), at one of our morning coffee meetings (at which neither of us consumed any coffee), why the residents of Richmond tolerate a school system that is not first class. I pointed out to him that in Fairfax County, where my kids were educated, there is no way that parents and other taxpayers would put up with what we put up with in Richmond. If Fairfax County schools performed the way RPS does every member of the school board would have been driven out of town dressed in tar and feathers.

The first thing we need is a new Superintendent of Schools who has not spent a considerable part of his or her career at RPS. I had and have a great deal of respect for former Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman and Interim Superintendent Yvonne Brandon. Unfortunately they both developed professionally within RPS and are too closely wedded to its corporate culture. They worked for too long side-by-side with the people they had to supervise when they became superintendent. Last summer when the School Board appointed Dr. Brandon as interim superintendent I knew that they were choosing someone who was well qualified to run our school system. But I was a little disappointed by Dr. Brandon’s announcement that she would carry on the programs and policies of Dr. Jewell-Sherman. I would have been a lot happier if she had said that she intended to make changes for the better.

I set out the talents we needed in our new superintendent last spring. The Next Superintendent Now I add the additional qualification that the person we choose should come from outside RPS. Only an outsider can bring us new ideas. Only an outsider can change the corporate culture of RPS. Only an outsider can come to the job without any “debts” owed to others in the system.

This year we have a new mayor. We have five new members of the school board. We need a new superintendent too. We need someone like Michelle L. Rhee.

Who, you may ask, is Rhee? Rhee is the Chancellor (when the school system is big enough that is what they call their superintendent) of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Depending on who you talk to, Rhee is either the great savior of D.C. Public Schools or a publicity-seeking, power-hungry, out-of-control administrator who doesn’t care who she hurts in carrying out her objectives. I think the jury is still out on whether she is either of the above or something in the middle. But, what I like most about Rhee is her attitude that the public schools in Washington are there to serve the needs of the children, not the desires of any adults or block of adults. This has made her very unpopular with the District’s teachers union. Just last week, Rhee announced her plan to remake Washington’s teacher’s corp. Ms. Rhee intends to remove a “significant share” of teachers (those who are not succeeding) and to retrain all the rest. Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training.

I am not suggesting that we need such radical steps in Richmond. But, we need to rethink the way we train, evaluate and compensate our teachers. In one of my earliest opinions involving RPS, I said:

We must hold all teachers accountable for their students’ achievements. We must have a performance appraisal system that measures how effectively our teachers teach. We must do a regular evaluation of each teacher’s students to see how many are truly excelling. We must not accept as an explanation that “I used the same lessons last year and it worked with those students.” Although ultimately it is the student that learns, we must expect our teachers to prepare lessons that will enable each of their students to perform at their maximum capacity.
We must retrain all our teachers in new teaching methods. There have been many improvements in teaching methodology in recent years and we must make these developments available to all our teachers. We should not settle merely for teachers to be recertified periodically. We must insist that they constantly improve. Since many of our students are at risk because of their background, we must make sure that all our teachers know how to help these children.
Fix Our Schools, Now

Then, in October, in an attempt to inject some life into my school board campaign, I wrote:

I propose that we move RPS employees, including administrators and teachers, from a system in which pay increases are based on college degrees and longevity to one based on performance. Let me be clear, I do not propose that compensation be based on student SOL scores. As I have said several times here and in the questionnaire from the Richmond Education Association, there are far too many factors other than teacher performance that affect how well students do on SOLs. We need to develop a system in which we can measure how much progress students are making in a particular year (by comparing where they are in September to where they are in June). We also need to handicap that system so that teachers in schools with concentrated poverty can compete fairly with teachers in schools that are primarily middle class.
We need to start with a voluntary system for teachers already working for RPS. Teachers would be given the option of staying in a compensation system based on longevity and degrees or moving to the merit system in which pay raises are not guaranteed but can be significantly higher than on the longevity scale.
I expect that the Richmond Education Association will participate with the School Board in designing this new compensation system.
From Outside The Box

One of my campaign advisers urged me to postpone this type of suggestion until after the election. She feared it would cost me votes.

But, getting back to Chancellor Rhee, Richmond needs a superintendent who will put the needs of our children first. We need a superintendent who understands that nobody is “entitled” to be employed by RPS. We need a superintendent who is willing to really shake things up.

1 comment:

gray said...

Good piece Maven. I agree with your take on the superintendent search and so do a great deal of teachers. I think a lot of us in hopes of real change in the education system have their eyes on the chancellor in DC.