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Why DC Mayor Fenty's and Chancellor Rhee’s Approach Schools Reorganization Matters to the School Improvement Providers


Why is edbizbuzz "picking on" District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's in their efforts to reorganize that city's troubled system? There are plenty of other dysfunctional urban districts, what's so special about their problematic approach to management? Why should a blogspace devoted to the emerging school improvement industry spend so much time on what's happening in one school district? What’s the relationship between Rhee and the industry?

Although it may be a neglected child, the school improvement industry was borne of the school reform movement. Philosophically, the industry springs from the idea that neither state socialism – in the form of the traditional centrally managed school district, nor state capitalism – in the form of the publishing oligarchy have the capacity to improve student performance, nor much interest, and so a new form of private sector entrepreneurship is needed.

Politically and as a matter of legislation this idea has taken three forms:

• Vouchers, to make public education an entirely consumer-driven market;

• Decentralization, expressed mostly as charters and including the idea of charter districts, where individual public schools are held accountable to consumers and to government for performance; and

• Rightsizing, reinventing the school district as a “better, faster, cheaper” centrally-managed organization by bringing in leaders with a corporate mentality, and applying business “best practices” to district operations.

The future of the school improvement industry lies with the second option. Vouchers remain so divisive politically that they simply cannot serve as the basis of any private firm’s business plan. By leaving sole decision authority in the center, rightsizing only assures a continuation of the old education industry – publishers and the superintendent’s friends. Only decentralization gives the still tiny school improvement firms the market they need to compete and grow.

The strategy pursued by Fenty and Rhee is not in the best interests of school reform for the reasons discussed in many other postings. It is not in the best interests of students for the same reason that no central authority knows local students’ better than local school. It is not in the best interests of teachers who can succeed without the paternalistic vision of a new great leader every few years. And it is not in the best interests of the school improvement industry because centralization with a corporate face will favor firms with the scale required to support large one-size-fits-all district-wide school contracts and a few people with ties to the Chancellor. State capitalism is not a market.


Local control is a recipe for complete and utter disaster, with most children being left behind by petty dictators in their own little fiefdoms.

This is nonsense. Rhee and Fenty are bringing fresh (and possibly unpopular) ideas to a difficult subject, which needs new approaches.

Charter schools and charter districts certainly have success stories that should be encouraged and replicated. But there is far less accountibility, and no data showing that on the whole charter schools outperform their public counterparts.

Chancellor Rhee is managing the D.C. Public School system, which has nearly twice as much space per pupil as the national best practices. The proposed plan to consolidate the school system by closing underutilized facilities will save millions of dollars currently spent on facility operation and maintainance, and allow that money to be spent directly on the things D.C. schoolchildren deserve: fine arts programs, high quality special education services, social and wellness support, and increased administrative support.

We are lucky to have a leader in the DC school system who finally approaches every issue by asking, "Will this improve students' ability to achieve?" While Millot may incorrectly believe that every charter school is run efficently and successfully, I find it hard to believe he would truly oppose Fenty and Rhee's plans if he had all the facts.

Unless a blog writer wants to start every posting from scratch, he or she must assume that readers have read enough postings to understand where the writer is coming from. I write fairly lengthy postings to begin with, so maybe I put more of a burden on the reader.

On the other hand, I do link relevant postings, and the "About the Author" link in the upper right hand corner will lead the reader to most of what I've written in print and digital media, as well as everything since I started podcasting in April 2005. I think readers will find I don't fall neatly along any of the convenient left-right, pro-anti-privatization, Democrat-Republican, progressive-back to basics, etc, etc spectra.

Comments are very welcome - they are now considered important to blogsite ratings - but if you are going to take the time, it's worth making sure that you've either got me in the right pigeonhole for your quick comeback, or spend the time to make your case. Otherwise it's just venting.

If "DC Schools" only read my lengthy article on charters in the fall 2007 issue of Converge magazine ( http://www.convergemag.com/past_issues.php ), noted in this blog, he/she would know I don't hold the views ascribed to me. In the above posting I used charters not as the answer but as an example of decentralization.

"DC Advocate" used the words "local control," a term that covers everything from states' rights to site-based management. I'm not exactly sure what was meant, but I'm going to assume opposition to decentralization.

Both comments would have more force if their makers could show edbizbuzz readers the research base indicating that school district decentralization is inferior to centralization in terms of their relative contribution student outcomes.

As far as I know, the evaluation evidence points in the other direction. Schools with some degree of independence from the central office - those islands of excellence - tend to do better than those without it.

See for example:



This is not to say that giving an incompetent staff autonomy would make classes of students National Merit Scholars. It is to say that a competent staff in control of its school will tend to do better than one that must conform to central office diktat. DC is headed down the direction of assuming incompetent educators and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy with more efficient central direction.

It's probably worth pointing out that at least one of these studies shows no relationship between facilities and "student performance. In brief, the "best practice" of 150 square feet per student, versus the Districts roughly 300, noted by "DC Schools," is a best "facilities" practice, but not a best "education" practice. And, in a way, it points out the problem with the Chancellor's "right-sizing" strategy.

Schools are social institutions, not bricks and mortar. Treating them as buildings by focusing closure decisions primarily on building age, condition and enrollment denies that fact. Not considering the coherence of the school, the success of its program as a reason to let it be, etc, is hardly a best education practice. The idea that school mergers are not likely to have significant negative impacts on student performance, - or that programs that work in one school can simply be transferred to, or established in, a new social setting - is wishful thinking. Program replication, transfer, scale have a poor record of success. (As my article in Converge suggests.)

The Chancellor does a pretty good job of explaining her approach to closure on local radio station WAMU's DC Politics Hour. ( http://wamu.org/programs/kn/07/11/30.php#18181 ) Fast forward about 30 minutes into the session.

It is surely laudable that the Chancellor wants more money to go to the classroom. What is less worthy of praise is the idea that she knows precisely how each school should spend it.

If edbizbuzz readers know of studies pointed in the opposite direction - suggesting that centralization is positively associated with higher levels of student achievement - please post them.

For some more context, edbizbuzz readers might be interested in my first several postings on DC school reform and Chancellor Rhee, made before this blog moved to edweek.org.

From June 14, DC Mayor Fenty’s Biggest Gamble is the New Chancellor

From June 21, The Parthenon Group - Strategic Consulting at the Front End of District Improvement

From June 30, Will DC Public Schools Be a Good Market For School Improvement Providers?

From July 27, Rhee Declares War on DC's Education Bureaucracy?

It's BS that Rhee is approaching every decision asking what's best for the kids. Eleven of the receiving schools in the closure proposal are currently required either to restructure or to take corrective action under NCLB. The best case scenario is that Rhee's goal is to deliver that same poor quality education more cheaply. But it's certainly the case that some schools are being closed to send kids to even lower-performing ones.

It's just stupid (and/or disingenuous) to treat opposition to the Rhee/Reinoso/Fenty "reforms" as evidence that they're shaking things up in a radical and promising way. It's evidence that they are making bad decisions without first engaging the people who will be most directly affected.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you say that "[w]hat is less worthy of praise is the idea that she knows precisely how each school should spend it." Are you saying that closing schools based on the idea of right-sizing is tantamount to Rhee knowing how to spend the money? If that's what you're saying I'm convinced.

As a former DC teacher, I can attest that there's a ton of space being underutilized. My school was three stories, and we used the entire first floor, and about three classrooms on the top two. I found out at the beginning of my second year that we had a library, but no one ever used it!

I know anecdotal evidence doesn't suffice as data, but it's not hard to find numbers on how many kids are in the schools and how many should be. Yes, it's hard taking new students into a new school, but it's also hard looking at a bunch of half-empty schools, some of which have a number of critical repairs outstanding. If closing some schools (especially those with major physical problems) gives more money to schools in better physical shape, that's a powerful argument for the Chancellor's current plan.

It's also BS that this school closing plan will allow DCPS to pay for significantly better programs. Mary Levy calculates a savings of $14 million from the plan. Take away the $9 million that will be lost when an estimated 1,000 more students leave for charter schools, and you've got $5 million in savings. That's a savings of about .5% of the $1 billion schools budget. It comes out to less than $50,000 per school. We're seeing the destruction of a public school system.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Marc: It's also BS that this school closing plan will allow read more
  • MS: I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you read more
  • Sue: It's BS that Rhee is approaching every decision asking what's read more
  • Marc Dean Millot: Unless a blog writer wants to start every posting from read more
  • DC Schools: Charter schools and charter districts certainly have success stories that read more




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