MARTIN LEVINE’S VISION FOR OUR CITY’S SCHOOLS AND FOR THE BOARD OF EDUCATION
The leaders and citizens of Washington have an opportunity to place the city’s long-suffering public education system on a path toward meaningful, lasting improvement – and it is urgent that we do so, on behalf of our city’s children.
There is widespread agreement that the District of Columbia’s public schools have persistently failed to serve thousands of the pupils in their care – reflected in grossly unacceptable student achievement test results and graduation rates. This long-standing failure is crippling the future of too many of Washington’s young people, and it is a continuing stain on our city.
Committed to Excellence in DC Schools
Levine for DC Schools 3138 Patterson St. NW Washington, DC 20015 202-364-2813
Our city’s new leaders – Mayor Adrian Fenty, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, and Board of Education President Robert Bobb – are bringing renewed energy and urgency to the task of improving our schools. Mayor Fenty has presented a comprehensive plan that would shift many of the responsibilities of the Board of Education to the city’s executive and legislature. Mr. Bobb has proposed an alternative approach. Both proposals are now before the Council, which is holding extensive public hearings in anticipation of acting on school governance and performance this spring.
The challenge now is for us to agree quickly on a plan for the oversight of our educational system, along with benchmarks for improvement – and then to move forward together. Each responsible individual and institution must focus on executing its duties to enhance the school system, rather than become mired in distracting continued contests for control, or encroaching on the roles of others.
A Word on Governance -- Principles to Guide Us Going Forward
As we consider this changing landscape, we should be guided by several principles:
• Our choice of a governance plan must be based on judgments as to what will most likely improve educational results for DC’s children. We must not confuse the means – which institutions and individuals will oversee what aspects of the school system – with the ends – enhancing educational outcomes.
• Any plan must be accompanied by specific commitments for measurable improvements in student achievement and graduation rates – as well as clear mechanisms for holding our school system’s leaders accountable for achieving those targets. Without explicit goals, we will not know where we are headed, nor will we be able to measure our progress. And without accountability for failure, we will continue to accept the unacceptable results we’ve all become too accustomed to.
• While the Board of Education has a vital role to play in the governance debate, the choice regarding how to proceed will ultimately be made where it should be under the city charter – by the legislative and executive branches of our government. Once a decision has been made regarding school oversight, the Board should focus its attention solely on executing the responsibilities assigned to it, rather than continuing to engage on issues of institutional control.
• Under whatever governance plan is adopted, the Board of Education will continue to play a critical role in guiding our schools, and in affecting the results they achieve. Under the mayor's plan the Board will have responsibilities in setting teacher qualification standards and student achievement goals and measurement. They will also continue to exercise an advisory function in such important areas as curriculum. In addition, the Board of Education will inevitably remain the body closest to our city’s parents, as they provide essential feedback on how well the schools are serving their children’s needs. For all these reasons, having talented, engaged members on the Board will remain important to our schools’ success.
What Our Schools Must Accomplish
The first step in placing DC’s public schools on a new path must be to establish explicit annual and long-term goals for improving student achievement and graduation rates. Numerous improvements in the management and operations of our schools will then be necessary to realize the goals and, thus, to escape the trap of recurring failure in which the system is now mired.
Superintendent Janey has instituted a number of worthwhile reforms in the past two years as part of a Master Education Plan. Unfortunately, we are not yet seeing the improvements in educational outcomes that will be the ultimate measure of success. There must be a new sense of urgency to act on a variety of fronts to turn the DC school system around:
• Provide teachers and principals with an environment in which they can succeed. We need to create a covenant with instructors and with the people who manage our schools. We will assure that class sizes are appropriate, that sufficient instructional supplies and teacher’s aides are available, and that teachers have access to ongoing training.
With that foundation in place, we should then expect accountability for the instructional results that are achieved. A system that expects excellence – and that provides the resources to achieve it – will be able to attract and retain the most committed and talented professionals.
• Increase attention and resources to improve learning at critical junctures. We should enhance early learning for at-risk children by expanding school readiness programs; extending pre-school efforts into the initial school years; and doing more to help parents prepare their children to succeed. For older students, additional academically demanding and advanced placement courses should be available – to challenge and better prepare them to compete for employment and for positions in colleges and universities.
• Insist that the central administration for the school system provide basic support functions for our schools effectively. Such routine activities as the purchase of supplies, school maintenance, student transportation and school-based meals should be just that – routine. Periodic crises in these areas drain from administrators, teachers and parents the attention that they should be devoting to the core instructional mission of the schools.
Where the central administration is unable to provide needed support appropriately, alternatives should be urgently explored – either through other arms of the DC government or from private contractors.
As part of this process, we should move immediately to shift from the Board of Education and the superintendent responsibility for managing the years-long reconstruction or replacement of our aging schools. This massive undertaking should be placed in the hands of an alternative arm of the District’s government – or a new entity – which would have the necessary expertise. Our school’s leaders should not be distracted by the demands of this complex task, for which their background does not equip them. Instead, they should focus all their attention on their core mission – laying a sound educational groundwork for the future of DC’s children.
My Role on the Board of Education
However the current school governance debate is resolved, my commitment is to work tirelessly for the families of Wards 3 and 4, and for our entire city, to create the kind of school system we deserve and have for too long been denied:
• I will focus relentlessly on strengthening DC’s schools and improving educational outcomes. I will not become distracted by political issues.
• I’ll work to set high standards for schools and students – and assure accountability for achieving results.
- Create specific targets for meaningful, lasting improvements in student achievement and graduation rates.
- Assure high standards for teachers – and expand opportunities for effective educators with diverse backgrounds.
- Demand that the central administration support schools, principals and teachers – rather than thwart them.
• I will be a strong advocate for the parents of Wards 4 and 3. I will visit schools regularly, meet with parents on an ongoing basis, and carry their concerns back to the front-line managers of our school system.
• I will work to create partnerships to support public education and students, calling upon the unique wealth of assets that our city possesses – community and education associations, private businesses, local universities, nonprofit and service organizations.