Why I’d Make a Great Superintendent for DC Schools

(Please, let’s drop the pretentious title of “Chancellor”)   

by Caleb S. Rossiter

Why would I make a great leader for the DC schools?  Well, for one thing, you’d know right off the bat what I’d try to do.  In 2015 I used my experiences as a professor of research statistics at American University and as a math teacher in the DC schools to write a book explaining how I would achieve our core mission: to guide the students in our segregated, high-poverty schools to the productive middle-class life they deserve. 

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews called Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin’: The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools the “best account of public education in the nation’s capital I have ever read.”  To be fair, Mathews doesn’t agree with many of my proposed fixes, but at least we agree that present policy is unacceptable.  And a debate about what to change is precisely what the District of Columbia needs right now.

As the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders predicted 50 years ago, our students live in “two societies…separate and unequal.”  I taught at the historically “Coloured” university in Cape Town, South Africa, and I can tell you that apartheid and post-apartheid have nothing on us when it comes to segregated neighborhoods.  In both places, Cape Town and DC, income as much as race defines the residential segregation that constrains students’ options.   

We can’t hide behind the empty claims of “school reformers” that ZIP code doesn’t matter.  Segregation, poverty, and lack of support and opportunity do matter, and an educational plan that ignores this fact of life is doomed to failure.  And failure is precisely what we have achieved here in DC during the school reform era, by distorting the entire curriculum to focus on the misguided task of raising average standardized test scores from atrocious to merely terrible.  Decades of research has proven that these average scores are almost entirely determined by the income and cultural identities of the groups taking them, rather than by what students have learned in school.  Our educators need to be freed of the testing mania so they can focus on building students’ confidence, creativity, perseverance, and skill levels.

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It seems it either doesn’t take much or it takes the wrong things to be considered qualified to head the District of Columbia Public Schools.  In my 38 years as a parent or a teacher in DCPS, I’ve seen some supremely unqualified leaders come and go.  Meanwhile, our segregated, high-poverty schools continue to produce mostly drop-outs and academically helpless “graduates,” just as they did when I arrived in 1980.

Consider retired Army general Julius Becton (1996-1998), who had no experience at all in schools,  He came into office at the start of the mania for misusing standardized tests to measure a school’s quality of instruction.  Then came Becton’s assistant, Arlene Ackerman (1998-2000).  She began the disastrous practice of punishing principals and teachers if standardized test scores did not rise, even before Congress made it a requirement with George Bush’s fraudulent “No Child Left Behind” act in 2002.   

Like his successor, Barack Obama, Bush told us the every child should go to college.  Pointing out that only a third of all Americans complete a four-year college degree, or that the vast majority of our high-poverty high school students will not go to college, and so need a solid foundation in work ethic and technical work skills in order to hold a middle-class job, was to display what Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”   

Caretaker Paul Vance (2000-2003) and journeyman Clifford Janey (2004-2007) began the implementation of “No Child,” turning DCPS into a test prep machine that, like the law itself, utterly failed to raise “proficiency.”  The law demanded a ten percent improvement per year for ten years until, like in Garrison Keillor’s fictional radio town, all students were above average.  As the 2015 jailing of educators in Atlanta and the recent revelations about chronically-absent Ballou High School graduates showed, “No Child” led instead to cheating by administrators so they could make false claims of progress. 

For an example, look no farther than Mayor Muriel Bowser’s continued use of a thoroughly disproven claim, that DCPS is the “fastest-improving urban school district.”  Wealthy families pour into their own segregated elementary schools west of the Park and the resulting bump in fourth-grade standardized tests means progress for the system as a whole?  To quote Bob Dylan, “let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late.”

Then came the minimally and falsely-experienced Michelle Rhee (2007-2010).  Rhee was the first to receive the exalted title of chancellor instead of superintendent in a school district with 50,000 students, which maked us about the 70th largest school district in America.  There are no chancellors in Mobile, Alabama, or Osceola County, Florida, which have thousands more students than DCPS.  

Rhee claimed spectacular but actually non-existent progress in test scores in her two years as a teacher in Baltimore, just as she claimed spectacular but actually non-existent test progress as the chancellor in DC, thanks to staff who erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones.  Rhee jacked up passing and graduation rates by inventing “credit recovery” classes so that students who failed a course for not attending or trying could come to a few extra lectures and be passed into the next course.

Rhee’s assistant Kaya Henderson replaced her for five long years of more drop-outs, more test prep, more fired principals, and more phony graduation.  Her contribution to the disaster was to have DCPS join the mania of “Advanced Placement for all,” and force high school students to take college courses for which they were completely unprepared.  Finally, in 2016, Antwan Wilson came to DC from running the Oakland schools, and admitted it was not a “priority” for him to respond to documentation from Ballou High School teachers about the attendance and graduation scandal until it hit the press. 

With this record, perhaps I don’t even need to explain why I should be hired.  Anybody with a pulse could improve on this dismal history.  But I’d like to explain why my hiring would finally give the district a leader who would base the curriculum around the needs of our high-poverty students in their quest to cross the bridge over to the middle class, and not around the needs of our politicians and administrators to claim phony progress.

Here’s my vision for DCPS, which of course would have to be talked over, fought over, and bargained over with all the interested parties – parents, students, and the responsible politicians.  

Richard Nixon let it be known in 1968 that he was “rested and ready” for the office he sought.  I cannot say that I am rested, because I am a teacher, and that means I work like a dog for my kids.  But I can say that I am ready.  To quote the late, great Washington radio host Petey Green, DC council members: “Talk to me!”

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