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Institute | Collaborative for Urban Education, Research, and Development

Kick-Off Symposium of the Urban Collaborative for Education Research and Development
On November 4, 2010, SETH hosted the Collaborative for Urban Education, Research, Development Launch Event. Kojo Nnamdi led panelists in a discussion about Urban Education: How Do We Improve Our Schools? Our discussants included Sara Mead, Bellwether Partners; Dr. Pedro Noguera, New York University; Dr. Charles Tesconi, American University; and Dr. Amber Winkler, Fordham Institute.

Click here for audio from the Kick-Off Symposium of the Urban Collaborative for Education Research and Development.


Welcome to the “Collaborative Corner” discussion series.  In the spirit of engaging perspectives from the community at-large, we have created this online forum.  Each month the Collaborative Corner will ask individuals drawn from diverse areas of the community to weigh in on a range of salient topics centered on urban education reform. 

In this inaugural forum, Sara Mead, Pedro Noguera, and Stacie Tate offer their insights and suggestions on how Mayor Gray and Interim-Chancellor Henderson might consider continuing to improve and move the District’s school system forward. 

The Way Forward

Since the Mayoral takeover of the District of Columbia Public School system, there has been considerable energy and resources devoted to reforming the city’s under-performing public schools.

Although some progress has been made, many questions remain regarding what else needs to be done to ensure all District school children begin school prepared to learn and matriculate ready to attend college.  This underscores the most central question, what will it take to improve public education in the nation’s capital?

Collaborative Corner (CC): More than 3 years into mayoral control, the new appointment of an interim-chancellor, and a new Mayor, what do you think are the critical next steps for D.C.'s school system?

Sara Mead (SM): The most critical next step for D.C.’s school system is to sustain and solidify the progress that has been made to date. That means maintaining DCPS’ commitment to IMPACT, to the groundbreaking compensation and tenure reforms in the most recent collective bargaining agreement, and to key reforms included in the District’s winning Race to the Top grant proposal. It also means avoiding making rapid changes in course or introducing new initiatives that lead to the kind of “policy churn” that so often undermines the effectiveness of large urban districts—and has particularly done so in D.C. It means sending a clear signal to stakeholders that key reforms are here to stay, to avoid creating a climate of uncertainty that undermines reform. And it means ensuring that new policies and practices become systematized in the structure of DCPS and how it operates.

But simply sustaining reforms to date is not enough—D.C.’s schools still fall far short of the mark in achieving the learning outcomes we should demand for our students. Under Chancellor Rhee’s tenure, DCPS implemented a number of critical reforms, such as improving basic district operations, closing under-enrolled schools and shedding excess capacity, and creating a meaningful teacher evaluation system. These changes have put in place essential conditions for improving student learning—and student learning has indeed improved as a result. Now that the district is more functional, the next step needs engage even more deeply in issues of curriculum and instruction to ensure that all children are receiving high-quality instruction every day in every DCPS classroom, and that teachers have the supports they need to provide such instruction.

DCPS isn’t the only school system in D.C., though—nearly 40% of the District’s students attend public charter schools. These include some of the District’s highest performing open-enrollment schools as well as schools that are seriously underperforming. Next steps for the District’s public charter schools must include closing down more low-performing schools—and replacing them with new, high-performing charter schools, either by expanding existing high-performers or recruiting new, high-quality charter operators to D.C.

Finally, the District’s top political leadership need to embrace the attitude that all children in all public schools in the District are all “our kids.” Following Mayor Fenty’s takeover of control of DCPS, some in the charter school community felt—rightly or wrongly—that the Mayor’s ownership of DCPS success came at the expense of charter schools, a perception that Mayor-elect Gray’s campaign capitalized on.  But the Mayor and City Council must be the Mayor and City Council for all children and schools in the city—not just DCPS or just charters. With charters serving nearly 40% of the district’s students, public leaders no longer pretend that they are a marginal phenomenon to DCPS as the city’s “real” school system. Nor can they expect that charter schools can replace or solve as a solution for all the problems in DCPS.

D.C. needs a diverse and choice-based system of accountable, high-quality schools that includes both DCPS and charter schools and is seamless for children and families across sectors. We’re a long way from that right now. Mayor-elect Gray’s selection of a new State Superintendent of Education—a role that carries out state level responsibilities for both DCPS and charter schools, such as the statewide longitudinal data system, managing the school funding formula, and receiving and distributing federal funds—will have important implications in terms of his commitment and ability to move D.C. toward such a system.

Pedro Noguera (PN): The next step should involve efforts to rebuild trust between district officials and parents. There should be a series of community events where the strategic direction of the District is laid out with clear goals and where parents and community members can offer responses to the plan.  Similar events should be held with district staff since they will be expected to implement the plan and vision.

Stacie Tate (ST): As with most urban school districts where chancellor/superintendant turnover rates are high, there are several steps that can be taken to reassure the school system continues in its’ efforts to educate our children.  I believe a crucial “next step” is a public “vote of confidence” for the teachers within the district.  While several needed changes were made within the teaching and administrative ranks, I believe the process left a lot of effective teachers feeling disillusioned about the teaching and tenure process.  The first sign of this was the former chancellor’s infamous “Time” magazine cover and article.  Many teachers and administrators were infuriated with her evaluation of the District.  I believe we now must make it a point to see these teachers as what Henry Giroux articulates as “transformative intellectuals”.  This notion of teachers as intellectuals is a critical next step that will continue to professionalize the practice of teaching and “rethink and reform the traditions and conditions that have prevented teachers from assuming their full potential as active, reflective scholars and practitioners.”  While teacher reform was the intent of the former chancellor, it cannot happen by isolating and publicly humiliating teachers.  The former chancellor’s attack on teachers and the profession left a lot of teachers disheartened.  I believe the district has to rebuild what was lost in the constant blame of teachers and teacher unions for student and district failure.  As Diane Ravitch points out in her latest book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “Teachers, like other professionals, need to feel competent, effective and admired.  If teachers are treated with condescension by administrators, they are not likely to gain a sense of personal and professional satisfaction.” 

CC: During his campaign, Mayor Gray mapped out an education plan that outlined 4 core principles: smart education reform, lifelong learning, broad collaboration, and accountability.  While it is important to attend to all of the initiatives that will be associated with each of these principles, what should the new chancellor focus her attention on?

SM: I’m not sure that I’d pick any one of those four principles as the number one principle a new chancellor should focus on. The new chancellor needs to maintain a primary focus on ensuring effective teaching in DCPS classrooms: This includes sustaining IMPACT, compensation and other reforms put in place under Chancellor Rhee’s tenure, as well as ensuring that teachers have the support and resources they need to be effective, from effective school leaders and central office.

PN: The goals are extremely vague and do not provide clear and measurable that the district will need. The Mayor and new Chancellor should start by describing their vision of what they want schools in DC to look like in a broad sense, then they should outline an implementation plan with goals, benchmarks and timelines for how these will be implemented. 

ST: While it is important to attend to all the new initiatives, I believe that Mayor-elect Gray’s third principle on collaborative reform is an important one.  Dr. Noguera wrote about this issue in his very recent and poignant article, “Reframing the Education Debate”.  Dr. Noguera pointed out that, “Fenty's loss shows that those who rely on public schools can insist that change be made with rather than to them.”  As a critical pedagogue and follower of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, I believe in this idea. In Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he discussed how teaching and learning are reciprocal and never in the hands of just one person.  He believed that one of the challenges that educators must overcome is the top down belief in educational reform.  He states, “They [educators] forget that their fundamental objective is to fight alongside the people… not win people over to their side.”  I believe this is what Mayor-elect Gray points out with his third principle.  In my opinion, a lot of the decisions made by the former DCPS administration were made to the stakeholders and not with them.  I believe Mayor-elect Gray’s principle of collaboration is a vital one in terms of school reform.  This past mayoral election demonstrated that communities are tired of top down decision-making and that if you will not work with us, we will find someone who will. 

CC: What must D.C. do to make school reform sustainable?

SM: Ultimately, the most important factor in the sustainability of education reforms in D.C. is the results they produce. Actually producing student learning gains is more important to the long-term sustainability of reform than making sure that all the various district stakeholders feel good. Of course that doesn’t mean that reformers should overlook politics and the need to build community support: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves;” it would behoove school reformers in D.C. and elsewhere to follow that advice. 

PN: It must stick to a clear and coherent plan and work hard to achieve full "buy-n" from staff, community and parents.

ST: This question, in my opinion, is always a difficult one to answer.  I believe there are many variables that are a part of sustainable school reform.   The first variable is the notion that schools are a reflection of society.  In order for DC to sustain reform in their schools, they must understand the social, political and economic nature of schools.  A lot of the problems that we see in schools today are in direct correlation to what is happening in society.  For example, the economic downturn has left a huge student transient rate.  Parents who are unemployed and looking for work must often uproot their children during the school year.  We are now seeing students who have been enrolled in two to three schools within a school year because of their parent’s unemployment.  Another variable that must be considered in sustainability is what I have discussed in the previous questions.  We must have collaborative and supportive initiatives among all stakeholders (i.e. administration, teachers, community members, etc.).  Some of the best knowledge we can garner about what works or does not work, comes from those most effected.   Finally as a critical pedagogue, I would be remiss if I did not mention the whole notion of praxis.  I believe this is another variable in school reform sustainability.  Paulo Freire defines praxis as, "reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it." He believed that change occurs when people are aware of their conditions and work to change them.  This change does not occur just because “the powers that be” take action, but because all stakeholders do.  I believe sustainable school reform can happen in D.C, but we must consider all variables that factor into those changes.  

Sara Mead is a senior associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students.

Pedro Noguera is a Professor of Education at New York University whose scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment.

Stacie Tate is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education, Teaching, and Health at American University whose interests and research focuses on literacy, urban education, multicultural education, and urban teacher development.