It’s hard to feel much hope for school reform in DC after the triple whammy of forced departures:
- First, Mayor Adrian Fenty, perhaps the first to so faithfully link his political fortunes to the fate of education in DC.
- Second, DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, perhaps the most hard-charging of school district leaders to walk the fact of the Earth.
- Third, WTU President George Parker, perhaps the most level-headed of local teachers union leaders, as demonstrated by his qualified acceptance of the teachers contract this summer.
Where are we headed now after this falling of dominoes? Not where we want to be.
Mayor-elect Vincent Gray, though passionate and capable in many ways, has neither the “spark” of inspiration nor urgent desire necessary to fix DCPS. Nor, for that matter, does he have the political capital to do this. After persuading voters that he was going to rewind Rhee’s major reforms, Gray has his hands tied. He will be obligated to shift course drastically.
And if the person in charge of the WTU has any influence on this course, we have some rough waters ahead. In short, the recently sworn-in WTU President Nathan Saunders inspires hopelessness, not least because of his teachers-first mentality.
I can understand the importance of workers’ rights. Teachers deserve to be treated fairly. I’ve seen enough frustrating “abuse” of teachers in the short time I’ve been in DCPS. For instance, courageous educators like Erich Martel, who raised issues that administrators sought to keep under wraps, have been subject to what I believe is blatant abuse. The WTU should fight on behalf of educators in situations like these.
Yet, what I cannot understand is when such a focus on rights comes at the expense of the responsibilities that teachers have towards educating their students. Promote teachers rights, sure, but don’t forget that teachers are ultimately responsible for student learning. At-Large DC Council Member David Catania, who is currently gunning for the Chair of the education committee, summarizes Saunders’ fatal flaw best in a recent Washington Post article: “I”ve yet to hear Mr. Saunders articulate the importance of students in the process. His focus is singularly on job protection for teachers, not achievement for students.”
Here’s Saunders admitting this flaw straight-up in the Washington Times: “The trend in the U.S. is less job security. I’m moving in the opposite direction. My job is to protect members.”
We learn a lot, too, about Saunders through his campaign material. Of particular interest was his attempt to pass himself off as a Harvard Law School graduate, when he merely completed a six-week certificate program there. Sad.
I’m trying my best to give Mr. Saunders the benefit of the doubt, but the first few days of his tenure have already made bad impressions.
Moving along, perhaps the only education leader in DC who gives me hope is Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whom I’ve already praised. She’s done a magnificent job so far, both in terms of connecting with the community through her new role as well as balancing her fervent educational beliefs with an open-mindedness that sets her up well if she does end up being selected to serve permanently (e.g. “Even though we may have different ways of getting there, I hope that Nathan and I share the goal of ensuring a highly effective teacher for every single one of our city’s students.”)
Sadly, her future in DCPS is uncertain as well. I suspect that Vincent Gray will bow to the pressure of those who elected him and “flush” her and her Michelle Rhee-like education philosophies out of DCPS.
And so might begin a new (and unfortunate) phase in education reform in Washington, DC.
(Am I showing too much doom-and-gloom?)