Guest post courtesy of Victor Reinoso, Deputy Mayor for Education, Washington, D.C.
There’s a lot of debate here in DC right now about education reform and the root causes of recent progress. As a former member of the Board of Education and the current Deputy Mayor for Education, I have been fortunate to have two front row seats for this debate.
As I see it, the recent progress in student achievement has not happened by accident, or because of some grand, genius plan. Rather, leaders stuck to some fundamental principles: Be unafraid to try something new. If it’s in the best interests of kids, do it. Process, while important, cannot be the enemy of reform.
When I was elected member to the District’s Board of Education in November 2004, I was optimistic about pursuing real reform for a school system that needed it perhaps more than any other in the country. In 2004 DCPS was at the bottom in performance, led by its sixth superintendent in ten years. Enrollment was declining, due primarily to a flourishing charter school movement – a movement most viewed as something to fight rather than a resource for innovation, ideas, and talents to embrace. Half-empty facilities were crumbling, books and services weren’t reaching classrooms, and a dysfunctional special education system was draining schools of resources that all students needed, without even meeting the needs of kids in special education.
What alarmed me and many others the most, was that there were so many dedicated people in leadership positions – on the school board, in DCPS, and in the mayor’s office – and despite all our work, we weren’t gaining any traction.
It wasn’t that we didn’t know what to do – It was that we lacked the will and collective leadership to make it happen. For example, we knew we had to close schools. Here was a system that had lost 30,000 students in 15 years and had dozens of half-empty buildings show for it. Multiple studies confirmed the need to “rightsize” the system so we weren’t spending millions heating empty space when kids didn’t have art and music teachers.
Back then, we met with school administrators and debated the data, the process, and the plan. Eventually we agreed on a recommended course of action for the superintendent. Yet by the time the plan was ready for a vote, it had been butchered and watered down because of the need to please so many adults and different agendas. We went from a plan to close about 20 schools to a proposal to close six.
Today, with Mayor Fenty overseeing the school system and Chancellor Michelle Rhee at the helm, we still arrive at decisions after analyzing the data, hearing from the community, debating potential actions, and determining the best path forward. The difference is that once we decide what’s best for kids, we execute, and with a greater focus and sense of urgency. In just 3 ½ years, we closed 27 schools, established accountability measures for central office staff, negotiated a landmark teachers’ contract, created innovative partnerships with charter schools to turn around low-performing DCPS schools, implemented a groundbreaking new teacher evaluation system enabling performance rewards for highly effective teachers and dismissals for ineffective teachers.
It hasn’t been perfect along the way, but as the first time up on the bike of this new approach to reform, it’s more than any of us had been able to do in decades. Most encouraging are the results we have seen already – increased student achievement on state and national assessments, higher graduation rates, a stabilized enrollment, and modernized classrooms for students from every neighborhood in the city.
What has enabled all of this is leadership; leadership that embraces bold action and never backs away from necessary change, no matter how difficult. Leadership that unequivocally supports the push forward, regardless of politics and opposing interests. Without this, we would not have an environment in DC in which reform could succeed. I’ve been fortunate to see firsthand how these dynamics of leadership are playing out in DC. And from where I sit, that’s why we must keep going forward – because going back, like failure, is not an option.