Amid all the good news from primary season — the surging grassroots rejection of leviathan government being the theme — there was one tragedy. The voters of the District of Columbia rejected Mayor Adrian Fenty, and with him the bold education reforms undertaken by schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Democrat Adrian Fenty may have been an arrogant jerk who offended his constituents in a number of ways, but on his signature issue, education reform, he was getting results.
Before the advent of Fenty/Rhee, District of Columbia schools had been legendary for two things: high spending and utter incompetence. For decades, city governments had surveyed the near illiteracy of many public-school students in the District and cried, “More funding!” And they got it. For the United States as a whole, per-pupil expenditures roughly doubled between 1969 and 1989. In the District, expenditures more than tripled, rising from $4,000 per pupil to $13,000. By 2010, D.C. was spending $16,800 per pupil, which is more than all but two states. Yet the District’s students were consistently among the worst performers on standardized tests, ranking 45th, for example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1998. That year, 61 percent of the District’s fourth-graders scored “below basic” in reading — meaning they could barely read. Only 8 percent of students in the eighth grade were proficient in math. On the SAT exam — only taken by those hoping to attend college — African-American students in the District scored an average 773 on the 1600-point combined reading and math test. The national average is 1021, and the African-American national average is 863.
Year after sorry year, politicians would call for more money, more teachers, and better facilities. They got it all, and they created a system that, as June Kronholz reported in Education Next magazine, “hasn’t kept records, patched windows, met budgets, delivered books, returned phone calls, followed court orders, checked teachers’ credentials, or, for years on end, opened school on schedule in the fall. . . . Marc Borbely, a former teacher, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2004 to find out how many work orders were outstanding at the central maintenance office. The answer: 25,000.”
Rhee got and used the authority to fire incompetent teachers and principals. She brought in young, idealistic teachers from the Teach for America program, and closed 23 failing schools altogether. Convinced that good teachers and principals were the key to improving performance, she instituted a teacher-evaluation program that required five observations per year of each teacher combined with a record of his or her pupils’ test scores. The union hollered about all of this, but in what other line of work do employees have the luxury of being unobserved and unrated as they perform their jobs?
Since 2007, with the unflinching support of Fenty, Rhee has repaired crumbling buildings, quadrupled spending on professional development, and secured art and music programs in every school. In 2009, the NAEP reported that while most states had shown no improvement in student performance, the District had demonstrated a five-point gain in fourth-grade reading. The number of fourth-grade students at or above basic proficiency in math increased from 49 percent in 2007 to 56 percent in 2009. Additionally, the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed significantly between 2007 and 2010, declining from 70 to 51.4 points in high-school math achievement. The gap in high-school reading achievement closed by 15 points.
Fenty, the pundits tell us, was imperious, cold, and unresponsive to criticism. Michelle Rhee erred by politicizing her office and openly campaigning for her boss. She courted too much publicity — some of which, like the Time magazine cover picturing her in an empty classroom holding a broom — may have backfired.
So what? Those are trivialities. In a city where only one in four jobs is held by a District resident and 44 percent of the population lacks a high school diploma, education should have been the highest priority. Sure, there are many reasons beyond the schools themselves for the pupils’ sad performance in D.C. But the reforms were working!
President Obama, whose two girls attend a private school, has delivered some soaring speeches about “excellence” and “accountability” in education. Yet he has declined every opportunity to actually improve the lives of the less fortunate kids who live only blocks away from his family. He declined to intervene when Congress killed the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program last year, and he kept mum while the most successful public-school reformer in America was defeated.
For most District children, who were just placing a foot on the proverbial ladder of opportunity, the election was a buzz saw — unresisted by the first black president.