- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

Clifford Janey yesterday began his first full week as superintendent of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). His salary of $250,000 barely met the one-third mark that stakeholders had tossed around earlier this year in hopes of luring a top-drawer candidate. Then again, Mr. Janey did not make the initial short list of candidates — all of whom eventually turned down the overtures made by city officials. While those declinations spoke more to how the city handled its business than to the qualifications of the individual candidates, the Janey administration will nonetheless be tested on the strength of the new superintendent’s efforts to reform a troubled school system.

Mr. Janey, whose most recent post was vice president with the publishing firm Scholastic Inc., proved his turnaround acumen as superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., where he not only raised standardized scores across the board but also narrowed racial achievement gaps. By way of contrast, 69 percent of D.C. fourth-graders scored below basic on standardized tests compared to the national rate, which is only 39 percent.

One of Mr. Janey’s top objectives is to reform high schools, and his christening, so to speak, came by chance on the first day of the 2004-05 school year. That is when school authorities learned that Eastern High officials had failed to have student class schedules ready, and that, more importantly, neither DCPS authorities nor Eastern’s principal leadership had a backup plan. That boondoggle underscored one of the longest-standing problems in this city: mistaking comments from school officials and advocates for reform proposals instead of what they actually are — bald criticism. We hope Mr. Janey knows the difference, since he will face great resistance from those who seemingly are on his side. If, for instance, he were to look at the speakers lists and in the audience, he would quickly learn that the voices professing to speak on behalf of parents and school funding are always the same, whether the hearing is held at DCPS headquarters or at City Hall. This setup has stymied meaningful reform for two decades and will be used to try to thwart Mr. Janey’s own brand of reform, which reportedly could include private management of low-performing schools.

The appointment of Mr. Janey appears promising, mostly because of his strong background in curricula and what he achieved in Rochester. To better acquaint himself with DCPS, Mr. Janey promised to visit each of the city’s traditional schools. In fact, he already has begun what surely will be a taxing discourse. But we certainly do not want to appear to discourage Mr. Janey; we do want to encourage him on his path of reform. It is in that vein that we urge him to make two additional visits: One is out of town. Philadelphia is one of several cities that succeeded in moving its students up the academic ladder by privatizing some schools.

The other is to a local charter school: the Friendship Edison Collegiate Academy in Northeast D.C. It is a public school named for Carter G. Woodson, and it is only four years old. While City Hall and D.C. officials spun the wheels of chance on reform for better than a decade, parents and the business community acquired the rundown Woodson building, secured funding and renovated the schoolhouse inside and out. In four short years, high-school students have risen to academic challenges, with better than 90 percent of its graduates moving on to postsecondary education. Most recently, while DCPS scrambled to provide schedules to students at Eastern, stakeholders announced at Woodson that an unprecedented partnership would allow students to earn college credits.

It’s worth noting that the stakeholders did not hold lengthy public hearings with so-called advocacy groups or wait for unions to sign off on their initiative. Nor did they seek buy-ins from the politicians and fumbling bureaucrats at DCPS headquarters.

Talking about his brand of reform will be the easiest objective on Mr. Janey’s to-do list. Implementing it will be an entirely different matter. Truly successful guidelines can be found in Washington and elsewhere, and we urge Mr. Janey to take more than a look-see. We also welcome him to Washington and look forward to his challenging mission.

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