- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The D.C. Council is poised to adopt an historic education measure that will catapult this city onto the national education scene. But this time, it will not be about social promotion, crime in schools, failing to fix roofs or other bureaucratic blunders. This time, the national recognition will be about fundamental changes in law that will empower school leaders with the tools they need to forever alter the tide of failure that this city has known for too long.

Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, have had the tenacity to ask for what we can only believe others before them knew was necessary but didn’t have the courage to demand — freedom to manage. Selecting people is policy and putting effective people in organizations yields effective policies. This age-old maxim applies to schools as much as it applies to industry.

One need not be a behavioral psychologist to understand that people are driven by rewards — and sanctions — which, when combined with skills and commitment — can unleash change and innovation that otherwise are squashed when there are no incentives.While these facts are hard to deny, school leaders like Mrs. Rhee have been handed an impossible job from year to year in D.C. as well as cities all over the country: Fix these schools but, oh, by the way, you have no control over personnel or their positions.

Not any more. This week, the D.C. Council will vote on the legislative proposal to give Mrs. Rhee power over personnel. If lawmakers pass it, they will be doing more than just choosing a path of innovation; they will be sending a clarion call that the success of children in the District matters more than adult jobs. When Mrs. Rhee and her top leadership are able to empower effective employees, remove the ineffective and change positions, the words “public school system” will become more about schools and less about systems.

Yet improved learning outcomes will require more than just moving people between positions. Just ask the district’s highest-achieving charter schools. They already know that being responsive to the differing needs of children is paramount to achievement. They also know that great schools require not only great people, but full budgetary control, flexibility in administrative rules and, of course, the buy-in that comes when parents choose those schools. Just ask Donald Hense, whose Friendship Public Charter Schools continue to exceed performance measures, are financially solvent and are over-subscribed.

The chancellor has also proposed turning around 30 of the District’s worst schools by reaching out and getting help from education providers that have succeeded with the largest of education challenges.

Where can such expertise be found? D.C. leaders need to look no further than Philadelphia to see the fruits of such reforms. The City of Brotherly Love had faced nearly all of the problems that we do now. When they realized that a change in results required a change in methods, the state and city agreed to the nation’s first “multiple provider” approach. A variety of education providers were then given performance contracts and control over much of school operations. That one high tide unmistakably raised all boats.All Philadelphia schools marked gains in the three years from 2003-06 — the first notable improvements made in that city since such data has been collected. An April 2007, Harvard University looked at Philadelphia’s progress. Researchers found that the city’s schools that were managed by private companies gained 25 proficiency points in reading, while district schools gained 17 percentage points. In math, privately managed schools gained 23 percentage points, while district schools gained 15 percentage points.

A handful of dissenters — the critics of education reform — try to quarrel with the cause of these stunning improvements. Yet the trend of the data is clear: Adding a new paradigm and challenging systems to improve on numerous levels yields success for students, many of whom had never seen that kind of learning before. Such innovations, coupled with powerful and proven management freedom are the right thing to do right now. Waiting for change without advocating change is unacceptable. Doing so while the schoolchildren of Washington continue to be underserved is unthinkable.

Yet this week brings an aura of hope. With these positive changes that Council Chairman Vincent Gray and his colleagues will bring to the District’s school policies, not only will Mrs. Rhee be able to improve how her district office functions, but schools across the city will begin to once again enjoy success with their students and with accountable, well-rewarded educators at the helm.

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform.

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