MELADY: Candidates face critical education test

Fixing schools is key to kids’ future success

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Sept. 14 will be an important day in the life of the District of Columbia. The Democratic Party will hold its primary election. Given the electoral demographics, this Democratic nomination for mayor is a de facto election. I am a lifelong Republican and will not participate, but I am very much interested as I want the genuine progress made in the past several years in reforming D.C. schools to continue.

The reputation of our D.C. public schools has been poor. Eighth-grade students would usually test out with either fourth- or fifth-grade math. And, this is the capital of the United States, leader of the Free World.

It is commonly known that the District has excellent private schools. The charter school movement and opportunity vouchers improve the situation.

But the majority of the District’s young people attend public schools. Consequently, we have a special obligation to assure that every child in the D.C. Public Schools system has effective teachers in every classroom. This has not been the case. As a retired diplomat, I hear from friends in other countries who are being assigned to their respective embassies in Washington. Most of the calls have the same theme: The reputation of our public schools. Some have governments that underwrite the cost of private education; others do not have that arrangement and, being concerned about the quality of education for their children, they decide to live in nearby communities in Virginia and Maryland. It is a national shame.

At last we have the beginnings of real reform. In many instances in a pluralistic democracy, change is conducted in a smooth, orderly fashion. But, sometimes, change requires dramatic action. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has been giving the strong, aggressive leadership needed to assure we achieve our public goal that every child has an effective teacher. And, the fact is that major improvements initiated by Ms. Rhee have been fully supported by the mayor. Sometimes this requires taking risks. In the past, there has been great emphasis on the rights of the teacher. Students’ needs came in second. The result? In 2007, fewer than 10 percent of eighth-graders were performing at that grade level in math.

That record is changing. Recently, the chancellor dismissed more than 200 teachers. The overwhelming majority had received very poor ratings under an objective evaluation procedure. Another group of teachers was classified as “minimally effective” and given one year to improve performance.

There has been some criticism of the chancellor. Some have commented that the action of the chancellor was “too drastic.” Others have expressed sympathy for those dismissed. Not surprisingly, the Washington Teachers’ Union has refrained from endorsing the reform of the past few years.

What about the young people? There is a clear and moral responsibility to offer our young people an effective, early education. The important key to success in this regard is the teacher. There is no point in avoiding the recognition that better teachers are central to reform.

School reform is an issue in the forthcoming democratic primary. Certainly, there are other issues to be considered, but, for me, the decisive question would be, “Which candidate will continue this aggressive and fast-moving reform of the district schools?” One choice has more teachers union support. The other is better for the young people who attend D.C. public schools.

Reform has finally been started in the nation’s capital. We can be proud of the recent improvements. My vote would be for the candidate who will give us the best assurance that this reform will continue. It is not difficult to identify that candidate. Let’s let him continue to expand it.

Thomas Patrick Melady has held four diplomatic positions, most recently as ambassador to the Vatican. He was also assistant secretary of postsecondary education in Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term and president of Sacred Heart University.

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