- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

Not long after Paul Vance took over as superintendent of D.C. Public Schools in the summer of 2000, he promised a dozen or so parents over a plate of fried fish that he would improve the quality of teaching and learning in high schools. Many in the room were skeptical, and my husband and I still are. But, at least, he's finally got a blueprint in hand. Last week, his blue ribbon-panel submitted its comprehensive plan for transforming high schools. It reads like most other comprehensive school plans I've read the past 20 years which, in and of itself, speaks volumes about how long and, surely, precisely why D.C. schools are troubled.

One of the issues in the report that struck me was its discourse on one of DCPS' longstanding problems; "a chronic mismatch," the report said, "exists between what is taught and what is tested." That mismatch is called a curriculum, and parents and students have long complained that none exists. Finally, it is on record. "Of critical importance are a high-quality curriculum and learning materials, along with adequate supplies and equipment, including computers, calculators and other technology."

Couldn't have said that better myself. In fact, I have said as much over and over and over.

My daughter, for example, was not allowed to take her high school history book home. Instead, she would be given Xerox copies and worksheets. Much of the time in Andrea's history class was spent on what she called cheerleading and I called … let's see … this is a family newspaper, so I'll call it self-esteem dung. Each morning, Andrea's history teacher would prance around the class and expect teens to recite feel-good mantra. Meanwhile, my child and the other students weren't learning squat about world history. The teacher couldn't give me a curriculum or a syllabus. But she gave Andrea a deficiency notice. I hit the schoolhouse roof. How, I asked her teacher, counselor and principal, could this child be graded deficient in history when she has no textbook, and technically no history teacher?

Happens in classrooms across the city.

Anyway, this new plan addresses some of those problems. But it doesn't let Mr. Vance or other D.C. officials off the hook.

While the plan seems quite reasonable, and even has a short-term, long-term timeline, the proof, as the saying goes, will be in the pudding and that just might be the undoing of Mr. Vance. If he actually pulls this off, it'll be a miracle.

That is because the D.C. Board of Education has to have its say. See, the report has to be given a nod by the board's teaching and learning committee, and the executive committee before it can be voted on by, tada, the D.C. Board of Education. Also, this is an election year and several members of that board are aspiring to higher office, seeking re-election, or trying to get off the merry-go-round. Also, Mayor Tony Williams is up for re-election, and The Washington Post is already beating him over the head about education. Education Committee Chairman Kevin Chavous is thinking about running against him, folks like me are still rooting for former lawmaker Bill Lightfoot to get in the race and, well, you get the picture.

So did the co-chairs of the blue-ribbon panel, Stuart Butler, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for economic and domestic policy, and JoAnn Manning, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory on Student Success. In their letter to Mr. Vance, they explicitly point out that their "reason for taking part in this effort was not merely to provide you with a report and then return to our other obligations … We know that delivering this report to you is only one step. The implementation is what matters."

Indeed, many are the reports stacked on shelves at work and at home from groups studying this aspect of D.C. schools, and this organization's transforming another aspect. Lord knows I've written about reforming and transforming D.C. schools.

So this is personal. I'm in it because my school board president stood tall way back when and said we have lousy high school teachers and then she utterly caved. I'm in it because my child deserved to be taught history, and I'm in it because, as a graduate of D.C. Public Schools, and damn proud of it, I have come to believe no, make that see with my own eyes that this one-size-fits-all system of public education sets up our children for failure.

I'm in for the long haul (or at least as long as The Washington Times keeps paying me), and I certainly hope that Mr. Butler, Wilma Bonner, John Childers and all the other folks who worked on that blue-ribbon panel are as well.

Most of all, I hope that Mr. Vance follows through. Not so he can add another few lines on his vitae. And certainly not for me although I will certainly remind him when he drops the ball.

I hope he's in it because the children deserve better and are owed much more.

To be sure, if Paul Vance pulls this one off then I owe him a mess of fried croackers.


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