Why are DC Schools So Bad? It Must be the Bureaucracy

June 11, 2007

Yesterday I asked whether the Washington Post series was going to offer an answer as to why the D.C. schools do worse than districts serving students with similar race and class backgrounds. Today’s story provides a response. The WPost’s latest on the D.C. schools suggests that the culprit is a broken central office, which is portrayed as having a dysfunctional culture that protects jobs over preparing students.

Consider the following testimonials from former system insiders.

Kevin Chavous, the former city council member with oversight over education:

“Friends of friends were getting contracts and jobs,” he said. “They weren’t doing the job. We paid more for services than we should have. There was less and less focus on individual academic enrichment of children.”

School system employees determined to keep their jobs worked the system to become “almost bulletproof,” Chavous said. “They were so self-protecting and had built up such an arsenal of support for their existence that they knew what buttons to push with the threats of layoffs and reforms.”

Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund:

“When I started working on school facilities, I thought, ‘Of course people want to have all this data and information so they can understand what’s really going on,’ ” Filardo said. “I have concluded that they do not want good information and data. I think there is an anxiety or fear that you will be held accountable for things you can count and measure.”

Admiral Becton, installed to run the schools by the control board:

Becton succeeded Smith at the helm of a broken and intransigent bureaucracy. Smith said he warned him that it can be nearly impossible to dislodge weak longtime employees who have seniority — and often unseen ties to District politicians. “There are people still there who will gladly tell you, ‘I was here when the new superintendent arrived, and I’ll be here for the next one,’ ” Smith said.

Still, “nothing prepared me for the chaos that existed,” Becton recalled in an autobiography he is writing, a draft of which he provided to The Post. Payroll records were “a shambles,” textbook publishers went unpaid and no one knew how many students were enrolled or where federal grant money was going.

Arlene Ackerman, who succeeded Becton:

Shortly after Arlene Ackerman arrived in the District as Becton’s chief academic officer, a stranger — a man standing in the receiving line at a reception in her honor — squeezed her hand so hard she thought he would break her fingers.

“They say they want you to fix it, but they really don’t,” she recalled the man telling her. “When you get to the point where you are really fixing things, you will know. You will know because you will get all kinds of unbelievable push back.”

If this perspective is correct, it suggest that Mayor Fenty’s job will be even harder than had been predicted. How will a new leader change the culture of an agency that has resisted change for so long? That is the multi-million dollar question that has not been answered.


One Response to “Why are DC Schools So Bad? It Must be the Bureaucracy”

  1. Bridget Newman Says:

    This sounds really similar to what is going on in Camden — we actually won equal funding with suburban districts but now we are short $20 million for next year. As a result, almost 300 teachers (including TFA and everyone else with 2 years or less) received letters warning us that we might not have a job next year. Meanwhile, audits of the district have shown that Camden’s financial books were in shambles. People who were deceased were still receiving paychecks, as were retirees. We forgot to pay the IRS. etc etc etc
    Today our electricity went out and one of my students turned to me laughing and asked, “Ms. Newman, did someone forget to pay the electricity bill?” and all I could do was laugh with him. I have no idea how any of this will ever be made right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: