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Come on up for the Rising

How Barack Obama can help to improve Washington D.C.'s failing schools.

Martin Luther King would have been overjoyed to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration, and yet he still wouldn’t have proclaimed our arrival in the Promised Land. King knew, as W.E.B. DuBois observed 60 years ago, that “of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental. … We should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn.” Today this most fundamental civil right, the opportunity for an equal education, remains a distant mirage--and nowhere more so than in the nation’s capital.

Today, Martin Luther King Day, we will be doing our part to fight for the creation of equal educational opportunities for the poor. The Education Equality Project, a nonpartisan coalition that includes D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, is holding a rally at Cardozo High School to shine a spotlight on the nation’s--and the city’s--shameful achievement gap. Since the election, both Barack and Michelle Obama have said they want to aid D.C. school reform efforts, and the president-elect has said that he plans to make “regular visits to local schools to meet with kids and meet with teachers and principals.” We second those intentions--and believe the president-elect has a special opportunity to refashion the federal government’s unique role in D.C school reform.

All throughout the country, the academic achievement of black and Hispanic 12th graders in the United States is far below that of their white peers; in big cities about half of minority students in ninth grade drop out of high school. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s “report card,” shows that this staggering achievement gap is even wider in Washington, which is now vying for the dubious distinction of having the worst big-city school system in America. The district has the widest performance gap between white and minority students of eleven cities tested in the NAEP; even low-income students in Washington did worse than their low-income peers in other urban areas. Citywide, less than ten percent of ninth graders go on to graduate and then finish college within five years. And, as is usually the case, the numbers are far worse in the more economically depressed parts of town. “If you live in Georgetown [as opposed to] living in Anacostia, you get two wildly different educational experiences,” says D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee. “That is the biggest social injustice imaginable.”


The District and its public schools have had a long and often contentious relationship with the federal government. Until the establishment of home rule in 1974, the D.C. school district was the only major school system directly controlled by the federal government and funded by Congress. As such, federal officials initially were optimistic that the district’s schools, as President Dwight Eisenhower put it in 1954, would be a “model” for school integration. In 1956, assistant superintendent Carl F. Hansen went so far as to report to Congress that D.C.’s schools were a “miracle of social adjustment.” Even after the establishment of home rule, Congress continued to retain oversight of D.C.’s schools--and meddled in the school district to mixed effect.

What can the federal government do now to alter its historic role and help boost student achievement in the District’s schools? Two pieces of news make us optimistic that the Obama administration can play a more productive part. First, at a time when many school districts are strapped for cash, the poor performance of minority students in the District is not primarily due to a lack of resources; D.C. spends more per pupil than all but two of the largest 100 school districts in the nation. For decades, the District has spent far too much on administration and far too little on teaching and instruction, but school chancellor Rhee has started to correct these skewed priorities. She has let go more than 100 workers in the district's bloated 900-person headquarters and dismissed more than 30 principals. President-elect Obama has little direct control of hiring and firing decisions in the District, but he does have the power of the bully pulpit--which he can use to reinforce the principle that school reform should be about helping kids, not administrators.

Second, president-elect Obama has already embraced two reforms that could substantially improve student performance in the District. He has proposed to double funding for the Federal Charter School Program to support the startup of more successful charter schools. The District is already a charter school mecca--nearly a third of all public school students now attend charters--and the provision of choice and competition has helped parents and students alike. Many of the city’s top gap-closing schools for minority students, like KIPP D.C. Key Academy, are charters.

The president-elect has also shown a keen awareness of the need to train, recruit, and reward highly effective teachers in undeserved urban schools. Studies have repeatedly shown that good teachers have the greatest impact on student learning--and urban school reform cannot ultimately succeed without reforming the teaching profession. As president-elect Obama pointed out during the campaign, “the single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from. It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have--it’s who their teacher is.”

The president-elect has proposed a new Service Scholarship program to recruit instructors and place new teachers in overcrowded districts and hard-to-staff subjects like math and science. He also has announced plans to train 30,000 high-quality teachers by expanding Teacher Residency Programs. Those are excellent first steps. But we believe that the federal effort to improve teaching should be more ambitious yet. We recommend that the incoming administration take most of the $30+ billion it now spends on K-12 education--including all of the funding it now spends on low-income students through Title I--and redirect the funding to support the recruitment and retention of top-flight teachers in underserved urban schools.

It’s no secret that good teachers are the unsung heroes of high-poverty schools. Yet there is also no escaping the fact that union practices which impede student learning must be changed if good teachers are to be justly rewarded. The best math teacher at a school cannot be paid the same salary as the incompetent instructor down the hall.

Here again, the District is fortunate that the president-elect is a Democratic lawmaker who has supported merit pay for teachers. And Chancellor Rhee, who Obama hailed as Washington’s “wonderful new superintendent” in the final campaign debate, is firmly committed to fighting the inflexible union tenure protections, single-salary pay structures, and burdensome work rules that protect weak teachers but hurt students.

Michelle Rhee’s own career provides testimony that there is a better way to develop and train teachers. From her earliest years as a Teach for America recruit at Harlem Park Elementary in Baltimore to her founding of The New Teacher Project, Rhee has promoted highly effective teachers as the antidote to the achievement gap. The New Teacher Project alone has trained or hired more than 30,000 high-quality teachers for high-need schools, most of whom fill critical shortages in math, science, and special education. Already, Rhee has offered to effectively double the salary of teachers in D.C. who do the most to raise student performance (to as much as $130,000 a year) in exchange for their giving up tenure for one year. (Alternatively, teachers could retain tenure and accept a smaller raise, not based on merit pay).

To date, the Washington Teachers’ Union has refused to put Rhee’s proposal to a vote. But there is reason to think that the WTU’s intransigence may not last forever--and that Rhee’s innovative plan to bolster teacher quality could eventually become a blueprint for other cities. In mid-November, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU’s parent union, pledged that “no issue [with the exception of vouchers] should be off the table” anymore in urban school reform. “I will start,” Weingarten announced, “by tackling the tough issues like teacher assignments, tenure, and differentiated pay.”

As the more parochial response of the WTU shows, and as the president-elect has pointed out on numerous occasions, true education reform can only be brought about by a nonpartisan coalition willing to challenge the education establishment. Many members of the Education Equality Project are longtime Democrats, civil rights leaders, and big-city superintendents. But our ranks also include Republican leaders like John McCain and Newt Gingrich. Today--perhaps for the first time--the sentiment to fix the District’s public schools prevails across party lines.

Some of our erstwhile allies on the left oppose radical school reform in the District and elsewhere. Schools, they argue, cannot overcome the burdens of poverty for students. Does it matter if a student is so poor that he receives food stamps, or if he is reared by a single mother or grandmother rather than two parents? Of course. But poverty cannot become an excuse for giving up on schools and students--and all the more so now that we will have a president who was raised by his single mother and his grandparents, and whose family was forced to go on food stamps on several occasions. Across the country, high-poverty schools are showing that disadvantaged students can achieve at high levels. In the District’s classrooms, the answer to the achievement gap simply cannot be “No, we can’t.”

Other skeptics of far-reaching reforms counsel president-elect Obama to move slowly. The hidebound D.C.-school system is incapable of absorbing rapid change--or so the argument goes. But in 2009, we do not believe that Martin Luther King would have signed on to the ranks of the inch-worm incrementalists. Closing the achievement gap in the District should be about helping disadvantaged students, not about protecting the prerogatives of school administrators, teacher unions, and education schools. As King wrote shortly before he was killed, “The luxury of a leisurely approach to urgent solutions--the ease of gradualism--[has been] forfeited by ignoring the issues for too long.” Amen.

Joel I. Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and Reverend Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, are co-chairs of the Education Equality Project.

By Joel I. Klein and Reverend Al Sharpton