Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty published an outstanding "Education Manifesto" in the WSJ last weekend:
For years, elected officials had promised parents and students that they would "fix the schools." But they failed to deliver, and the families of D.C. were left with finger-pointing and unkept promises. It wasn't that our predecessors were incompetent, or that we were the smart ones who had all the answers. Far from it.
But the political structure wasn't set up for a mayor and a schools chancellor even to make the kinds of decisions that were necessary. Once that new structure of governance was in place (D.C. instituted mayoral control of the public schools in 2007), we were able to chart a new course: to make all of the politically unpopular choices that had been put off for decades. With student achievement almost as low as it could go and enrollment dropping every year, our students had no time for us to tread softly. So we moved ahead with all the urgency that the problem deserved.
The great tragedy of the education debate in America is that most people know at least the basics of how to turn around our urban school systems. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that underperforming teachers will not produce a new generation of rocket scientists. Or that you're not setting up hard-working teachers for success when you don't pay them on time or give the kids a functioning air conditioner when it's 100 degrees inside and they are expected to focus on physics. It's also no secret that some principals perform brilliantly while others lack the skills to make a school succeed.
Nonetheless, year after year, our schools have been run for the benefit of the adults in the system, not for the benefit of the kids.
…We are very proud of this progress. But it's clear now that a failure of politics—if not of policy—has cut short what otherwise could have been an even more sustained campaign for reform in the District. We pushed for and achieved significant change, but we understand why many in the community felt that we did not communicate with them effectively. We did not explain why we were doing what we were doing well enough. We did not do enough to engage the local leaders and neighborhood activists who needed to be at the forefront of the fight.
We believe that the people in D.C. who want change were, and still are, the majority. But they face special interests—unions, administrators and opportunistic politicians—who are vocal and committed. These organized interests have a significant advantage over the public officials who are willing to do what is unpopular but right for the students. We see this not only in the District, of course, but nationwide. We need reform groups of our own, as powerful as these others but representing only the interests of schoolchildren and ready to take political action.
If we are to serve our most disadvantaged students well, politicians need to stand up. On the campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama was booed by teachers unions for supporting merit pay. In office, he has largely stood his ground, offering financial incentives for states to expand charter schools and tie pay to performance. But too often the president has been a lone voice on education issues. Too many politicians remain tied to the past—and to the money and political muscle of the teachers unions.
Not everything we did in D.C. can be replicated nationally, but much of it can be. We closed dozens of low-performing schools, streamlined the bloated central office bureaucracy, and replaced two-thirds of our principals. None of this will be easy to do politically. But we see little choice. Our failing schools are not just an injustice; they threaten the nation's competitiveness, its future and its very integrity.
Four years ago, we both found a cause that inspired us to work hard every day. Reformers nationwide need to take up that mantle. Now is not the time to go soft on tough decisions. Fixing our schools will require courage and persistence, but young lives are at stake. What could be more worth the risks?
The Education Manifesto
Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty on what they learned while pushing to reform D.C.'s failing public schools.