Some School Reform Tips for Vincent Gray

During his successful campaign to unseat Mayor Adrian Fenty, Mayor-in-waiting Vincent Gray promised he would not turn back the clock on school reform.

On election day, he told CNN, "I am going to continue with education reform. I helped to shepherd the legislation through the council in the first place. I'm going to continue with a very strong chancellor."

He said that reform wouldn't falter if Chancellor Michelle Rhee left because, "I've said many times that education reform has to be about more than one person."

As the mayor-to-be plans to move forward on his pledge, here are a few tips from someone who has watched urban school systems reform, de-reform, and re-reform for the better part of two decades.

The first order of business is the leadership question. Close observers no longer see much likelihood that Chancellor Rhee will still be in charge come next spring. A few City Council members have floated the idea that Rhee stay on just through 2011-12. That kind of lame duck tenure is a bad idea, even if Rhee is interested.

Experience suggests that even a consensus-seeking chancellor will start getting labeled insufficiently inclusive while cutting budgets or letting teachers go.

Others have talked of an interim appointment; that too is a recipe for lost momentum and timid, wobbly leadership. What DCPS needs is another strong, decisive chancellor. Gray needs a strong leader, publicly committed to DCPS's reform efforts, in place sooner rather than later.

That brings up the critical question of personnel. Last Friday, D.C.'s state superintendent Kerri Briggs stepped down. Meanwhile, districts, states, and organizations across the land are already gearing up to poach the remarkable central staff, school leaders, and energetic teachers that Rhee recruited to D.C.

By moving quickly on the leadership question and powerfully reaffirming that he is committed to continuing the DCPS reform agenda, Gray can help ensure that a new leader doesn't find a system with a picked-bare cupboard.

Third, in reassuring sought-after staff that they are valued, Gray needs to signal that his sensitivity to questions of politics and race doesn't mean DCPS is returning to the old ways of doing business.

Given bruised sensibilities in the African-American community, the betting is that Gray's new Chancellor will be African-American. If that's the case, Gray can seize an easy chance to shout from the rooftops that reform will continue to be about results rather than race, and performance rather than politics.

Fourth, the really tough work has been done. Besides the groundbreaking contract negotiated with the Washington Teachers Union earlier this year, DCPS has pioneered the cutting-edge IMPACT teacher evaluation system, fixed a once broken personnel system, shuttered a raft of dilapidated and half-empty schools, addressed a massive backlog in its special needs caseload, slimmed a bloated central administration, and built a respected data and research operation.

This is a welcome state of affairs, but it calls for leadership committed to preserving and extending these gains. That requires any new chancellor committing to publicly measuring and tracking operational performance.

Finally, Gray should recognize that he is going to be the beneficiary from a remarkable confluence of political cover. The $75 million D.C. won through the federal Race to the Top program and the $60 million in philanthropic funding linked to the new teacher contract mean that the next mayor will have an easy justification for holding the line on some of the toughest calls.

A word of advice, Mr. Gray: This is an unusual opportunity; don't be shy about deflecting heat with the "we can't afford to walk away from these dollars" defense.

Experience suggests that even a consensus-seeking chancellor will start getting labeled insufficiently inclusive while cutting budgets or letting teachers go. Holding firm will require Gray to forge his neighborhood ties into a steel-ribbed scaffolding that can support reform.

Gray argued during the campaign that he could be a powerful agent of reform, due to his deep neighborhood ties and ability to more effectively bring the community along. If Gray is right and plays his cards smart, he could indeed be just the man to see through to fruition the remarkable work that Fenty began.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user adecker31/Creative Commons

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