D.C. public school experiment is a test for all of us

November 17, 2008|By LEONARD PITTS

So it seems there's this new couple coming to town (the husband just got a job with the government). Now they are scouting schools for their children, and people are wondering whether they're going to go public or private.

Can we be honest here? D.C. public schools are not good enough for the Obama kids.

I'm not doubting the dedication of public school teachers. And yes, there are exceptional public schools - but the exceptions prove the rule. Public schools, particularly in urban areas, are largely failing our children.

Which brings me to Michelle Rhee, the Washington schools chief who has drawn national attention for an audacious attempt to remake some of the nation's worst schools. Among the changes she has instituted, or is attempting to institute, is a cash reward for students who meet certain benchmarks of performance and attendance. She also wants to make it easier to fire teachers who do not perform; under her plan, educators would give up tenure protections for a merit plan that would allow the best of them to earn upward of $100,000 a year. Ms. Rhee's proposals track closely with some of what I found last year when I wrote a series of columns on "What Works" to improve education for at-risk young people.

You'd think it would be a no-brainer that people who don't perform get the ax and those who do get raises. But the teachers union has fought Ms. Rhee with bitter tenacity, seeking to block her at every step.

Meanwhile, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 48 percent of D.C. eighth-graders had attained basic reading skills in 2007. Only 12 percent were rated proficient readers. The corresponding numbers in math: 34 and 8. And D.C. is hardly unique.

All of us, then, have a stake in the success of Michelle Rhee's experiment. We need to know if what she proposes will work. We need, in other words, an urgency we seem to lack.

Too many of us, I think, have made peace with the idea that public schools don't work. But I saw the falsity of that while traveling the country for "What Works" - saw some of the nation's best students in some of its most dire places.

The failure here, then, is not the students' but ours, a failure of will and imagination. We need to ask a simple question: If public schools are not good enough for the president's kids, what makes us think they are good enough for ours?

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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