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May 18, 2008


Dear Great Correspondents:

On Thursday, Dorothy and I attended the annual banquet of the DC Appleseed Foundation. The keynote speaker was Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who gave a rousing, enthusiastic speech about her plan to improve the schools that brought a room full of cynical lawyers to their feet to give her a standing ovation. (I apologize for the “cynical” adjective in the preceding sentence; I realize it’s an unnecessary and redundant qualifier.) Rhee led up to her plan with two anecdotes. The first was about her visiting a classroom taught by a great teacher, in which the students were involved and interested, and then a classroom across the hall taught by a poor teacher, in which the students were rowdy and acting out. The second anecdote was about her visiting a school where all the students praised one particular teacher, who spent all his spare time and money on helping his students. So here’s Michelle Rhee’s plan, from her own speech: hire only great teachers, and have all the teachers in DC schools be great.

Wow! Why didn’t anyone ever think of that before? It’s elegantly simple and, not only that, it’s easy to carry out. In addition, it would work not only in the schools, but in all companies and businesses. Hire only great employees, and have only great employees. Why doesn’t everybody do that, starting tomorrow? In case it isn’t sufficiently clear, this paragraph is meant to be read in a voice dripping, absolutely dripping, with sarcasm.

Perhaps I should have written “insufficiently cynical lawyers,” if they were conned by this. It’s not only not a good plan, it’s not a plan at all. Since thousands of years before Socrates corrupted his students, everyone has known that the best education is given by the best teachers. President James Garfield said, over a hundred years ago, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” (The quotation is also variously reported as, “Take a log cabin in the West, put a wooden bench in it, with Mark Hopkins on one end and a student on the other, and you have a college,” and as, “I am not willing that this discussion should close without mention of the value of a true teacher. Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.” The long-winded version is probably the most accurate, whittled down by public repetition to the shortest and most memorable version.) But no one has ever figured out how to ensure that all teachers are even average, much less good and much, much less great. Only in the fictitious town of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota, are all children above average, and even there it’s doubtful that all the teachers are, too. After all, by definition most of everything is average or, to put it less kindly, mediocre. Only a small percentage at either end is really bad or really great. Teaching is a harder job than most, so even fewer will be great at it.

Rhee’s implicit assumption that none of the superintendents before her tried to hire the best teachers they could get is arrogant, and her belief that she will do that much better than they in identifying and hiring great teachers displays the pride that goes before the fall. Months ago, the Government Accountability Office reported that the DC government had no real plan to improve our schools. If “hiring great teachers” is the chancellor’s Plan A, then we still don’t have a plan, unless Rhee has a Plan B she’s not telling us about.

Changing the subject, be sure to read Nikita Stewart’s revealing article on the competition for the DC lottery contract, The competition is really between two large national corporations, but the decision isn’t being made on the basis of the competence or capabilities of those corporations, but on which of the companies’ local minority business partners has cultivated better political contacts. The contest is between Fenty’s fraternity brothers and the old-timers with decades of local sweetheart deals behind them. It’s a shame one of these groups has to win.

Gary Imhoff 


Give DCPS Students with Disabilities a Chance
Candi Peterson, 

Dr. Phyllis Harris, DC Public Schools Deputy Chancellor of Special Education, is wrong to transfer many special education school social workers from their primary school assignments prior to the end of school year 2008. School social workers in special education play an important role in helping students as they provide counseling services to disabled students to enhance interpersonal and social growth, help students deal with distractions to learning, support the intent of student’s IEP’s, work as a member of a school team and provide assistance to parents, teachers, and administrators.

On Friday, May 16, up to thirty school social workers were given three days’ notice that they will be involuntarily transferred from their DCPS school assignments to alternate assignments to function as “educational aides” alongside certified special education teachers in many self-contained classrooms, where the necessary program resources and adequate personnel are lacking. These abrupt changes could impact as many as eighty to ninety DCPS student caseloads, as school social workers on the average provide services to as many as three schools. DCPS students with disabilities in these schools will now have to adjust to changes in their schedules at years end, while having their counseling services terminated by their primary provider due to no fault of their own. Certainly these practices do not support student achievement and are not in keeping with best practices or the national counseling standards that are set forth by the national associations of social workers, school psychologists, and school counselors.

Many times school social workers have been transferred without regard to the educational best interests of DCPS students. Last year this time, special education social workers were directed to review the educational records of non-DCPS students in charter schools. In a meeting last May, DCPS administrators advised twenty-eight school social workers to stop providing therapeutic services to students with disabilities in exchange for performing clerical functions typically completed by central office staff. Only due to provisions in the Washington Teachers’ Union contract were school social workers allowed to continue providing services to their existing caseload of students.

Our students have enough to be fearful of in their lives. Having stability and consistency is crucial to students’ emotional and mental well-being. Unfortunately DCPS students with disabilities bear the brunt of many poorly planned knee-jerk decisions of this type by administrators. These staff changes disrupt the learning process for students and adversely impact students’ ability to trust in others, mainly the adults in their lives. One might ask how our students can meet their stated goals and objectives under these circumstances. The answer is simple: we cannot meet the needs of our students without the necessary resources and appropriate long-term planning by our administrators, and collective input from parents, teachers, related school personnel, and our teachers union while adhering to best practices.


Getting Connected for Kids
Beth Jamieson, 

DC Action for Children, DC ACT, has released its latest publication: “Getting Connected for Kids: Tips on Finding Data and Research to Improve Policy and Practice.” This publication provides a many resources for data collection and research on children’s issues both nationally and locally. We hope that this information will be helpful to you. It is available on our web site at: under The Latest and Publications and Tools.


Improving Local Coverage
Andrew Lightman, 

The key [to improving local coverage, themail, May 14] is not to rely on the Post. We at Capitol Community News (The Hill Rag, DC North, East of the River) have significantly increased our local politics coverage in the last five years. This year I plan to cover all the Ward races in detail beginning in July.



Weekly Hazardous and Electronic Waste Collections to Begin, May 17
Nancee Lorn, 

The District will open its first permanent free, weekly Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) and electronic recycling (e-cycling) drop-off site at the Benning Road Trash Transfer Station, 3200 Benning Road, NE, on Saturday, May 17. In addition to the HHW and e-cycling collections, the District will also offer the metropolitan area’s first permanent weekly document shredding service for residents at the Benning Road Trash Transfer Station beginning Saturday, May 24.

All electronics will be broken down into parts and recycled or disposed of safely. Computers and hard drives will be wiped clean three times using US Department of Defense high-level security wiping procedures. Acceptable household waste items include leftover cleaning and gardening chemicals; small quantities of gasoline, pesticides, and poisons; mercury thermometers; paint; solvents; spent batteries of all kinds; antifreeze; chemistry sets; automotive fluids; and asbestos tiles. Unacceptable items include ammunition, bulk trash, wooden TV consoles, propane tanks, microwave ovens, air conditioners, and other appliances, as well as radioactive or medical wastes.

The Benning Road Trash Transfer Station will be open every Saturday, excluding holidays, from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Weekly household waste and e-cycling collections will begin this summer at the Ft. Totten Trash Transfer Station, 4900 Bates Road, NE. For information about household hazardous waste and e-cycling, visit DPW’s web site at, or call 311.


Adopting Older Children, May 21
Susan Punnett, 

Please Join Kidsave for an intimate discussion of older child adoption. Adopting Older Children: Dispelling the Myths, Wednesday, May 21, 6:30 p.m., refreshments; 7:00 p.m., panel discussion. At the Sumner School Museum, 1201 17th Street, NW.

In Washington, DC, there are two hundred older children in foster care who want to find permanent loving families. For many, being older is the main reason they are never adopted. It’s not okay for kids to grow up without parents. RSVP to or 280-6332



Landscapers and Masons
Harold Foster, 

We’re looking for masons who can do cost-effective, creditable front and rear walkway work on a row house here in town with bricks, concrete, or flagstone. After that, we’re looking for a good affordable landscaper who can plant a couple of trees and re-sod a row house front and backyard (a total of about .3 to .4 acres. E-mail or


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