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August 24, 2008

Talk of Reform

Dear Reformers:

Newsweek takes an adoring, uncritical look at Chancellor Michelle Rhee is its September 1 issue (, and again it emphasizes her heroic, alone-against-the-world image of herself as the only person (aside from the mayor, of course) who really cares about education and students, fighting against teachers, parents, and the “city’s educational establishment, whose talk of reform was just that.” In recent weeks, Rhee has been emboldened to express the contempt she has for all these groups, and also for the press and the city council. This limits her allies to the mayor and the inner circle of her employees, whom she has hired.

The Newsweek article does confirm three things about Rhee that I have long suspected. First, Rhee supports and encourages the charter school movement, unlike previous DC public school superintendents, who at best tolerated it. But she doesn’t support charter schools because they provide competition for public schools and laboratories for innovation, but because their teachers aren’t unionized, so the more students they drain from the public schools the more they weaken teachers unions. Second, Rhee has a vision of the kind of teachers she wants that differs from what most of us want. She wants young, energetic, but inexperienced teachers who don’t see teaching as a career, but as a temporary job that they can do for a few years as sort of a well-paid alternative to the Peace Corps, before they move on to their real careers. This viewpoint is expressed in the article by Kati Haycock, the president of Education Trust, who says, “But what we need to do is change the idea that education is the only career that needs to be done for life. There are a lot of smart people who change careers every six or seven years, while education ends up with a bunch of people on the low end of the pile who don’t want to compete in the job market.” This expresses well the disdain that Rhee feels for veteran, career teachers, “people on the low end of the pile,” and it also explains why she feels she can run a school system in which teachers have no seniority rights and no tenure. New, young teachers who see teaching as a way station, a temp job, who are only going to stay in the profession for a few years anyway, don’t care about whether they have seniority or tenure.

Third, Rhee quotes herself as threatening Washington Teachers Union President George Parker, in the midst of contract negotiations, “Either we do this with you or we do this to you.” It’s obvious that she thinks she somehow has the power, if teachers won’t accept her terms voluntarily, to force them down their throats. Her “Plan B” on the contract negotiations, when she fails to get an affirmative vote from teachers, is to find some other way to strip teachers of their rights. But how? She can’t think that either she or Mayor Fenty can eliminate seniority and job protections for government workers by decree, can she? She can’t think that a majority of city councilmembers would sacrifice their political careers by imposing a union-busting contract that would incite all public sector and private sector unions into full-scale war, can she? She can’t think that the lame-duck Bush administration or a new Obama or McCain administration would intervene in local DC affairs for the specific purpose of making unions its enemy, can she?

Mickey Kaus ( writes that “Dems Rally Against Unions,” and David Nakamura ( also reports on Fenty’s and Rhee’s Excellent Adventure at the Democratic convention, preaching busting the teachers unions to an appreciative crowd. In the August 17 issue of themail, Candi Peterson asked that the legal opinion obtained by the American Federation of Teachers on the legality of the seniority terms in the proposed teachers contract be released so that all teachers could read it. That opinion is now posted at

Gary Imhoff


Cash for Students
Dorothy Brizill,

On Wednesday, Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced they would hold a press conference at Georgetown’s Hardy Middle School to announce a new DCPS initiative in conjunction with Harvard University entitled “School Is Money.” By the time of the Thursday press conference, the program’s name had been changed to the less offensive but less descriptive, “Capital Gains.” Under the program, selected students in fourteen District middle schools could receive up to one hundred dollars every two weeks, based “on their attendance, behavior, and other academic indicators (to be determined), such as homework completion and grades.” The program is the brainchild of Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard University.

At the press conference few, if any, details were made available about how the program would be funded and administered. Since then, I have learned that the assertion that the program would be funded by the District government and Harvard University is not accurate. The District will be paying $1.7 million of the $2.7 million first-year cost for the program, and it will be seeking that money from foundations and the business community. Fryer’s American Inequality Lab at Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute ( will provide in-kind administrative support, which it values at one million dollars, but no cash. Fryer, who at the press conference was identified only as a Harvard academician, is actually on leave from Harvard. He is now on the payroll of Rhee’s mentor, New York City’s School Chancellor Joel Klein, where his title is Chief Equality Officer for the New York City Department of Education.

Under the plan, students in grades 6, 7, and 8 will be paid by having funds deposited in bank accounts opened in their names. Some time after the program begins in October, students will be issued debit cards. Given the Fenty administration’s recent problems with debit cards issued to participants in the summer youth employment program, many are raising questions about the administration’s ability to administer three thousand new debit cards properly, as well as the wisdom of giving debit cards to such a young population.

At the press conference, I pressed Fenty, Rhee, and Fryer to comment on what life lesson the “pay for performance” program would have on students. Rhee was dismissive of the question, and said that adults are paid for going to work. Fryer was also dismissive, and commented that kids in the suburbs are rewarded by their parents on a daily basis with cars, dinners out, and so on; he said this was just “leveling the playing field” by rewarding inner-city kids. By and large, however, the reaction of DC residents has been negative. In an online Washington Post poll, 70 percent of all respondents said that it was not a “good idea to pay students for their success in school,” 27 percent favored the idea, and 2 percent had no opinion; see Marc Fisher, “Desperation Time in DC: School Is Money?”

DC residents’ instinctive skepticism about the initiative seems to be well placed. The New York Post wrote on August 22 that “Schools’ Cash-to-Kids Plan Doesn’t Pay Off,” “A controversial initiative that pays high-school students for passing Advanced Placement tests has failed to spur more kids to make the grade.” In New York City, the percentage of students who passed the Advanced Placement tests actually fell from 35 percent in 2007, before the payments started, to 32 percent in 2008, after the experiment began. On August 21, the Wall Street Journal wrote (“When Schools Offer Money as a Motivator,”,  that studies of various cash payment plans for students have shown decidedly mixed results. The Journal noted that, “Many researchers and policymakers are looking to Roland G. Fryer, an economics professor at Harvard and ‘chief equality officer’ of the New York City public schools. He oversees a privately funded program in New York City separate from the AP rewards program. In the Fryer initiative, about 10,000 elementary and middle school students earn cash and prepaid cell phones for high state test scores and good grades. He recently launched a study of the program and expects the initial results to be complete by October. One question is whether gains attributed to cash incentives will continue if students no longer are offered rewards. ‘You pay a price in motivation,’ says Barry Schwartz, a cognitive psychology professor at Swarthmore College. Cash incentives could ultimately diminish students’ desire to learn for non-financial reasons, he says.”)


Rhee Lacks an Educational Plan, Which Undermines Student Achievement
Candi Peterson,

As long as DC Public Schools continues to place excessed teachers in positions that are not in their area of professional certification, DC students will continue to be shortchanged. Eliminating school counselor positions on the elementary level, closing twenty-three schools and restructuring twenty-seven schools simultaneously in one year, while cutting many required teaching positions, contributes to a shortage of available teaching positions citywide. Another factor that contributes to the citywide teacher shortage problem is Rhee’s decision to recruit and hire new teachers and counselors before locating positions for existing excessed staff. In addition, many teaching positions, such as math coaches and science teachers, etc., have been eliminated altogether while other teaching positions have been reduced to half time.

The frequency with which DC teachers are placed outside of their certification areas casts doubt on Rhee’s commitment to comply with No Child Left Behind law “which requires that states create a plan in which poor and minority children are not more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers, unqualified teachers, or those teaching outside their field of certification.” Teachers, counselors, and art therapists are being compelled by DCPS central office and principals to accept alternate positions for which they are not qualified and certified to teach. For example, art therapists are being assigned to function as art teachers, while counselors are being assigned to function as classroom teachers while regular educators are being assigned to work as special educators, and the list goes on.

If Chancellor Rhee had developed a systematic educational plan as required, then many of these issues would have been worked out earlier on. Without the creation of an educational plan as well as immediate policy changes under Rhee’s Renew, Revitalize and Reorganize school model — student learning and achievement will continue to be undermined while DC teachers and providers will continued to be devalued.


One Hundred Bucks Every Two Weeks for Being Polite
Ed T Barron, edtbv1@macdotcom

How about two slaps upside the head for being impolite? The proposal to pay kids to come to school is whacko. Much better to pay the parents one hundred dollars a month for making sure that their kids do their homework, get good grades, and always come to school. There’s too much coddling of kids these days. They’ll never grow up having any sense of responsibility with all the nurturing. Even the colleges are babying the students. Life is not easy, and kids should learn that and learn that they control their own destiny. Schools should be much like employers. Do the work and you can stay. Don’t do the work, you fail and out you go. Sure, some students need extra tutoring. Provide it. But the kids must assume responsibility for coming to school, behaving, and trying their best to learn.


US Flag at Francis Scott Key Park
Mary Anne McCormick,

Is the United States Park Service doing its job? The US flag (not contemporary — it is historic) at Francis Scott Key Park in Georgetown has not been lit after dark for at least two months. The US Flag Code calls for all US flags to be illuminated after dark. I “Googled” it, and I E-mailed the Georgetown BID about it; I could not find anyone to contact and did not know it was a US Park Service property.

The BID gave me the E-mail address of I E-mailed twice; there was no answer to the first, and the second bounced back. I called the National Park Service. A rude, dismissive, inarticulate woman put me into someone’s voice mail. I left a message. Someone actually called me back: Cindy Cox, Deputy Superintendent. She said they have been having problems with the lights and something about electricians. She thanked me for letting her know. She said the US Park employees don’t look at anything or see anything after they get off work. She encouraged me to call her, though. When I tried to note the number that she was calling from, it showed on my caller ID as NO NAME NO NUMBER; she responded that the Park Service phones are another thing that needs to be taken care of.

Just what is happening with the Park Service? I asked Ms. Cox to note the irony of the historic United States Flag not being illuminated over the Francis Scott Key Park by the Francis Scott Key Bridge. I was given no assurance that it would be taken care of immediately. The United States Park Service could do better. I have Cindy Cox’s number and E-mail, if anyone is interested. Can I be the only person who has noticed this? Perhaps I’m the only one who cares.


Jack Evans
Pete Tucker,

Corporations hire lobbyists, and the good ones ain’t cheap. These lobbyists pressure politicians to support policies that (further) enrich the rich. (The technical term for this is “economic development.”) Patton-Boggs is maybe the most criminal of the firms in the industry. (That’s a tall task indeed: I’ll submit a follow-up piece offering evidence of this).

But what if, in a move towards greater efficiency, rather than hiring lobbyists to pressure politicians, a firm could simply hire the politicians directly? Patton-Boggs had just this in mind when it approached Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. And Jack has come through in flying colors. I imagine that, dollar-for-dollar, the $240,000-a-year that Patton-Boggs pays the councilmember is the best investment it makes.


Single Sales Bans
Jack McKay,

On any given day, there are roughly two thousand single men in District homeless shelters, many of them, perhaps most, substance abusers, commonly alcoholics. The shelters put these men out on the street early every morning, and they aren’t allowed back in until evening. During the day, these unhappy men occupy our parks, having nowhere else to go, and use our alleys for toilets, having no alternative. Practically every restaurant in the inner city has a “toilets for customers only” sign up.

Understandably, nobody wants such men around their homes. Somebody’s gotten the idea that such indigent alcohol abusers can be dealt with by eliminating the sale of single containers of alcoholic beverages by liquor stores, and single-sales bans are all the rage at District council. Advocates assert that such bans accomplish wonderful things, but never admit that those benefits come by simply displacing the problem into adjacent, ban-free neighborhoods. As one Mount Pleasant resident noted, when a singles ban went into effect here, the problem drinkers “evaporated.” They weren’t still there, but now sober; no, they “went away” to somebody else’s neighborhood. That was nice for him, to be sure, but the neighborhood receiving these badly behaved men is not likely to be happy about it.

Yes, there’s a better way than the council’s beggar-thy-neighbor policy. Mayor Fenty supports permanent supportive housing, which gives such men a place to be during the day and access to toilet facilities, getting them out of our parks and alleys. Unfortunately the council is still fixated on single sales bans, quick no-cost fixes that don’t really solve the problem, but win votes from residents. In July, the council declared bills for single sales bans in Ward 2, Ward 6, and Mount Pleasant “emergency” legislation, due to the supposed “crisis” in “anti-social behavior.” Meanwhile dealing Mayor Fenty’s real solution to the problem, funding and expansion of the Permanent Supportive Housing program, proceeds at a leisurely, non-emergency pace.



Stand Up Candidate Forum for Delegate, US Representative and Senator, September 5
Bill Mosley,

The Stand Up for Democracy in DC Coalition will present a “Statehood Now” forum for candidates for Delegate to the US House of Representatives, US “Shadow” Representative and US “Shadow” Senator from the District of Columbia on Friday, September 5, 7-9 p.m., at the University of the District of Columbia Van Ness Campus, Building 39, Room 201. The candidates will be asked to address how they intend to use their offices to achieve statehood for DC.

The organization is holding the forum for candidates for Delegate, Representative, and Senator because these positions were established specifically to advocate for the District and, in the case of the US Senator and Representative, expressly to lobby for statehood, the path chosen by DC voters in a 1980 referendum.

The public is invited to participate and admission is free. Candidates will be questioned by a panel of activists and members of the news media (in formation) as well as the audience. Askia Muhammad, news director for WPFW-FM, will be moderator. For information, contact Anise Jenkins, 361-9739,, or Bill Mosley, 360-5414,, or visit


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