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December 3, 2008

Practice Makes Imperfect

Dear Practitioners:

I’m reluctant to disagree with Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s national education reporter, because his years of experience have given him a deep knowledge of his field. But on Monday he wrote an article that I have to challenge, “New DC Principal, Hand-Picked Team Make Early Gains,” This article is yet another link in the Post’s chain of articles prompted by Michelle Rhee’s national public relations campaign. This public relations blitz explains why Rhee’s school “reform” remains popular with those who are untouched by it, though it is viewed with deep skepticism by the teachers, students, and parents whom it affects. Mathews’ article praises the work of the principal whom Rhee hand-picked as a shining example for Mathews to interview, Brian Betts at “Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson,” as the combined schools are clumsily called.

I’m sure that Betts is as enthusiastic and energetic as Mathews describes him. In addition, Betts was given the opportunity that Rhee wants to give all her principals, to replace almost all of the teachers at his school with new hires. In the most telling paragraphs of the article, Mathews quotes what Betts thinks was the key question in his interviews with prospective teachers: “‘Shaw and Garnet-Patterson have proficiency rates in both math and reading in the low 20 percents. To what do you attribute this poor performance and what do you plan to do or do differently next year to improve test scores and student achievement?’ A young teacher from New Jersey named Meredith Leonard was hired after saying: ‘Every kid can learn, and we all say that, but what is missing is the last part of the sentence: every kid can learn given the motivation, given the supports, given the expectations. I will be motivating my kids, I will be giving my kids the support and I will be expecting them to do it.’ Many more applicants, including experienced teachers, blamed the bad test scores on undereducated parents and impoverished homes and suggested that those social ailments would be hard to cure. They weren’t hired.”

In one way, Betts’ and Rhee’s emphasis may be right. Teachers aren’t social workers who can solve their students’ home and social problems. That’s not their job. They should concentrate on what they can accomplish in their classrooms. They also should have the attitude that teaching their students is not hopeless. In another, more important way, Betts and Rhee are very wrong. Teachers can make all the difference for some students, but it is naive and foolish to think that they can be the most important factor in the education of most of their students. Meredith Leonard is simply wrong in thinking that the motivation she provides will be the most important thing determining the performance of her students; she’s setting herself up for disappointment, disillusion, and an ultimate fall. Betts rejected the teachers who correctly recognized that most students are much more influenced by the attitudes of their parents and peers, and that if their parents and peers do not value, or are even scornful of, education, that will be more important to them than any single teacher’s enthusiasm and energy. Betts chose to hire the teachers who gave the answer politically and ideologically approved by Rhee, not the right answer.

The Washington Post shares Rhee’s faith that the path to improvement is to get rid of older, experienced workers in favor of younger, inexperienced ones, assuming that the new workers will have an initial burst of energy and enthusiasm that will make up for their lack of background and knowledge. Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book Outliers, argues “that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice,” and that “researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours,” It’s a commonsense notion, long ago distilled into three words: “practice makes perfect.” Rhee rejects it; she thinks teachers are best at the beginning of their careers, and that practice at teaching makes them imperfect. Similarly, over the past few years the Post has used repeated worker buyouts to rid its newsroom of many of its best writers and editors, those with years of experience and depth of knowledge in their fields. As readers of the newspaper, we’ve seen how well that is working out. As one of the rare survivors, Mathews should know it better than we do. Now the Post is urging the same road to perdition on DC’s school system.

Gary Imhoff


BOEE Investigation Update
Dorothy Brizill,

On Tuesday, the city council adopted a resolution extending the life span of the council “Board of Elections and Ethics Special Investigation Committee” to the end of 2009, The Committee consists of three councilmembers; Mary Cheh as chairman, Harry Thomas, Jr., and Phil Mendelson. It was supposed to end its work by December 31 this year, but found that election issues were more complex than it originally thought.

This week, the Committee recommended to the council, and the council issued, a subpoena requiring the acting executive director of the Board of elections, Sylvia Goldsberry-Adams, to appear and answer questions under oath, At the last committee hearing, Goldsberry-Adams did not appear as scheduled because of a “medical emergency,” and no member of the BOEE or its staff appeared to testify on her behalf. Moreover, because the BOEE’s contractor, Sequoia, has failed to respond to the Committee’s earlier subpoena that required it to provide a copy of its election software (, the Committee will meet to recommend that at its next legislative meeting on December 16 the full council file a suit in DC Superior Court requiring Sequoia to comply.

The initial work plan for the Special Committee was that it would issue two reports. The first would be an analysis of the problems that arose during the September primary. That initial report was issued on October 1, The second and final report would offer a comprehensive review of BOEE and recommend policy and legislative remedies; it was going to be issued by the end of this calendar year. The Committee now plans to issue a second report in January 2009 on the issues that arose in the November general election. It will issue its comprehensive review and recommendations in a third report, close to the end of its life span next year.


City Council = Crazy People
Joan Eisenstodt,

[Re: council bill for 5:00 a.m. last call for bars and restaurants during inauguration week] We didn’t even know this was up for discussion and it passed? Are they nuts? This is the letter I wrote to Mr. Evans and copied to Mr. Mendelson and to Mayor Fenty:

“I gather you do not live in a neighborhood with lots of bars and restaurants nor near the inauguration parade route. I also imagine that if you are attending the inauguration, you will have special seating and transport and be away from the massive crowds that day. In addition to being livid that this bill was passed at all and passed without community input, I am stunned about what message this sends to the world about the District! Sure, sustenance is important and I want those who are here for this wonderful event to be able to have food and shelter. Alcohol is not a necessity and will contribute to crime and accidents. In fact, cutting off alcohol earlier would have been a smarter idea — it is not a necessity to celebrating!

“The Restaurant Association knows not what they are doing. Remember, they opposed the nonsmoking law and yet business did not get worse. Who among them lives in a DC neighborhood that might be impacted on those four days, while some of us still have to live and work around the additional people and traffic, let alone try to sleep at night? Mr. Mendelson, thank you for being smarter and saying what you were quoted as saying and for not passing this bill.

“If this truly goes into law, then we the citizens will hold those of you who voted for this responsible for any accidents, crime, vandalism, etc., that results from anyone drinking after 2 a.m.”

Join me in protesting this absurdity.


The Capitol Addition That Takes Too Much Away
Gabe Goldberg, gabe at gabegold dot com -- still the messenger

Philip Kennicott writes in the Washington Post, “Over time, the US Capitol has taken on two very different faces. What was once deemed the back side of the building — facing the Mall — became a grand, ceremonial front, with the addition of dramatic stairs, terraces and landscaping that emphasized its prominence on a hill. To the east, the old “front” of the Capitol became, by contrast, more modest, accessible, and pastoral. Before ground was broken for the new Capitol Visitor Center in 2000, you could stand on the east side and imagine cows and sheep grazing, as if in the foreground of a romantic landscape painting.

“This duality — grandeur and authority versus simplicity and openness — also expressed an ideal of government. To survive, a republic must have authority, tradition and ceremonies. But it must also have its yeoman side, which allows the people to wander the halls of power as equals with their legislators.

“The ‘truth to power’ side of the Capitol, the East face, has been demolished by the new Visitor Center, a tragically misconceived and overscale addition, which opens today. The East face has become something entirely new, with a false and slick pomposity created by an impressive promenade over an imposing bridge, which seems to cross a kind of moat. It is a historical and aesthetic jumble, a nonsensical place and a gross disfigurement of one of this country’s most important and iconic buildings.”


Washington Strains for Inauguration
Gabe Goldberg, gabe at gabegold dot com — still just the messenger

From the New York Times, “Even for a city practiced at handling huge protests, marches, and funerals, the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama will put an unusual strain on local resources.,”


Bringing the Inauguration Close to Home
T. Lassoc,

[Re: Jack McKay, “Bringing the Inauguration Close to Home,” themail, November 30] Please forward this idea to the powers-that-be, including the local DC administration, the transition group (, the Inaugural Committee, and the National Park Service. That’s probably the absolute best idea we’ve heard for inauguration planning and accommodating all who would like to see and/or participate. Not only would this serve local citizens and residents, it could also accommodate many visitors who will be staying with friends and relatives throughout the area and in hotels not located in the downtown area. Other possible venues (indoor and outside) away from downtown should also be considered, such as the various stadiums (universities and other schools), large auditoriums (universities, entertainment venues, and concert halls [Kennedy Center, DAR Constitution Hall], even possibly some churches facilities]). While people can certainly view the inauguration nationwide and in DC on television, many people do want the experience and synergy of witnessing this most historical inauguration in the company of a large group or crowd for that feeling of sharing together something truly historical and momentous. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! The only problem is that the idea makes too much good sense and, more often than not, the-powers-that-be just don’t seem to comprehend or receive those ideas. But we’re hoping that perhaps this time it will be different. There surely is still enough time to plan for what you suggest. Do we need an E-mail petition?

In fact, private organizations and groups should have permission or be able to set up their own “big screen” for their members to view the inauguration together in whatever venue the group or organization may have. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be a problem ((like when the NFL stopped churches from broadcasting football games on big screens at church for collective viewing), since the inauguration is a public event and will be broadcast worldwide


Civility About Jonathan Rees
Anne C. Sullivan,

No one can dispute that Jonathan Rees was a character who generated a lot of discussion. I know that he was controversial, and of course, he stepped over the line many times. However, he was willing to ask questions and to point out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes when our politicians were buck naked. Mr. Rees also ran for the Ward 3 councilmember slot, and that takes a fair amount of courage and commitment and effort.

The Tenleytown listserv had a small discussion about Mr. Rees’ death and his behavior while he was alive, and I found the discussion (speaking ill of the dead), albeit short, to be quite distasteful. In fact, I find the “wild West” atmosphere of most listservs and blogs to be distasteful because people tend to be quite rude and guilty of making personal attacks that discourage honest dialog.

I appreciate the discussions and forum on themail all the more for the civility that you demand from contributors. The disagreements among writers are healthy and necessary in an open and democratic society, and the civility allows us the freedom to post without fear of the ugliness found in other forums. Keep up the great work, and thanks again for the tone and tenor of themail.


Thank You
Martha Eldridge,

Jonathan was many things to many people but thank you for respecting his passing.

[There is now an ongoing campaign by anonymous posters to listservs and commentators on blogs to claim that Jonathan Rees didn’t die and that reports of his death are a hoax. This claim is a malicious and false rumor. The church where his funeral service was held and the cemetery where he was buried have both been identified on these blogs, so there is no reason for anyone to continue to believe or spread this story. — Gary Imhoff]



Divorce Your Car, December 4
Jazmine Zick,

While public transportation use continues to rise in America, the overall number of people served is fairly small. What will it take to get Americans out of their cars? What is the role of private business in public transit? How do you provide a variety of transit options? How can we design neighborhoods that are more walkable and encourage public transit? Listen to Robin Chase, cofounder, Zipcar, and founder and CEO, GoLoco; Bert Gregory, FAIA, President and CEO, Mithun Architects + Designers + Planners; and Shelley Poticha, President and CEO, Reconnecting America, discuss how to encourage more energy efficient travel for the future. Juliet Eilperin, a journalist at The Washington Post, will moderate the program. At the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square stop, Metro Red Line. Register for events at


Gifts for Good Alternative Gift Fair, December 6
John Tobe

This Saturday, December 6, 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m., at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School, The Great Hall, 4700 Whitehaven Parkway, NW (off MacArthur Boulevard). Are you tired of ties? No longer tickled by Elmo? Do you want to give a gift for good and have your presents felt in the world? Then please join us at the third annual Gifts for Good Fair (

How does this work? You are given the opportunity to learn about many charities and, after making a contribution, take away a token gift to give to family and friends on your holiday shopping list. Why spend precious holiday time in crowded malls shopping for gifts that will only end up in a closet by New Year’s when helping families and communities here and abroad is an alternative option in the true spirit of giving? The market offers a variety of tax-deductible gift options that will benefit those in need in the Washington region and around the world. Please note, organizations at the market will accept cash or checks.

The market will be staffed by children and parents from St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School. All proceeds go directly to the participating organizations.


Gray to Speak in Cleveland Park, December 9
George Idelson,

DC council chairman Vincent Gray will address the Cleveland Park Citizens Association at the Cleveland Park Library on Tuesday, December 9, at 6:30 p.m.


OSSE Job Fair, December 9
Kadidia Thiero,

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is hosting a job fair on December 9 in the Old Council Chambers located on the 1st Floor of 441 4th Street, NW. Doors will open at 9:30 a.m.; the fair will begin at 10:00 a.m. and end at 4:00 p.m. The fair is open to the public; hiring managers will be on site to make conditional job offers. Opportunities are available in federal grants management, special education, and early childhood education. There will be kiosks on site for job applicants to fill out employment applications online. For more information, please E-mail or call 727-6436. The job opportunities are accessible at


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