“Teachable Moment”

“Teachable Moment,” Editorial, The New Republic, 31 December 2007

Watching the Republicans debate education in Iowa earlier this month, we couldn’t help feeling a twinge of jealousy. Unlike the Democrats, they apparently recognize that it will take more than tinkering with No Child Left Behind to salvage our schools. They trumpeted charter schools and knocked teachers’ unions–and only John McCain paid obeisance toward vouchers, though even that fix is too unpopular these days for arch-conservatives to make more than passing mention.

It was pleasing rhetoric, but just that. The most promising development in American education was happening 1,000 miles away, in, of all places, Washington, D.C. We’re not talking about changes burbling up in the Department of Education or the U.S. Congress, but municipal Washington, a place that is rarely at the vanguard of salutary urban reforms. Under its new and highly energetic mayor Adrian Fenty, the city has stripped power from the elected school board and installed a relatively youthful chancellor named Michelle Rhee. Her appointment was something of a breakthrough. Rhee rose through the ranks with Teach for America and is a product of a reform movement that has little patience for the traditional educational establishment. She is, in fact, the first veteran of this reform movement to take control of a major city’s schools.

This is supremely bad news for the corrupt bureaucracy that has greatly contributed to the sorry state of the District’s system. Last week, the city council granted Rhee the authority to buck the civil service laws and fire these bureaucrats. The unions, of course, rallied against her. They argued that she was embarking on a dangerous course–after she cleans out the bureaucracy, surely she will begin firing principals and teachers next. What will protect these unionized employees from Rhee’s wrath?

Of course, they are right to worry. And the city council’s vote last week should make them downright panicked. Only three members of the 13-person board–one of them was Marion Barry–sided against Rhee. In short, the sclerotic establishment can no longer count on its old political patrons. And her victory was an important object lesson for other cities: Reformers can now battle the teachers’ unions–and trounce them.

In the District, the education establishment doesn’t have a very strong case to make. Since the 1990s, the number of district middle-schoolers able to achieve “basic” proficiency in math and science has been below 50 percent. Simple building repairs take months. Unopened rafts of textbooks remain squirreled away in a shambolic warehouse. This isn’t the type of crisis that can be solved with melioration. It will take an overhaul, an entirely new culture–and it’s extremely gratifying to know that the political conditions for such change may finally have arrived.

Dayo Olopade

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