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Public-school experiment in Washington a test for all of us

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008

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.

Some observers would like Michelle and Barack Obama to send their daughters to public schools. Doing so, they say, would be a powerful statement of faith in public education.

All that notwithstanding, I expect the Obamas, like many parents of means, will choose private schools.

Can we be honest here? I mean, brutally honest? D.C. public schools are not good enough for the Obama kids. Not because they are D.C. public schools, but because they are urban public schools.

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. You might not know the name yet, but I'm betting you soon will. She is the Washington, D.C., 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 - i.e., those whose students actually learn something - to earn upward of $100,000 a year.

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. Many educators told me that high on their wish list would be the ability to reward good teachers and fire bad ones.

You'd think it would be a no-brainer that people who don't perform get the axe and those who do get raises. Isn't that the way it works in most non-unionized professions? But the teachers union apparently exists in some alternate universe where everyone is rewarded equally regardless of the quality of their work. So it has fought 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, "basic" being a term denoting "partial mastery" of necessary knowledge and skills. Only 12 percent were rated proficient readers. The corresponding numbers in math: 34 and 8. Those statistics, dismal as they are, represent an improvement over previous years.

And D.C. is hardly unique.

All of us, then, have a stake in the success of Michelle Rhee's experiment. All of us should be yelling for the teachers union to get out of the way. We need to know if what she proposes will work. And if it does not, we need to determine what will.

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, have come to regard it as normal that they crank out poorly educated kids, have come to accept that certain children in certain places are ineducable. But I saw the falsity of that with my own eyes 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 reassess the things we take for granted. We need to decide that our children deserve better.

And 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., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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