“This Is Not A Boat Accident”

[Herein follows a guest blog entry by school advocate Peter MacPherson]

Actor Richard Dreyfuss made that statement in the title above in the 1975 film Jaws, while the character he portrayed examined the mangled torso of a young woman who, we come to learn, has been devoured by a great white shark.

The town’s sheriff is inclined to believe the ichthyologist that Dreyfuss plays–while the town’s mayor desperately wants the woman’s death to be the result of a terrible, but isolated, accident. The mayor knows that if a great white shark is, in fact, turning the waters off their bucolic Massachusetts island into an endless buffet, then the local tourist economy will be destroyed.

The mayor requires the facts to comport with a reality that he needs to be true.

We all know the denouement of this classic fish tale.

The members of the District of Columbia’s political and media class–who have individually and collectively advocated for, created, and subsequently supported the education reforms now entering their 11th year in DC–have the same need as the mayor in Jaws: They need the recent turmoil in DCPS to be the equivalent of an unforeseen boating accident, rather than the far bigger and more ominous situation the city is facing.

Let us be straight: Jennifer Niles and Antwan Wilson did not lose their jobs as deputy mayor for education and schools chancellor, respectively, because of the relatively minor transgression involving the placement of the latter’s daughter at DCPS’s Wilson High School.

They’re gone because the transgression in question meant they (and their supporters) could no longer credibly spin the narrative needed in the face of revelations about fraudulent graduation rates.

All of those adults needed to be able to use Niles’ and Wilson’s credibility to argue that the graduation scandal is not indicative of a fundamentally corrupt culture within DC’s public schools. They had to believably be able to say that the deputy chief of schools responsible for secondary education and the two principals who were sacked at Ballou and Dunbar represented all the bad apples citywide. And they had to be able to credibly continue the education reform mantra: that the city’s public schools are continuing to improve, that other measures of student success can be believed, that there will be progress, if not now then soon, in closing the enormous achievement gap between white and African-American students.

Niles and Wilson ceased being effective standard-bearers for education reform because the nature of their combined transgressions means that yet more questions about how DCPS schools (and, by extension, DC public charter schools) are performing are now an inevitable part of the public conversation. Wilson and Niles bypassing the school lottery process so that the former’s daughter would not have to attend Dunbar High has brought to the fore the fact that most high schools in the city are still attended by poor teenagers, most of whom are struggling academically.

In addition, Niles and Wilson have opened the door to big questions about the quality of the academic program at the Duke Ellington School for Arts. The $210 million cost of the school’s modernization remains a contentious issue, and the true quality of the program is now a question. On top of this, we now have revelations about large numbers of Ellington students who may be ineligible to attend the school because of residency fraud. For all any of us knows, those non-DC students may have been granted admission to Ellington because many bona fide DC students attend public schools in DC with weak art and music programs, thus giving incentive to admit better-prepared students to Ellington and overlook serious residency verification for the payout of keeping enrollment (and thus its operating budget) full.

Now that we are in an election year, the mayor and the other supporters of the flavor du jour of education reform in the city want to do their version of reopening the beaches as the town leaders did in Jaws.

But what the three current DCPS scandals reveal is that the city has its own version of a great white shark hovering off shore: The fudging of high school graduation requirements in DCPS (and who knows what occurs in our charter schools because most city leaders appear uninterested in finding out) happened because the education reforms now in place require a continuing stream of favorable statistical reports of student progress.

Starting in 2011, for instance, USA Today gave the city ample evidence that there had been cheating by adults to inflate scores on the DC-CAS, the predecessor of PARCC. Since then, there has been precious little positive movement in scores on standardized tests in all DC’s publicly funded schools. Indeed, that has been the case for a decade of mayoral control, in spite (or maybe because) of a staggering amount of turnover in school teachers and administrators in the city. The message received by those who replaced staff in schools that failed to meet graduation or other achievement goals has been that the only way to remain employed was to give elected officials and education leaders what they wanted. Regardless of the means.

(Remember that Ballou High School was reconstituted twice in 5-year period.)

To believe public education in the city is not in a dire strait requires clinging to a comparable belief as in Jaws: that a young woman died by an unfortunate encounter with a freighter rather than having been consumed by a monster.

The education system born in 2007 that DC now has is a monster in its own right. The mayoral governance model has shown itself to have very little accountability. DCPS budgets have been lavish and largely immune from meaningful scrutiny. Charter school administrators have had lavish salaries relative to the schools they oversee. Spending on DCPS school modernizations has been even more lavish, with projects costing far more than comparable undertakings in surrounding jurisdictions. Though the city auditor has repeatedly pointed out the errant nature of much of this spending, the council has not acted to demand more value for most of it. And the question of the wisdom of operating two parallel school systems, one of which stands poised to educate the majority of children in DC while not being able to guarantee their rights to that education, has never had a fulsome debate.

It’s time to embrace the city’s version of hiring Captain Quint. What’s needed is the death of the old order and its replacement with structures that are both more democratic and accountable. Most importantly, our city leaders must be made to recognize that our schools exist purely to serve the children of the District of Columbia–not to serve adults and certainly not to serve the well-funded monster of education reform that provides adults with money and publicly unaccountable power.

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