Is school reform dead in Washington D.C. now that Mayor Adrian Fenty was solidly defeated for re-election? Many observers see his defeat as a sign that people don’t want genuine reform or have the stomach for it. They’re wrong. But to create real and sustainable transformation, we’ll need to take a different path. There are lessons from DC for all of us. At the start of his term Fenty hired the hard-charging schools chancellor Michelle Rhee who then took the community by storm. She re-negotiated the teachers’ contract, renovated schools, tossed out low-performing principals, and fired hundreds of teachers only to turn around and hire replacements. She was once pictured on the cover of TIME magazine with a broom in hand suggesting that she would clean up and out dead wood in the education system. She has been a polarizing figure to many DC residents.
Fenty staked much of his reputation and campaign on his reform efforts. He and Rhee were aggressive. In a sharp departure from tradition, Rhee even publicly campaigned for him. But the election wasn’t a referendum on reform itself, but on how transformation is brought about. People believed Fenty had imposed his agenda onto the community without regard for the community. He acted apart from the community rather than as part of it. In many ways, people felt that had he objectified the community, using people as pawns in his larger strategy, somehow forgetting that it is the community he serves.
I know some will say that his only real option was to ram change through a recalcitrant system. But there is a difference between having the courage to step forward and seek to generate change with others, and exhibiting hubris by suggesting that you alone have the answer and others must silently follow.
The key to reform is to root it in people’s shared aspirations for their community, and not to make it merely about best practices anointed by a cadre of professionals. Education may be the most sacred issue in a community’s life. In this issue we see all our values and hopes and tensions reflected back to us. It’s why the Harwood Institute created the Reconnecting Communities and School initiative some years ago, which has been used in states across the country, because at the crux of “school reform” is an issue about the kind of community people want. And yet in DC that conversation never happened. Nor did the “transformers” ever mobilize people to come back into community life and drive change. Instead, they wanted to “fix schools” without generating new conditions within the broader community.
About a decade ago I wrote a report about school reform entitled, Halfway out the Door. In it, people said they wanted to support public schools but they were already halfway out the door, ready to leave public schools entirely because they couldn’t see a genuine pathway to real school transformation. I do not doubt for a moment Mayor Fenty’s desire for real change (in fact, in many ways he was an incredible mayor); but the path he pursued on education was not a genuine one for many people in DC. Rather than bring people together and generate public will for change, his strategy ended up dividing people and giving rise only to more acrimony and finger pointing.
One of the major features of our new partnership with United Way Worldwide is to authentically engage Americans nationwide on education and to help them find their way back into public life. In some communities these efforts will connect with the new movie Waiting for "Superman", in which we have provided ways for people to engage in conversations so they can productively channel their energies for change. The movie clearly demonstrates that people’s frustration with poor public schools should not be equated with their desire for good public schools. People care.
The issue of education has the potential to bring people together across dividing lines because people know in their gut that none of us can go it alone when it comes to transforming education. But without a real choice for a new pathway, people will completely step out the door and what will we be left with then?