Water on Hot Politics: The Plan to Evaluate Washington’s School Reforms

Over the past decade, the battle over the future of public elementary and secondary education in the United States has been fought in the microcosm of the nation’s capital. In the face of union resistance and vocal parental opposition, the city engaged Chancellor Michelle Rhee in a crash program to redesign the way the entire school system was operated, making it more focused on students and outcomes than on the institution itself. Rhee has moved on, the results are a matter of ongoing controversy, and it will probably be decades before we truly understand whether the kids have really benefitted.

The schools are such a political football that the district and the US Government have appointed an independent committee just to come up with a plan on how the schools should be evaluated. The most important conclusion: take politics out of the evaluation process, a difficult job in one of the most politicized cities on the planet. Nonetheless, the plan offers a way to de-politicize evaluation and, hopefully, take a step that will also de-politicize the reform process itself.

The D.C. schools controversy is worth watching. To some extent, whither goes Washington, so goeth the nation, and if the schools of the District can enjoy high-profile success in rejuvenating its education system, other cities will follow suit. The pity is that, in the meantime, the students in the District become some of the highest-profile guinea pigs in education. One can only hope that the reforms Rhee made serve them well, and that something can ensure that they are relieved of the burden of political pawnship and returned to their rightful place as well-served, curious, and capable kids.

The book itself is a model of how to insert objective process into a politically charged situation. Anyone who has ever fought such battles will appreciate both the tone and the approach the authors take.

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