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Class inaction; how 3,000 overpaid administrators stymie D.C. school reform.

Class Inaction

The little kids attending D.C.'s Malcolm X Elementary School last year already had grown-up-sized hurdles to leap. Their reading and math scores ranked among the lowest in D.C.'s 175 public schools; 98 percent of them were eligible for free or subsidized lunches; the school itself had 114 fire code violations, including a broken fire alarm system. And every one of Malcolm X's students lived in Congress Heights, one of D.C.'s toughest enclaves. But looking back, Malcolm X parents believe the biggest obstacle to their kids' success was not poverty at all. It was the principal, Sandra Coates.

For several years, parents say, Coates hit their kids, refused to let the youngsters take textbooks home, and sold them school supplies that the taxpayers had already paid for. But when parents voiced concern, Coates dismantled the PTA. When parents took their complaints to the central office of the D.C. public schools, nothing happened. And Coates kept hitting up the children for money.

Finally, over fierce objections from the central office, the parents called a press conference, airing their charges and demanding a formal investigation. Only then did the central office begin to move. After a confidential investigation, Coates was removed--but not fired. Today, she's the principal at another elementary school in Southeast D.C., where the parents are a quieter bunch.

Deborah Vaughan, a single mother of four boys at Malcolm X, was the leader of the parents' fight against the principal and the central office. Her ordeal is over, but she knows that the problem remains. "We think it's terrible to send persons with such histories to other schools to do the same thing," she says. "We hold the administration responsible."

Holding the administration responsible--now that's something rare in the D.C. public school system, which possesses perhaps the most oversized and under concerned educational bureaucracy in the country. Many have tried to do it. But even the best--like the D.C. Committee on Public Education (COPE)--have failed to make the bureaucratic monster pay attention to D.C.'s little kids.

It's been two years since COPE, the blue-ribbon commission to beat all blue-ribbon commissions, united seasoned school activists and the cream of Washington commerce--Washington Post Co. Chairman Katharine Graham, hardware mogul John Hechinger, and developer Oliver Carr--to design a plan for reforming the D.C. schools. COPE spent a half-million private dollars on a top-to-bottom investigation of the system--counting every pencil pusher, poking every paint chip, and interviewing more than 1,000 employees. The resulting report, Our Children, Our Schools, documents one of the most troubled urban school systems in America. Choose your failure index: a 40 percent dropout rate; substandard test scores; a citywide grade average of D+; decrepit buildings that rain plaster on students. But perhaps most significant, COPE found that a third of the D.C. schools' $529 million budget was not being spent on students at all; instead, it sustained a school bureaucracy unprecedented for a school district of D.C.'s size. In order to put new programs into motion, COPE urged, 400 bureaucrats should be cut from the payroll--at a savings of $8.5 million a year.

A year later, a second civic-minded commission--headed by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Alice Rivlin--sent its investigators to school. Its findings were even more urgent. Eight hundred unnecessary central office staff members should go--and the tens of millions recovered should be immediately infused into the needy, crumbling schools.

No school system could have had better blueprints for making lasting change. Unfortunately, making lasting change has turned out to be one of the D.C. school system's weaker subjects. So far, not a single D.C. administrator has received his walking papers. Not a single million has been diverted back to the kids. It turns out there was one thing Deborah Vaughan could've taught Katherine Graham and Alice Rivlin about the D.C. public school system. Knowing what's wrong is only the beginning. To fix it, you've got to reform the administrative culture that protects its own over the interests of kids. You've got to take on the powerful bureaucrats, the school board, and the teachers union--the quiet saboteurs of D.C. school reform.

The fizzling of the latest reform effort isn't much of a surprise for Washington school kids, whose expectations have never been high. Fully a third of them live below the poverty line. At some schools, seven of every 10 students come from single-parent homes, where parents themselves are often high school dropouts. Under such circumstances, a kid's outlook on the future can understandably be limited. That sense of personal limitation is only reinforced by a school system with rock-bottom expectations.

Parents like Vaughan bring change to their schools despite, not because of, the system. For at the core of the school system is a Sovietized central bureaucracy that puts its thumb print on virtually every move made inside the school: dictating curricula, issuing dubious directives, and even deciding, on winter days, which playgrounds get de-iced and which don't. Textbooks and supplies, all routed through the central office, routinely take 90 days to be delivered to teachers--who sometimes give up waiting and buy the stuff themselves.

Delabian Rice-Thurston, head of Parents United, a D.C. parents' group, recalls her first visit to her son's school, Stevens Elementary. "I noticed that there was no playground equipment for the kids, but when I asked the principal, he told me that the PTA had already bought $5,000 worth." It seemed the swing sets and jungle gyms were all in storage; the central office staff hadn't got around to installing them. The helpless principal then turned to Rice-Thurston, beseeching her to call the office and see what she could do.

A visit to that famous central office--honey-combed into the 12-story Presidential Building--helps explain why things fall through central office cracks. Employees peddle Mary Kay cosmetics from their cubicles; on a bulletin board, a party invitation reads, "Bring your favoret [sic] spirits." Insiders describe the central office as a fraternity of friends, where the only hard rule is "don't rock the boat." Jim Ford, the budget analyst for the City Council's education committee, puts it this way: "When I worked over there, we had a saying, 'If you're competent, you better have your resume in order. If you're competent and dedicated, you better have it circulating.'"

Many of the school system's bureaucrats came up through the D.C. schools together; more than a few are teachers and principlas who performed miserably in the schools and were "kicked upstairs." After one year's probation, almost all administrators settle into a tenured position--be it as a $38,971 procurement analyst or a $66,176 human resources coordinator or a $90,704 acting superintendent. Once they do, it's almost impossible to fire them.

No one, not even the Peat Marwick bean-counters hired by COPE to find out, knows exactly how many of these "administrators" are floating around the D.C. schools. That's in part a deliberate deception. The central office often camouflages administrators with inaccurate job titles--for instance, classifying central office staff members as teachers on the payroll. The system's official count of its "central management" and "central services" employees is 1,294. Peat Marwick, on the other hand, counted 3,153 non-schoolbased personnel.

How many of these employees are unnecessary? COPE said 400, the Rivlin Commission twice that. But even those numbers seem low when you consider this: Today, the D.C. schools employ more administrative employees than the largest school district in the country, New York City--which teaches 11 times more students and itself has a notoriously bloated school bureaucracy.

As parent leader Rice-Thurston observes, "If we had excessive administration and high levels of achievement, people wouldn't be concerned." Obviously, though, that's not the case. Every year, as more and more city money goes to staff, salaries, and administrative fringes, the system spends $532 to $682 less per student on instruction than comparable urban systems.

The only ones losing out, it seems, are the kids: kids like Melissa Brantley, a learning disabled student who was held back in second grade for three years, tossed around to three different schools, before the system finally tested her for a learning disability last year; the kids in one junior high school in Northeast, where the heating system is so bad that they shiver one day and suffer nose bleeds from dry heat the next; the 10th graders in one high school class in Anacostia, most of whom read at a fifth- or sixth-grade level; or the needy kids in D.C.'s Head Start program, who never saw $299,789 in federal funds marked for them in 1989. The D.C. government had forgotten to use them before the grant period expired.

Of course, there's one thing the central office never forgets to spend money on: itself. Last June, with the city in a budget crunch, 150 school system employees packed their bags for a $20,000 taxpayer-financed retreat at a hotel in Fredericksburg, Virginia. School officials steadfastly defended the excursion, saying that employees could get more work done outside the city.

And in a way, that explanation made sense. Clearly, little was getting done downtown.

Dr. Jenkins and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Andrew E. Jenkins's brief career as school superintendent speaks volumes about the self-perpetuating culture of the central administration. It also helps explain why careful reform proposals have been so difficult to implement.

When longtime superintendent Floretta McKenzie retired in 1988, school employees had one firm idea about who her successor should be. As insiders told it, the new boss must be "one of us": a product of the culture he'd preside over. By that criterion, Andrew Jenkins was their man.

A graduate of D.C.'s Spingarn High, a former science teacher in the schools, and a longtime central office staff member, Jenkins took office in July 1988 with a perfect-on-paper agenda: reforming the "topdown" school system and putting "more authority where the action is"--in the schools. To do that, he produced a vaunted "reorganization plan" that called for offering early retirement to 100 administrators, reassigning 70 other administrators to the schools as assistant principals, and gradually phasing in a school-based management scheme by giving some principals limited purchasing authority. Soon after the release of the COPE report, Jenkins announced plans for further cuts.

It seemed that he, an insider, might finally loosen the central office's stranglehold on the failing schools. But what little optimism accompanied Jenkins's appointment quickly faded. As far as anyone can tell, not a single administrator took him up on the early-out offer, which would've meant accepting a smaller pension package. And while the plan to send administrators back to the schools seemed great at first glance, the new "assistant principals" did essentially the same job that they did downtown. "It was in essence a shell game," says Karen Shook, chairman of the school board's finance committee. "It was never a cut of bloat."

Why such intransigence, despite report upon report targeting bloat as one of the schools' most pressing problems? The chief purpose of every bureaucrat is to protect his job, goes one ironclad law of bureaucracy. A second law proves equally valid in the case of the D.C. schools: The closer a bureaucrat is to the boss, the less likely he is to get laid off. "That's what the school system does--protect its own," says Eugene Kinlow, a 12-year veteran of the school board who quit in December. "You've got a lot of people who have been working together for many years, and it's almost a closed circle. It's a very protective old-boy network."

One publicized glimpse of this network came in 1989, when The Washington Post reported that a $395,000 federal grant for dropout prevention was going unused. Jenkins promptly fired the program director, but he admitted that the director was a friend whom he had hired despite the fact that she had no experience in dropout prevention. Other examples of the culture don't get such close scrutiny. According to budget analyst Jim Ford, the city's $906,000 ROTC and military science program could be funded entirely by federal money. But an influential web of retired military personnel on the D.C. payroll has convinced the administration to resist this, because under the federal program they would be replaced by active-duty officers.

It's not as if D.C. school officials need an old-boy network. They're already protected by a classic, seniority-based civil service structure--including a personnel regulation called "bumping" that provides one of the biggest excuses for avoiding administrative reform. When a tenured employee's position is eliminated, he can simply "bump" the job of a less senior employee--even if that employee is doing a superior job. If the system's 800 or so unnecessary positions were to be eliminated without reforming the bumping rule, a massive game of bumper cars could begin, with administrators bumping assistant principals, assistant principals bumping teachers, and so on down the line. That carries horrors particular to the schools. "We never know whether an administrator got out of the classroom because he was terrific or because he was awful," says Rice-Thurston. "We don't want bad people bumping back. We don't want to lose our new, good, young teachers."

School board games

Busting the old-boy network and saving those new, good, young teachers--that sounds like just the job for the school board: elected officials who can protect the interests of students when the central office won't. But take a look at the school board. You can't miss 'em, or at least the lifesize color photos of them displayed in a gallery just outside their offices in the penthouse of the Presidential Building.

Self-reverential poster art is just one of the many fringes of election to the D.C. school board, a well-established springboard into D.C. politics. (It's where former mayor Marion Barry got his start.) And as members plot their political futures from their offices, they do it in grand style. A 1989 survey of urban school districts by the National School Boards Association found that D.C. school board members were paid more than representatives of any other school board in the country--$27,575 in 1990, although board membership is a part-time job. But it's not just pay that sets the D.C. school board apart from its peers. It also boasts a more bloated staff than any other city surveyed. While the nearby city of Alexandria employs one clerk for its entire school board, for instance, D.C.'s dozens of school board staff members eat up an annual $1.5 million.

In interviews, school board members justify their own ungainly bureaucracy with this logic: Because the central administration is so screwed up, the board needs a full-time fiefdom of its own. Therein lies the problem, says former member Kinlow. "If you had board members who were truly part-time board members and they didn't have the luxury of trying to play superintendent themselves, they might more readily do their own job, which is to hold the superintendent's feet to the fire."

Instead, they more often find themselves complicit in central office deceptions. Last year, the city council learned that the schools' official student count of 88,000--the number driving its annual budget--included 8,000 kids who didn't exist. Several school board members knew of this discrepancy months before the annual budget hearings. But instead of getting angry, they kept quiet--to the city council's fury. The bigger the padding, after all, the bigger the schools' budget. And the school board is an ardent advocate of bigger budgets for the D.C. schools.

Still, the school board has worked to remove at least one ineffective administrator--Andrew Jenkins himself. Tired of Jenkins's all-talk reorganization, the board at first tried to bribe him, offering him $200,000 to quit. When that failed, it fired him in December, sparking a schoolhouse brawl in the board room. Jenkins had packed the meeting with parents and activists who were convinced that if Jenkins were fired his plans for an Afrocentric curriculum would be threatened. Jenkins himself accused the majority-black board of racism. By the time the meeting ended, protesters had hurled trash at board members, pelted one member with a water pitcher, and vandalized another office. Today, Jenkins is no longer superintendent of D.C. schools, but he's still on the D.C. payroll--as a highly paid central administration employee.

Nobody said cutting administrators was going to be easy.

Creature teachers

Breaking the central office stranglehold is only the first step in D.C. school reform. For of all the waste and inefficiency protected by the system, none is more costly--in real terms--than the brotherhood of staff inside the schools. In buildings throughout the city, the school system posts its corporate motto: "All students can learn, all teachers can teach, all schools can be successful." The first and third are noble. The second, of course, isn't true.

The COPE report dubs D.C.'s 6,700 teachers the school system's "unsung heroes," praising them for doing a tough job amidst terrible conditions. But it mentions in passing that when principals and teachers were asked what portion of their school's teaching force was incompetent, the answers "were remarkably consistent--somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent." That's an enormous bloc of incompetent teachers. And that's an estimate made by teachers and principals, so the real figure is probably higher. But only 4 or 5 teachers get fired every year. That leaves, say, 665 of them in the classroom every year--and thousands of kids at their mercy.

In the rare case a principal does deem a teacher "unsatisfactory," a mountain of paperwork stands between the teacher and dismissal. That's a headache many administrators would just as soon avoid. So the "better" principals pass the trash to some other, quieter school. The rest just let sleeping dogs lie.

For years, parents complained about a second-grade teacher at Adams Elementary in Northwest. According to former PTA president Vic Miller, this elderly teacher used to teach junior high but could no longer handle her class. So she was dispatched to teach the little ones. At Adams, the teacher allegedly hit kids to keep order and rarely assigned homework. Along with other parents and an advocacy group, Miller filed several complaints with the central office, but heard nothing. After further inquiries, he was told that the teacher's file had been lost. Finally, a parent filed a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for all the system's files on the case. That did the trick. After four years of work, Miller received word that the teacher had retired. "These kids have had a year stolen from them," he says bitterly.

Cases like these aren't just freak occurrences. They're the inevitable result of a teacher evaluation system designed to protect teachers' rights over those of the students they serve. The principals and assistant principals who conduct teacher evaluations are forbidden to include any observations made outside of their one or two classroom visits. Despite her poor reputation on campus, the Adams teacher needed only to perform well a couple of days a year, when the principal came calling. And perform is the operative word here, because evaluators are often completely untrained in the subjects of teachers they're supposed to be judging. In a recent evaluation, one teacher was cited not for misinterpreting Romeo and Juliet, not for failing to pique his students' interest, but for having his window shade pulled too low.

The chances of D.C.'s designing a smarter, more kid-centric evaluation system are slim, for one simple reason: Any change in the process must be OK'd by the 5,500-member Washington Teachers Union, which has a selfish incentive for keeping the process more or less as it is: They made it. "We developed the system back in 1981, and it has worked well," says William Simons, who has led the union for most of the past quarter century.

Culture clubbing

In times of crisis, families look inward for strength. Government bureaucracies look outward for a rescuing angel. Today, with the city backed against a $316 million budget deficit, the hopes of school advocates are focused on finding a new superintendent to begin the hard job of reformation: a superintendent who can ride in like a spaghetti-western Clint Eastwood, waving a mandate to restore law and order. "What we need is the toughest son-of-a-bitch around to come in here and take charge," says a COPE member. But, as Rice-Thurston knows, one straight-shooting superintendent is not enough. "What big opportunity is there in getting a new superintendent," she asks, "when the old bureaucracy is still in place?"

By now, the D.C. schools have been studied to death by the best. The needs could not be more clear: fewer bureaucrats and better teachers--and above all, a structure that leaves the job of educating kids in those teachers' hands. It's not a matter of studies or money. It's a matter of changing a culture.

The first step involves firm intentions and a firmer lawyer--someone who can help the new superintendent find the deadweight and shed it legally. But with a little planning by the new superintendent, the lawyer should become unnecessary. New, sensible civil service rules would allow him to fire incompetents and jettison unneeded staff without a member of the bar at his side. And speaking of sensible rules, the bumping stipulation must also be bumped--to make sure central office chaff doesn't wind up in the classroom.

With at least 800 fewer administrators to interfere and millions more dollars to help, teachers would be free, finally, to focus on the kids. But giving teachers more power increases the necessity of making sure every teacher is a good one. To do that, the new superintendent should follow Parents United's apt advice: Compel the union to relinquish its veto power over the evaluation process, and then form a professional teacher evaluation corps to evaluate teachers right--which means judging how a teacher conveys her subject matter, not how she sets her window shades.

If these basic reforms prove too politically charged for those inside the system, the final step must be up to D.C. voters: to elect a school board with the moxie to treat schools not as kindergartens for their political careers, but as the critical institutions they are. Of course, the school board won't get worked up about the administrative drain on the schools until citizens pay attention. And that requires a press sophisticated and patient enough to explain, the next time the bureaucrats and teachers rally over "critical school budget cuts," what's really going on inside the D.C. public schools.

Today, Congress Heights's Malcolm X Elementary is thriving, with parents in the schools every day, tutoring, designing displays, escorting kids on their bus rides home. The PTA has surged from half a dozen members to more than 100, and the future for kids like those of Deborah Vaughan looks brighter than it has in years.

But Malcolm X shouldn't be the only school that works for its kids rather than against them. And with a new superintendent, a willing school board, and COPE's comprehensive plan for reform, D.C. has a fresh opportunity to make the whole system a model of educational reform instead of the case study in bureaucratic disaster that it is today. As Vaughan will be the first to tell you, even the worst schools can change for the better--if they can get the bureaucrats out of their way.
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Author:Willrich, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
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