The Single Most Effective School Reform
July 01, 2011, 02:20 AM
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Everybody in Washington is worked up over a WaPo article Young DC Principal quits and tells why about a public elementary school principal in an expensive white neighborhood, a white guy named Bill Kerlina, who quit after two years on the job. He`s a white suburbanite True Believer:

Kerlina was also intrigued by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee`s vow to close the black-white achievement gap. He joined a contingent of Montgomery educators who signed on with Rhee ...

The article is boring for awhile because it gingerly sidesteps around the racial stuff that`s the point of most  article about DC schools, but normally, you have to read between the lines. Finally, at the end, we get to the good stuff: he was offended to discover that his bosses wanted him to work harder to persuade local white people to send their kids to the local public elementary school:

A few days before he quit, [Bill] Kerlina received his annual evaluation from Instructional Superintendent Amanda Alexander. It was a positive appraisal, school officials confirmed, and Henderson sent Kerlina a letter of reappointment. But Alexander raised a concern, he said: Why were there not more white families at Hearst?

White people are pushing African-Americans out of D.C. for sometime now, but the sticking point has been when the kids are ready for school: Do you pony up exorbitant private school fees or move to suburbs like Fairfax and Montgomery County whose public school systems are welcoming to talented white kids? The awfulness of the black-dominated public schools in D.C. hasn`t kept the white population from growing, but has kept it largely childless or rich.

The question is sensitive in the D.C. system, where only about a third of students attend neighborhood schools. It is especially sensitive in affluent and largely white areas of Northwest Washington. At Hearst, 70 percent of the 241 students come from outside the neighborhood. Most are African Americans.

D.C. officials say they simply want more neighbors in neighborhood schools. But Kerlina took offense at Alexander`s question, which implied that as a white male, he should have been more successful at recruiting. The next day, in an e-mail to Alexander that he wrote but decided not to send, he laid out a taxonomy of Northwest parents in an effort to show the hurdles to recruiting more neighborhood families.

The well-to-do private school families, "the majority" in the neighborhood, he wrote, were a lost cause. "I have not courted them and do not plan to do so, since they will never consider DCPS," Kerlina wrote.

Next were those afflicted with what he called "Murch and Eaton envy," a reference to two much-in-demand Northwest elementary schools. He told Alexander that six in-boundary families had enrolled at Hearst for the fall but pulled out when slots at Eaton and Murch opened up.

"I have been working with these families but it`s hard to change a culture of thoughts and ideas," he wrote.

Finally, he wrote, there were families with racial prejudices. He said this conclusion came from a series of conversations he had with prospective neighborhood parents "that delicately asked about the number of out-of-boundary families and made reference to the �diversity` of Hearst."

"They will never come to Hearst because of the number of out-of-boundary black families," he wrote.

One way to lure neighboring families - restricting the number of out-of-boundary seats - would be a "horrible mistake," Kerlina wrote, as "the diversity at Hearst is what makes it a great school."

Presumably, Hearst is a black-dominated school, so getting some more local white families to send their kids would, technically speaking, increase the diversity. But we all know that "diversity" doesn`t mean diversity, it means, black, NAM, nonwhite, or just plain good

He offered another solution: Move the school toward "inquiry-based learning," stressing group activities, hands-on projects and student curiosity. It`s standard practice, he said, at the private school across 37th Street NW.

"The reason people spend [more than $30,000] a year to send their children to Sidwell is because they believe in inquiry-based learning," Kerlina wrote. "DCPS does not - the approach is too scripted and doesn`t allow for students to think outside of the box."

Well, I don`t think that`s the only reason people pay a lot of money to send their kids to school with the President`s children. I don`t even think that`s the only reason the President pays $60,000 to send his children to school with the children of people who pay that kind of money to send their children to school with the President`s children.

But there is one reason, and it`s not something for which there is any obvious solution even if the DC school district wasn`t corrupt, indolent, and incompetent. Rich white smart people tend to like more free-form education for their kids. On the other hand, what seems to work best for most black children is KIPP-style boot camp drilling on the fundamentals. This has been a continuing source of tension within, for example, the Berkeley school district. The white parents tend to be Berkeley professors and the like who live in the hills, and they prefer progressive "inquiry-based learning" for their kids. The black parents who are active in the Berkeley schools (obviously, not a large number, but people who deserve respect and solicitude) tend to be strivers who scraped together enough money to get their kids out of the Oakland school district by moving to the flatland of Berkeley, and they want for their kids the 3Rs, discipline, order, and bourgeois values. They have ambitions for their children like enlisting in the Army that are incomprehensible to white Berkeleyites like Rick Ayers of Berkeley H.S.

The most practical solution for public school reform is to break up big city school districts into small districts that compete for young, education-oriented families. Big city districts like DCPS or LAUSD have a monopoly on public schools in the city, so they aren`t under much pressure to provide a good product. Small districts like New Trier (Wilmette, IL) or Arcadia (San Gabriel Valley, CA) know that young families moving to the suburbs have a lot of different suburban school districts to choose from, so they better be on the ball. And they don`t have to be all things to all people. Arcadia, for example, has been taken over by Tiger Mothers, so its one medium-sized pressure cooker public high school now has 30 National Merit Semifinalists per year.

I sent my son to an LAUSD middle school in pleasant Sherman Oaks that turned out excellent. See, in the 1990s, the school`s students had gotten so bad that, after a middle school student killed a neighbor, the locals, affluent white upper middle class people tired of being murdered by middle schoolers — tried to get the school shut down. In desperation, LAUSD did something very unusual — it assigned an outstanding principal to the school and let him do whatever he thought best. He put in place all sorts of programs to lure in middle class and above parents. The one complaint I have had is that my son`s homeroom and science teacher, Mr. L., was so charismatic — he had come quite close during his 1990s movie career to making the jump from villain`s right hand man to leading man in Hollywood action movies (at the climax of one well-known 1990s sci-fi movie, my son`s teacher fights a famous movie star for about five minutes until the hero finally chops his head off and then, for good measure, blows my son`s teacher`s head up with a nuclear bomb, causing my son to comment: "Well, no sequel for Mr. L." — that every teacher he`s had since has seemed a little deficient on the Teacher Awesomeness scale.

So, much of the motivation behind all these charter schools is an attempt to outmaneuver the system. But, it`s a drag trying to constantly outmaneuver the system, especially if you have two or more kids. Say you get your first kid into a really exclusive program but then your second kid doesn`t qualify? The nicest thing is to know that you can always send all of your kids to the local well-managed public school that reflects the nice demography of where you live. People in places like NW DC and urban Portland are increasingly figuring out how to solve the problem of keeping people they don`t like out of living in their neighborhoods. So, why shouldn`t they have their own school districts so they can afford to have families? Similarly, why shouldn`t the better black neighborhoods in D.C. have their own district?