D.C. school leaders – including the mayor who fired Michelle Rhee – are still pursuing Rhee-like reforms

Aug 13, 2013 by

WASHINGTON, D.C. – If politicians offered refunds to their disappointed and disillusioned campaign contributors, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten might be the first in line outside the door of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

Three years ago, Weingarten’s union poured $1 million and untold volunteer hours into helping Gray defeat incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty – and by extension – Michelle Rhee, Fenty’s hand-chosen leader of D.C. Public Schools and the AFT’s archenemy.

After Gray won, some expected he would repay his union pals by using his extensive mayoral power over the school district to undo some of Rhee’s most controversial school reforms.

He did fire Rhee. But he didn’t trash her reform program.

Just the opposite is occurring, in fact.

Not only has new D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson continued many of Rhee’s policies – with Gray’s blessing – but she’s attempting some impressive reforms of her own.

Henderson’s latest idea is to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes, which, new data suggest, just might be the key to dramatically improving the academic performance of most D.C. students.

The district experimented with this idea at several schools last fall, and the results have been very promising.

According to newly released test scores, a majority of D.C. students who attended a school with an extended school day during the 2012-13 academic year showed much larger gains in math and reading scores than their peers who learned under the traditional 7.5-hour day.

Seven of the eight D.C. schools that offered a longer school day showed learning gains for students – four of them showed double-digit gains.

GreaterGreaterEducation.org reports, “Overall, gains at the extended-day schools exceeded those at schools on a traditional schedule by a significant margin: 10.6 percentage points as compared to 3.3 points in math, and 7.2 points as compared to 3.7 points in reading.”

Garfield Elementary School Principal Kennard Branch doesn’t seem surprised that more instruction time has led to increased learning.

“We simply felt we had to have more time with our children … if we were to catch them up, we had to have them longer,” Branch told the Washington Post.

Unsurprisingly, Washington Teachers’ Union leaders don’t share Branch’s enthusiasm about the results of the trial program.

Newly elected WTU President Liz Davis is reportedly “noncommittal” toward the longer day proposal, and has publicly stated that she’s focused on creating “more productive” school days, but not necessarily longer ones, reports WAMU.org.

Davis’ reaction is odd, considering that teachers in the affected D.C. schools voted in favor of expanding the school day and received additional pay for performing additional work.

If the union members are okay with longer days – and it’s benefitting the kids – why is the union balking at Henderson’s call for expanding the program?

Perhaps it’s simply a negotiating tactic. The WTU is in the midst of negotiating a new teachers’ contract with D.C. school leaders and Davis could use the longer day issue to secure higher wages or something else on the union wish list.

In any case, D.C. schools need to build on whatever success they have; their progress shouldn’t be impeded by messy labor negotiations.

Extra class time leads to innovation

The eight schools with extended learning times during the recent school year each received special funding for the additional instruction – which averaged 90 minutes a day – though they used the extra time in a variety of ways.

“Some had extended hours three days a week. Others had five-day programs, and one included hours on Saturday,” GreaterGreaterEducation.org reports.

The schools weren’t necessarily successful just because they stayed in session longer. They also used the extra time for “new strategies and interventions tailored to the specific needs of the students,” the Post reports.

Schools Chancellor Henderson wants to replicate the initiative in other schools, but warns the change would have to be approved by the local teachers union, whose current contract limits the school day to 7.5 hours.

Henderson believes the district could extend the school day without forcing teachers to work more. But to do that, the district needs the freedom to tinker with teachers’ schedules, by staggering work hours, for example.

“We want to be creative, but we need the flexibility that the contract doesn’t allow,” Henderson said.

D.C. school leaders thought they were on the cusp of an agreement with the union during talks for a new teachers’ contract, but that ended when WTU members elected the more aggressive Davis as their leader in early July.

Davis has said she’s willing to read any research that shows extended school days improve student performance, but won’t commit to anything beyond that.

She might want more “research,” but the Washington Post editorial board doesn’t need any more.

A recent Post editorial deemed the newly released test scores as “yet more evidence of the effectiveness of a longer school day in boosting student achievement.”

Gray also wants charter expansion

Gray hasn’t gotten publically involved with the extended school day debate. But that doesn’t mean he’s not pursuing a reform agenda that would put him at greater odds with the teacher unions that backed him in 2010.

The mayor has proposed giving Henderson the authority to approve new charter schools, an idea the union undoubtedly loathes.

“Chartering authority will allow DCPS to provide existing schools more flexibility to reach their goals, and will give the chancellor an additional tool to turn around low-performing schools [and] help DCPS attract proven, high-performing school operators to serve critical gaps in the city,” Gray said in explaining his proposal, according to the Washington Informer.

Gray has offered legislation to the D.C. Council that would bring the idea to life. It’s unclear if the council is willing to take the dramatic step of giving Henderson charter-granting powers.

What is clear is that the unions can’t be pleased with Gray’s pro-charter proposal.

Nor can they be pleased with Gray’s recent decision to close 15 traditional schools, or his call for charter schools to have access to the city’s surplus K-12 building space.

Daniel Del Pielago, a pro-public education activist, likely spoke for many union supporters when he described the situation in DCPS as “essentially business as usual with a new face.”

It all adds up to the fact that school reform is alive and well in Washington D.C. – and the mayor who fired Michelle Rhee deserves the credit.

D.C. school leaders – including the mayor who fired Michelle Rhee – are still pursuing Rhee-like reforms – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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