Page last updated at 17:19 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Washington schools at the crossroads

By Philippa Thomas
BBC News, Washington

So much has been made of Barack Obama's achievement in breaking barriers - a poor black kid, son of a single mother, who made it to the White House.

Radical action for Washington schools

For many African-American families here in Washington DC, he is a role model.

He inspires ambition - but their children need more than that.

Like Mr Obama himself, they need to aspire to an excellent education.

And can they get that in the nation's capital, in the state schools just a matter of miles from the White House?

Not according to the woman in charge of them.


Washington DC's new Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is no shrinking violet and she describes the current educational situation as "dire" and "embarrassing".

It will take a "sea change" to provide an acceptable quality of education here, a change she is determined to bring about.

But first, take a closer look at the scale of the challenge she faces.

Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools
Michelle Rhee acknowledges she has alienated the teaching establishment

A 2006 statistic from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says a lot.

On the OECD's key indicator of maths performance for 15-year olds, the United States ranks 25th out of 30 countries - behind not only neighbouring Canada, and many other wealthy states, but also "developing" economies like Estonia, Slovenia and Azerbaijan.

The OECD says low test scores in the US are directly related to poverty.

And beyond the Washington we all see - official, political, affluent - much of this city is deeply economically deprived.

For Michelle Rhee, that is not a good enough excuse.

She can reel off the figures that show DC lagging well behind other urban school districts - from Chicago and New York to Atlanta and Miami - even when like is compared with like, the poorest districts with the poorest.

There are a few shining examples here, but far too few.

Ms Rhee thinks too much money has been wasted. She wants action and is not shy of taking drastic measures.

Revolutionary talk

In her 18 months in post, she has already shut 23 schools, fired 36 school principals and 270 teachers.

And she has announced a bold initiative to give those that remain big cash bonuses, if they forgo their job security.

Ms Rhee says her priority is "talent not tenure".

All students should have this opportunity
Deycha Robinson
Student at Washington charter school

In this embattled education system, Michelle Rhee is an outsider.

She is a Korean-American whose immigrant parents sent her back to South Korea to improve her education.

Her teaching experience is limited to a graduate stint with the volunteer group Teach For America.

And now she is the boss, she and her new broom are not exactly popular.

Many teachers see her scorched-earth approach to schools reform as unnecessarily confrontational.

As George Parker from the Washington Teachers Union told me, "firing teachers" is not an answer in itself.

"It's unfair to give teachers all the responsibility but none of the power - and not enough resources - to fix the capital's schools," he says.

But when I put it to Ms Rhee that she risks alienating the entire educational establishment here, she starts laughing.

"I've already done it!", she says.

She leans closer and tells me to ask the parents what THEY think.


For years now, many of those parents have voted with their feet - and got out.

Students at Thurgood Marshall Academy
Since Thurgood Marshall opened, all its students have gained college places

Either crossing the border to live out of the reach of DC public schools, or building a parallel system right here in the city.

Self-governing "charter schools" now account for more than a third of Washington's public school population, and they are largely funded by taxpayers' dollars - meaning money is shifting away from Ms Rhee's control, adding to the urgency of her mission.

We visited one outstanding example of the charter movement, in the very poorest district of DC.

Anacostia residents live a few minutes' drive from the city that most people would recognise - the Capitol, the Mall, the monuments.

The neighbourhood is overwhelmingly black, overwhelmingly neglected.

Most shocking of all, half of its residents are illiterate, according to another determined educator, Alexandra Pardo.

She is the academic director of Thurgood Marshall Academy, which for the last three years has been housed in a beautifully refurbished state-of-the-art red brick campus in the heart of Anacostia.

The students who come here are all African-American, nearly all from the streets surrounding the academy, and they know they have got lucky.

Alexandra Pardo tells me that her students arrive at the age of 14, most of them lagging a full five years behind in their education.

Since the Academy opened in 2001, every single one of her students has gained a college place.

I met Deycha Robinson, 16, sitting in her new school's spacious library.

She told me she knows the system is not fair: "All students should have this opportunity."

A place like this looks like an answer to DC's woes - but it is not a universal answer.

It took $14m (9m) of special funding - from the DC government, businesses and foundations - to make Thurgood Marshall what it is today.

But it demonstrates the potential of teenagers that Michelle Rhee believes deserve much more from Washington's school system, even if she has to trample on the sensibilities of teachers and their unions to get there.

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