Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Economist on the DC BoE

In this week's Economist (always a great read) there is a great article about Anthony Williams and his legacy (on page 31 of the print edition or online here if you are a subscriber). The District's schools are used as the lede of the article.
FRESH bunch of flowers, a teddy bear and an empty Chivas Regal bottle -- in memory of a young murder victim -- —lie on the street outside the DC Preparatory Academy. This patch of north-east Washington, DC, is not an easy place to live, let alone run a school.

Yet the school itself is an oasis of order. Blue-uniformed nine-year-olds look visitors straight in the eye and proffer handshakes. In one class, a sixth-grader called Prince Taylor solves a ticklish maths problem on the overhead projector. His teacher, Julie O'Malley, asks him to explain how he did it. He starts, but she cuts him off because a couple of his classmates are not looking at him. "Remember the rule," says Ms O'Malley. All eyes focus on Prince, who resumes his explanation.

Schools in the rougher parts of Washington have long been among America's worst. DC Prep shows they needn't be. Its pupils are all from an ethnic minority, mostly black. Its budget per head is no more than that of other local public schools. It does not select entrants by academic ability. And yet in 2003-04, its first year of operation, its pupils advanced on average 1.7 "grade equivalents" in reading (ie, they learned as much in one year as a child is expected to learn in 1.7 years) and 2.3 in maths. The secret? Nothing fancy: just getting the basics right. As a charter school, publicly-funded but free of bureaucratic control, it can shun trendy educational theories in favour of discipline, phonics and longer school hours.

Charter schools now educate over a fifth of the students in DC, up from none in 1996. Washington's mayor, Anthony Williams, has championed the experiment, a stance that has not always made him popular with his fellow-Democrats. "Parents should decide," he says, adding that competition from charter schools should "force the [regular public school] bureaucracy to change."
While the article is generally favorable to the Mayor's two terms of service the same can't be said for its view of the Board of Education.
Even so, his record has not been perfect. His attempt to assert control over the DC school system was defeated by the council in 2004, leaving most public schools under the thumb of a partially elected but inept school board. [emphasis added]

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