Viewpoint: Don’t quit now, education reform is working in D.C.

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Benjamin Banneker Academic High School is located at 800 Euclid St. NW. (photo courtesy of D.C. Public Schools)

As a former D.C. Public Schools teacher and parent of three current D.C. public and public charter school students, it is discouraging to see that many are using the city’s recent, and serious, public education scandals to call on the city to abandon much of the progress we have made with our schools during the past decade.

This is unfortunate, because there is simply no comparing public education in D.C. today to what it was, or really what it wasn’t, 20 years ago when I taught at Winston Educational Center in Ward Seven. Public education in the District may not be perfect, but it significantly better than what it was in the mid-1990s when I spent two years teaching second grade.

Then, there was no accountability for a system that failed to provide textbooks, professional development or guidance to teachers. During my first year as a teacher I had to devise a system to get 29 second grade students to share 18 English and 19 math textbooks. I found ways to visit other friends who had office jobs so I could use their copy machine since Winston’s machine was primarily for front office staff – during the rare occasion when it was functional.

Then, there was no mechanism for differentiating between dedicated teachers and those who had no business working in a classroom. To be clear, I was a new, and not particularly successful, teacher. But one of the characteristics of working in Winston’s open-space learning environment is you could see what your colleagues were doing. And while we had some amazing teachers on staff, I also had colleagues whose disciplinary systems have no place in our public education system today, or 20 years ago.

The elected school board in place then was not a solution, it was the source of the problem. Student placements, teacher selections and principal appointments were routinely doled out as political favors. Many of our best students would leverage political connections to secure transfers to other schools in the city. Meanwhile, contracts went to no-show vendors because of who they knew, not what they could do. This included our mythical copy machine repair service.   

And let us not forget that the school system before mayoral control went through leaders faster than the limited school supplies allotted to schools lasted. These rapid turnovers left headquarters staff in clear disarray, prompting weeks where teachers went unpaid, our limited quantity of school supplies unordered and maintenance requests unfilled. We went one weeks-long stretch of nice weather holding indoor recess because somebody forgot to order lawn mowing service and administrators worried about snakes and other critters in the weed field that was the playground.

So yes, our current school leaders have made significant mistakes. But under the current structure, these leaders got fired and the system is making needed changes. What we need to do now is learn from those mistakes and find ways to continue improving public education for all our students. But we can’t do that by reverting to a system that was routinely failing our children.

– Brian Turmail was a DCPS teacher (1995-97), a resident of D.C. since 1995, and serves on ANC 3B.