Committee on Whole and Education
Public Roundtable on the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools
Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee Confirmation Resolution of 2019
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Suzanne Wells. I am the president of the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization, and the parent of an 8th grader at Eliot-Hine Middle School.
I first want to thank Amanda Alexander who has served as interim Chancellor. She stepped into the role at a difficult time, and she led DCPS for the past year with a calm and steady hand.
Last March, the Education Committee held a hearing on the Future of School Reform in the District of Columbia. I testified at that hearing about a book called Improbable Scholars by David Kirp. The book describes the efforts the education leaders in Union City, NJ took to improve the poor performance of its public school system. They didn’t open a single charter school; they didn’t fire teachers, and they didn’t hire people known in the ed reform movement to lead their school system. Instead, they realized there were no quick fixes to rebuilding their public education system and closing the achievement gap. They began focusing on quality early childhood education, a strong focus on literacy and project-based learning throughout the school district, and nurturing and supporting their teachers.
Today the city has made large investments in modernizing the schools, textbooks arrive at the school on time, we have quality PK3 and PK4 programs, and DCPS has developed a curriculum for teachers to follow. But there are so many more critical changes that need to occur. Last May, a group of education activists issued an open letter saying the next Chancellor needed to change the culture at DCPS. The culture of an organization is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes it. Today, DCPS’ culture is characterized by:
- One of the highest teacher and principal turnovers among comparable urban school districts across the nation that creates tremendous instability in our schools;
- Differences across the schools in the course offerings and experiences the students receive;
- Inequitable funding in relation to the student’s needs;
- Too many top-down mandates including those from the Mayor;
- Too much listening to the needs of individual schools and communities, and too little action to address those needs;
- Inadequate support from city agencies that should be providing wrap-around services to overcome students’ non-academic challenges to learning;
- Too much politically-motivated hype about DC being the fastest improving school district in the nation, and a lack of willingness to look honestly at data to understand where our schools need to be improved, and how best to improve them;
- Rolling out short-lived initiatives that take resources away from the basics, and then get forgotten when the next leader takes the helm; and
- Broken feeder systems that do not support a city-wide system of quality, by-right neighborhood schools.
To address these deep and widespread problems will take an exceptional leader. One who is experienced at turning around a school system that is not performing. Someone who is skilled at doing the day-to-day, often unglamorous, common-sense work that will be required to change the culture of DCPS.
The next Chancellor of DCPS will face many challenges:
- Trying to achieve the Mayor’s campaign promise of an “Alice Deal for all” that is no closer to being achieved than when she made the promise over four years ago. Trust me, the middle school my daughter attends, and the middle schools in Wards 7 and 8 are no Alice Deal. The next Chancellor must find ways to close the great disparities found in the offerings at middle schools across the city, stop the high turnover among their teachers and principals, and begin attracting families with middle school students back to DCPS.
- Reversing the top-down decision that was made to move Banneker to the former Shaw Junior High School site instead of creating a new Shaw Middle School that was promised to the community for years. Will the next Chancellor be able to convince the Mayor there needs to be a willingness to change the decision as public input is gathered on a middle school for this part of the city?
- The Sunday Washington Post contained an article about admission to the selective high schools being based on PARCC test scores. Will the next Chancellor find a fair way to address the needs of students who this year are being unfairly screened out of five selective high schools solely based on their PARCC test scores without looking at their overall student record?
As the Council considers the nomination of Dr. Ferebee, I’m reminded of a 2010 article in The Washington Post about the search for a new Montgomery County superintendent to replace Jerry Weast who was retiring. Someone speculating on the replacement to run one of the top school systems in the country said “It will be a crowning accomplishment of someone’s career to be the superintendent there. It’s probably not going to be a hotshot young reformer.” DC has had its share of hotshot reformers. Let’s not make the same mistake again. I ask the Council to confirm Dr. Ferebee only after they have thoroughly vetted he is someone who has the experience needed to successfully run an urban public school system, and the skills needed to bring about a desperately needed culture change at DCPS.