Last Tuesday, the city’s financial control board issued its much-anticipated report on the D.C. public schools. Among the report’s startling revelations: The public schools have failed to educate District children, wasted loads of taxpayer dollars, and allowed the collapse of school buildings all across town. Control board Executive Director John Hill gave the system an “absolute F.”
At one time, findings like these would have triggered all sorts of outrage among city residents: vitriolic chatter on talk radio, protests at the school system’s headquarters, bomb threats at control board headquarters. But all around town, the rabble-rousers have been unusually blase. Only the control board seemed outraged by the findings. It’s no wonder, though. The city may be short on all kinds of essentials—cash, snowplows, textbooks—but one thing it has never suffered from is a dearth of data on just how bad its schools are. Thanks to scores of do-gooder groups, blue-ribbon panels, task forces, and commissions of experts regularly convened to diagnose its ailments, the F-rated public-school system is by far the most overstudied problem in the District government.
In fact, the control board could have saved us all some money by just reprinting any number of disparaging school studies issued since the Great Depression. Some choice selections might have been the 1991 Rivlin Commission report, the 1982 study by the National Curriculum Audit Center, or the landmark 1968 study by Columbia University Professor A. Harry Passow. All three studies concluded that…well, that the schools have failed to educate District children, wasted loads of taxpayer dollars, and allowed the collapse of school buildings all across town. So even as the control board took pains to distinguish itself from other groups of well-meaning but ineffective school reformers, it fell in line with one of the city’s most hallowed traditions: issuing reports on the public schools.
“I never want to see another report,” says Mary Levy, researcher for Parents United, an advocacy group that has issued a fair number of reports on the state of the schools itself. “That’s what we middle-class people are trained to do. Not to accomplish anything. Just write reports.”
Don’t ask Dick Hurlbut, archivist for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), to pull all his studies on the school system. “That’s too broad a request,” he says. “There’s too many.” How about just the recent studies? “Nope, still too broad. You have to choose an area, like management, curriculum, or finances. You have to specify.”
Say you specify management. You may just end up with this gem: a 1970 study by the New York-based Metropolitan Applied Research Center (MARC) titled “A Possible Reality.” As with most of these studies, the MARC findings came at a time when public confidence in the schools was on the downswing. The MARC study came up with a whopper of an explanation for the crisis in confidence: “Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, is a city which has permitted its public schools to become predominantly black.” Clearly an impermissible oversight in a city where 70 percent of the residents are black.
Yet Walter Mondale, then chairman of the Senate select committee on equal educational opportunity, was so impressed with the MARC study that he had it copied at Uncle Sam’s expense for his colleagues. Perhaps he felt his fellow senators would benefit from the study’s unique contribution to modern pedagogy: Ineffective school systems are run by “confused, fearful, tentative or rigid leadership,” and “when children who are expected to gain intellectually do gain, they may be benefited in other ways.”
While the MARC study attempted in its own inimitable, racist style to probe DCPS management, a congressionally sponsored 1949 study, “Survey of the Public School System of the District of Columbia,” adopted a tack of particular interest to Congress: micromanagement. In a section called “Blackboard Cleaning,” the study, written by one George Strayer, strutted its bean-counting acumen, noting, “It should require, on the average, from 4 to 8 minutes to clean 100 square feet of blackboard area when the best methods are used.”
Even though the study is nearly a half-century old, its findings on blackboard erasers are as up-to-date as the Pentium chip. “Erasers are cleaned locally by use of vacuum cleaners, or by simply beating them against some object, or each other,” the report reads, adding, “A more uniform procedure for cleaning erasers ought to be adopted for all schools.”
Subsequent studies have failed to replicate Strayer’s exacting level of detail and management analysis, swapping insight on dusting radiators and mopping small bathrooms for broad-brush platitudes on squishy topics. Typical of the post-Strayer era is a 1989 DCPS study called “Toward a Values-Centered Community,” which was written for the compelling reason that “values are those elements within a culture to which individuals and groups attach a high worth.” The 100-page tract covers as much territory as a dictionary. It defines self-esteem, self-discipline, self-reliance, and moral and intellectual maturity, among other “values-based” traits—before recommending a values curriculum that never made it from the drawing board to the chalkboard.
Despite all its talk about self-reliance and self-discipline, DCPS studies have succeeded in mastering only the self-evident. For instance, DCPS commissioned two separate studies to probe the opinions of students and teachers on school uniforms. The shocking conclusions: Teachers favor them and students oppose them. Of course, the findings are couched in the sort of reportese that gives the project an air of merit: “[S]taff thought uniforms would assist in cutting down disputes and fights related to clothes and…would assist students in realizing that clothing does not make the person.”
Some DCPS reports step bravely out of the realm of pedagogy—their forte—and dabble brilliantly in sociology. Take for example this enlightening nugget from a comprehensive DCPS study on truancy: “Most students leave DCPS due to school failure and personal problems outside of school.” A separate study completed 10 months earlier clearly kicked off the insightfest on school absenteeism, yielding the revolutionary notion that chronically truant kids are “less responsive” to DCPS efforts to enforce attendance requirements.
DCPS has been outdone only by a 1991 report from Georgetown University grad student Maureen Edwards, who wrote on the conditions at DCPS buildings. Every line of the report breathes with justification of the author’s master’s degree in public policy, especially this excerpt, which appeared in a press release: “A statistical study of the Washington, D.C. public school system has found that parental involvement can positively affect the condition of the school buildings.”
Not every school-system report is fraught with offensive, vapid, or obvious conclusions, however. In 1968, Columbia University’s Passow and a couple hundred assistants compiled a mammoth 600-page tome dissecting every aspect of the system, from the conduct of school board meetings to problems with DCPS’s speech and hearing center. Most DCPS observers agree that if the system had acted on the Passow recommendations, the control board would have spent last week taking over different branch of D.C. government.
In a landmark 1982 study, the National Curriculum Audit Center (NCAC) also peppered DCPS with many of the same charges hurled by the control board. “The audit team found an unstable and mismanaged school system with a relatively long history of poor performance.” The report recounted how only one board member could “indicate where a mission statement might be found.”
After verifying the incompetence of school board members, NCAC staffers queried them about all the reports that had documented problems with the schools. The responses:
“Nothing happened to those reports; reports and audits are done as commonly as breathing.”
“People develop a tolerance for reports.”
“Lots of paper has been pushed around, a lot of recommendations and reports, and nothing has happened.”
Beleaguered school board members and defenders of the DCPS old guard, however, would be well advised to comb through the library of school-system studies. For among the yellowing stacks there’s bound to be a report or two that downplays the city’s educational crisis. One that points out that DCPS students aren’t all that illiterate. That says it’s all right that school board members obsess over parking privileges and bottled water. That praises the superintendent for hiring all his buddies as overpaid assistants.
Sure enough, UDC professor Steven J. Diner, in a 1982 classic titled “Crisis of Confidence: The Reputation of Washington’s Public Schools in the Twentieth Century,” suggests that the school system’s malaise is nothing a couple of top-flight flacks couldn’t fix. The real problem, says Diner, is image:
“[I]mprovements in student achievement alone will not imprve [sic] the schools’ image, and…a concerted public relations effort is needed,” says the report. And under Diner’s vision, DCPS’s crack PR team could tip off the media to malfeasance in private education. “[T]his paper calls upon education officials to recognize the special vulnerability of public schools to adverse publicity, and the absence of press and public scrutiny of private and parochial schools.”
Diner’s arguments apparently did not impress the control board, which neglected to reference the groundbreaking study in its report on the school system.—Erik Wemple