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I assume some of you have seen the new movie, Waiting for Superman.

It’s worth your time. It leaves me both hopeful and daunted. It is a social challenge that we have NO choice but to tackle, inexorably, against the odds, until we turn our public school system around.

While watching the film, 3 things (well, actually more than 3) kept rolling through my head:

  1. A small group discussion I was in 20 months ago with Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of DC Schools (one of Superman’s primary characters) and Adrian Fenty, who was Mayor of DC at the time.
  2. SVP’s experience several years ago with Cleveland High School as an Investee
  3. My conversation with an outgoing School Superintendent about how hard “the system” makes things.

Let me address #1 today and #2 and #3 next week.

Subsequent to the movie, Fenty lost the DC mayoral primary, and just today Rhee resigned, leaving her reforms on very uncertain terrain.

I saved my notes from my discussion with Michelle Rhee, 20 months ago:

Fenty is a rock; he is 34, grew up in the city, and is one of the “coolest customers” I’ve ever met. Highlights about / from him:

  • “If you don’t like the rules, change the rules.” One rule he changed is he made all DC employees at-will. The guy is undoubtedly a Democrat, but like a lot of Mayors, he cares WAY more about what will just plain work; in this case, for the K-12 kids in DC. The same idea resonated from Cory Booker in Newark strongly too (at the same conference) – Some Mayors don’t care about ideology or who gets credit, they just want their citizens’ lives to be better.
  • He wants to change the culture “from patronage to performance”
  • There are pros and cons to a mayor or governor taking over a school system. In Fenty’s mind, though, he said the kind of change they are undertaking would be impossible if you had to also try to do it through a city council and school board (i.e. just too many cooks in the kitchen).
  • The parents that will benefit from changes are the quietest, the ones that won’t (or think they won’t) yell the loudest.

Rhee is no older than Fenty and she is also a Teach for America alum (TFA Alum’s are going to increasingly be leaders in America’s educational systems in the decades ahead. TFA has a dual mission just like SVP)

  • She said: “We know how to solve the problems in our schools, but we don’t have the political and collective will to make it happen.” I personally believe that about most of our nation’s problems – we DO know how to educate kids, reduce crime, etc., but we rarely can get it done.
  • Fenty hired her from the OUTSIDE to come and create system change from the INSIDE.
  • They have a radically new pay-for-performance system they are negotiating for — any teacher can choose NOT to be in their new “pay for performance” system and stick with the existing tenure-based structure. That pay scale ranges from $40-68,000. If a teacher opts into pay-for-performance (which means you can also lose your job), the pay range is from $60-130,000. Read that again, it’s not a typo.

Three things really stood out to me after that conversation with Rhee and Fenty:

  1. Over time, they have to institutionalize the change, but especially right now, things are so fragile because it’s really those two people forging the way (that has turned out to be VERY true now)
  2. SVP’s approach to working with non-profits – capacity building, organization-focused, long-term, human capital, outcomes-driven was validated again and again throughout the things they said
  3. The odds of that kind and degree of systemic change being possible in Seattle are low.  It isn’t that they have the perfect answers in DC, it’s that WA state’s convoluted, multi-headed education structure has eliminated so much of the possible solution set. I know Rhee is a lightning rod and can be very blunt, but I think America’s schools must have leaders with her guts, will, heart, and commitment.

I wonder what you think about our educational system before or after you see Superman. There is a lot of focus now on teacher quality (i.e. no matter how bad the system or school, a great teacher can overcome).

Kind of a big hairy question, but I wonder what others think are the KEY changes needed for America’s students (including hundreds of kids SVP supports through our K-12 investees), to get back to the USA best-in-the-world?

– Paul Shoemaker

*Image from ComicVine.com.

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