No Rescue for DC’s Education Revolution

March 3, 2019

     The DC Council appears poised to confirm on Tuesday Lewis Ferebee as the next chancellor of DC Public Schools—although legislators, education advocates and parents apparently are divided over whether the former superintendent of Indianapolis, In. is the education architect the District needs—the one TBR called for last year in one of her commentaries.


At-large Council member Robert White voted “present” when the five-member Committee on Education and Libraries took up Ferebee’s nomination last week. Ward 8’s Trayon White also voted “present.” Others—Ward 6’s Charles Allen, at-large member Anita Bonds and committee chairman, David Grosso—gave Ferebee a thumbs up.


Given that split vote and the tepid response from others in the city, why is the council rushing ahead? It still has a few more weeks under the law before it is required to act or Ferebee’s appointment would be deemed approved automatically.


The council should hit the pause button. It should use the additional time to secure from Ferebee more details about what specific steps he intends to take as the leader of the city’s largest public-school system, pulling down an annual base salary of $280,000.


The city’s reform movement already has been marked by half-baked ideas from public relations mavens pretending to be education leaders. The revolution is failing fast. Too many children have been the victims.


Nearly two-thirds of public-school students have scored below proficient on one or more portions of the state standardize tests. Many of those are in schools that have long been identified as poor performing but were expected to improve dramatically under mayoral control.


Some parents, who testified last month before the council’s education committee, decried the dearth of dual-language schools. Others complained that for weeks, sometimes months, their children went without teachers for basic courses like science and math. Teachers have left the system in droves. Mental health and other wrap-around services for traumatized children have been nearly non-existent, despite the infusion of additional monies for at-risk students. Some of the modernized facilities for which District taxpayers forked over millions of dollars are beginning to crumble, and maintenance has been shoddy at best. Students and parents at Shepherd Park Elementary School in Ward 4, which had been one of the premier institutions in the city, reported rat and roach infestations.


Since his nomination by Mayor Muriel Bowser, Ferebee has made various appearances in the media and in the community. Nevertheless, he has not provided a blueprint for lifting the academic careers of District students, particularly those locked in low-performing schools with challenged administrators and mediocre instructors.


He has been a walking, talking male-version of the last chancellor, Kaya Henderson. She provided a ready smile and a witty comment mixed with a generous serving of empty promises. Remember that pledge about increasing the test scores of the 40 lowest performing schools?


For his part, Ferebee has offered feel-good language about transparency and working collaboratively with parents, teachers and principals. He started what he is calling “Ferebee Friday,” which has a nice ring to it. He has visited local schools, sat for band performances, high-fived kindergarten students and walked with high schoolers, like Ballou senior Tatiana Robinson, touring the neighborhood around their facility. As one of the individuals who actually participated in Ferebee’s initial interview for his position, Tatiana said she is “confident that as the school system’s leader, he will bring not only stability but also a strong vision for our communities and for my fellow students to continue to grow.” Further, she claimed that he “made it clear, both privately and publicly, that he comes to DCPS knowing that he does not yet have all the answers.”


     The problem with Ferebee isn’t that he doesn’t have “all the answers;” it’s that even after listening to anyone who wanted to speak, he doesn’t seem to have any answers. He has regurgitated previous comments and solutions. Innovation has not been part of the conversation.


Speaking last month on WAMU radio’s Kojo Show, Ferebee pointedly said he does not consider himself “a reformer.”  He added, however, that “I am not afraid to make bold decisions. I am not afraid to make bold outcomes.”


Really? Watching his forays, TBR has seen a man walking on proverbial eggshells; maybe his cautiousness represents the fact that he has yet to be confirmed and doesn’t want to be left standing at the altar without a ring and without any satisfying option in the wings. Everyone can remember the feat suffered by Antwan Wilson. By most accounts, he was an education leader with a plan that many wanted; foolishly, he bypassed the admission lottery process and ended up without a job.


If Ferebee is the bold leader he has claimed to be, why hasn’t he indicated how he will close the achievement gap? He has cited his record in Durham (North Carolina) public schools of narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students over a two-year period by 5 percentage. (That seems a meager distance, but TBR won’t go there.)


While Durham and DC are not twin sisters, the experience should have left him with some acumen. Still, Ferebee has yet to even present a list of ideas. Maybe he told the mayor something. Bowser passed over the interim chancellor to proclaim Ferebee the one with the same assuredness as Morpheus did when he declared Neo the savior in The Matrix.


Ferebee has talked about the need to have quality neighborhood schools, but he hasn’t proposed how he would reach that goal—although a similar pledge has been made by District officials going back to the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Bowser famously promised “Alice Deal for all,” suggesting all middle schools would mimic that popular Ward 3 institution.


Speaking before the council last month, Ferebee called this a “transformational moment” for the DCPS. He talked about gaining access to strong educators and ramping up autonomy for school leaders, enhancing community engagement, continuing the expansion of early childhood programs and blah blah blah. You get the point.


There has been a whole lot of talking going on.  Like others in the city, TBR is waiting for the map from his mouth to the high-quality public-school system everyone wants and for which taxpayers have provided billions of dollars. Without that, it’s just another re-run.


Is TBR the only one tired of re-runs? 



This article has been updated to correct the voting of At-large DC Council member Robert White; initially we reported he voted "no" on Lewis Ferebee's confirmation in committee. However, he voted "present."  

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