Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To fix Washington's troubled schools, try combat pay

By DeWayne Wickham

What would think if the person tapped to replace Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus announced he was firing scores of officers, in a part of that bedeviled country where the fighting is fiercest, for poor performance on the battlefield?

How would you react if he said he’s giving medals to officers in another part of Afghanistan , where the fighting was never as intense, for doing an outstanding job – but rejects the idea of sending some of these medal winners to replace those who were sacked?

What would you say if I told you such a scenario is actually unfolding in Washington , D.C. , not Kandahar and Kabul ?

A few days ago, the school system in the nation’s capital announced it fired 206 teachers for poor performance, using an evaluation system that had the biggest negative impact on teachers at schools in the city’s most poverty-ridden neighborhoods.

And disproportionately those teachers who were recognized for being “highly effective” in the classroom were in schools located in the toniest sections of Washington , according to The Washington Post.

While “good” teachers are allowed to transfer out of low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods, The Post reported back in November, reassignment to those troubled schools in the past has been used as a way of punishing some teachers.

Maybe that’s true; maybe not. What’s certain is this: the fight in Washington – and other urban school districts – to educate children needs our best field commanders in those places where the problems are most intense.

But Kaya Henderson, the head of Washington ’s school system said she won’t reassign top performing teachers against their will to troubled schools.

The battle plan Henderson is using to reward some teachers and punish others was written by Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who preceded her in the job. Rhee, the darling of a long list of right-wing Republican governors and education reformers who believe the increases in student performance on standardized tests during her stormy tenure at the helm of Washington ’s schools is proof that her tactics work.

Far less attention has been paid to a USA TODAY investigation of the rise of those test scores on Rhee’s watch. More than half of Washington ’s schools had an abnormally high “erasure rate “resulting in answers being changed from wrong to right. “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance,” statisticians told this paper.

Instead of clinging to Rhee’s questionable strategy – and results – Henderson needs a better war plan.

She should reward good teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools in much the same way the military gives combat pay to soldiers who serve in war zones. While bonuses up to $25,000 are paid to “highly effective” teachers, too few of them teach in the neediest schools.

The incentive pay should go to those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifice – to good teachers who are willing to brave the toughest assignments. Teachers who excel in schools where the job of educating students is not negatively affected by external factors are simply earning their pay.

Those good teachers who take on the job of educating young people in neighborhoods where the body count of underachieving students rivals that of Afghanistan ’s killing fields deserve combat pay.

As their commander, Henderson has to find a way to get her best troops into the fight, or risk defeat in her part of a war America can ill afford to lose.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On South Sudan feuding sides got it right, maybe?

By DeWayne Wickham

Finally, Republicans, Democrats and the religious right have come together and gotten something done. Now the question is whether they will work together to keep the breakthrough they helped create from unraveling.

What I’m talking about is not the warring in Washington, D.C. over raising this nation’s debt limit, but rather the peace that has a chance of emerging from the creation of a new nation on the African continent.

South Sudan officially joined the ranks of the world’s nation states on July 9 with an independence ceremony in Juba, the capital of that war-torn, poverty-ridden country that was forged from the southern tip of Sudan, Africa’s largest nation. It was 50 years in the making and is the direct result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement the Bush administration helped broker in 2005 – and the Obama administration’s determination to see that the six-year power sharing deal spelled out in that agreement resulted in South Sudan’s independence.

South Sudan also has Franklin Graham to thank for its emergence as the world’s 196th nation. The right-wing clergyman’s has played an important role in supporting the secession of South Sudan, whose 8 million people are mostly Christians, from Muslim-dominated Sudan.

“We must stand with South Sudan as this infant democratic nation struggles to secure its own,” Graham, whose organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has built schools and churches in South Sudan, wrote for shortly before leaving to attend the independence ceremony.

He’s right. But if those who clamored for South Sudan’s creation don’t put as much effort into nurturing this new nation as they did in creating it, the world’s newest country may turn out to be stillborn.

Already, along the border that divides the two Sudans the half-century civil war, which took the lives of millions of people, continues to fester. Even as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attended the independence ceremony of his nation’s breakaway region and declared support for the new state, rebel forces believed to be backed by his government have sparked violence. More than 2,300 people have been killed in that region this year.

“Is the U.S. going to stay engaged? Is the West going to stay engaged? If they don’t, I think they have created the potential for two failed states,” Mel Foote, president of the Constituency for Africa, a Washington-based organization that lobbies for the empowerment of African nations and their people.

Foote’s pessimism comes, in part, from the unfinished business of deciding how revenue from the region’s oil will be divided. Most of the oil fields are in South Sudan, which is landlocked. The pipelines used to export it run to a Sudanese port on the Red Sea. Also, the border that separates the two countries still has not been finalized and some oil fields lie within contested areas.

The economic survival of both states could depend on a peaceful – and equitable – resolution of this issue. But to play a meaningful role in the outcome of these disputes, the Obama administration will need the support of congressional Republicans whose obsession with spending cuts may undermine the president’s ability to give the fledgling nation the economic support it needs to weather any struggles that come from it tug-of-war with Sudan over oil revenues.

And Graham, the evangelical preacher, who earlier this year scurrilously charged that the Obama administration has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, may have to swallow hard and join with the president in trying to convince reluctant Republicans the U.S. has to help South Sudan survive its infancy.