New DC schools chief pledges to continue reform efforts

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Posted: Nov 22, 2016 3:16 PM
New DC schools chief pledges to continue reform efforts

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time since Michelle Rhee was brought in to shake up public schools in the nation's capital nine years ago, an outsider will take charge of a school district that's become synonymous with hard-charging urban education reform.

Antwan Wilson, the public schools superintendent in Oakland, California, was introduced Tuesday as Washington's new schools chancellor. He succeeds Kaya Henderson, who led city schools for 5 ½ years before leaving at the end of September.

Wilson, 44, led Oakland's school system for just two years before Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed him, saying he is better equipped than internal candidates to carry out her vision.

Wilson also has been an administrator and high-school principal in Denver and a middle-school principal in Wichita, Kansas.

Continuity was the theme as the mayor introduced him. Wilson pledged to maintain the policies of his high-profile predecessors.

"We need to double down on the things that have been proven to work," he said.

In Oakland, Wilson oversaw an increase in graduation rates but some activists criticized his efforts to incorporate more special-education students into mainstream classrooms and his support for the growth of charter schools.

Wilson said these policies give more students the chance to maximize their educational opportunities. In the District, nearly half of all students attend charter schools, which are beyond the chancellor's control.

Under Rhee and Henderson, District schools saw gains in graduation rates, enrollment and standardized test scores. A rigorous evaluation system for teachers, based in part on students' test scores, is arguably the cornerstone of their legacy. Teachers with the best marks get pay raises and bonuses, while those with the worst are fired. Both Rhee and Henderson fired hundreds of teachers, and critics say the constant teacher turnover has been bad for students.

Wilson said he would have conversations about possible changes to the evaluation system, but generally supports it.

"My experience has been that educators throughout the system appreciate evaluation, observation and feedback," he said.

He said his biggest challenge would be to shrink the city's huge achievement gap between white students and non-Asian minorities, a goal his predecessors failed to achieve. The system's improvement over the past decade has also coincided with the city's population becoming wealthier and whiter.

Wilson's appointment is subject to approval by the D.C. Council, and he will earn $280,000 annually when he takes office on Feb. 1.

Troubling news about both his predecessors came to light only after they left the job.

Under Rhee, a 2011 USA Today investigation found improbable rates at which bubbled-in answers on students' standardized tests were changed from wrong to right answers, raising questions about test-tampering.

And only weeks after quitting, Henderson was censured by the city's ethics board for soliciting a six-figure charitable contribution from a company doing business with the city. An investigation was launched after The Associated Press reported Henderson had made the request of the city's food-service contractor, which later paid $19 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit accusing the company of price-gouging and fraud.

Wilson said Tuesday that he was unaware that Henderson had been sanctioned, and said he would follow all city laws related to fundraising.

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