Andy Shallal is an artist, a restaurant owner, a businessman, and now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Washington DC.
I have known Andy slightly for a number of years, and briefly worked for him in the bookstores at his Busboys & Poets restaurants until I decided to return to classroom teaching.
Last week Andy was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about education.
Please keep reading.
He started by telling me that education played a huge part in his decision to run for mayor. He sees education as the great social equalizer and as absolutely necessary, particularly in Washington DC, where there are immense issues of quality, equity and race.
When I asked about mayoral control, he responded that the real starting point for quality education in the city is to begin with a strong school board. What he does not like is how parents have been totally excluded from the governance of DC public schools since mayoral control was first established. He is concerned when parents are out of the equation, and feels that parental involvement can only strengthen real accountability. He does not think it has to be a question of either total mayoral control or no mayoral control, that one can broaden the governance while still have the mayor play a constructive role in this most important of city functions. By implication, to undue the damage that has been done may require some level of mayoral control, at least for a while
Shallal is critical of what he has been seeing, but refused to comment on the current Chancellor Kaya Henderson as an individual. He finds the current reforms troubling on a number of levels. While there was no doubt that DC schools were in need of significant improvement, he is bothered that the result of the Education Reform Act of 2007 was more testing rather than a willingness to be more experimental, to try different thing to see what most benefited the students. He thinks the school system needs to be flexible, and to explore what has worked in other jurisdictions to try to find what will most benefit DC students.
He is especially troubled by the IMPACT system of teacher evaluation. Having talked with teachers in adjacent Montgomery County Maryland where there is a Peer Assistance and Review System strongly supported by the teachers, he notes that to be effective an evaluation system must be something that everyone buys into. He sees evaluation as having the primary function to improve teaching, not just to catch people doing something wrong. As a business man he has had the responsibility of evaluating his employees. His approach has been to make sure you hire the right people, and then be sure you are investing in them. He believes that DC Public Schools should be taking a similar approach.
Both in evaluation and in programs, Shallal hopes that by including the unions in the discussion process that the school system might be able to have some flexibility in how things are done.
Given the high degree of poverty of DC public school students, Andy Shallal wants to reinstitute the wrap-around services taken out during the Fenty administration (which means during the tenure of Michelle Rhee as Chancellor). These should include nutritional counseling, health counseling and even school-based health clinics.
DC was awarded Federal money under Race to the Top. Shallal would like a close examination of how those funds have been spent and what has been accomplished, with at least an implication of seeing whether funds can be shifted away from the test-based reforms upon which the District has been relying to something more productive.
As an employer of graduates of DC Public Schools, Andy Shallal strongly believes in the need to have some sort of life skills academy added to the school structure. He would like see this done fairly early on in the progress through K-12, perhaps with a mandated 6 week program during the summers, with follow up application during the school years. He thinks the local DC colleges and universities could be a real resource on this, and that they want to be involved with the school community. Among the issues that are to his mind are critical are learning to handle conflict, peer pressures, and in an increasingly diverse city and nation the differences among students and parts of the community. The summer program would provide a baseline, with continuity during the school year. Soft skills and emotional intelligene are important skills for everyone, whether they will be going to the military, post-secondary education, or employment upon completion of K-12 education.
Andy noted that for last 7 years there has been a concerted effort to convince people to move to a market style school system. Hhe finds that unsustainable because it will widen gaps between those able to take advantage of the market-based system and those stuck in failing neighborhood schools. As he put itl “true choice to me is that I have a great public school in my community” regardless of the community in which I choose to live.
Shallal realizes that charters are not going to disappear from DC. Some are well established and serving families quite pleased with the results obtained. But he would like to see equity in accountability between charters and public schools. That goes beyond comparability in test score performance for various subgroups. It also includes access to resources. Shallal is absolutely opposed to the notion of for-profit entities running or being the primary beneficiaries of charter schools. He wants charters where the exist to have a connection with the community and to be community based, not just another cookie cutter of some national charter chain.
Towards the end of the conversation, Andy Shallal offered some remarks about his overall vision. He views education as a very complicated issue, and says those offering simple panacea-like ideas to fix it are not presenting something valid, something that would actually benefit the students.
The nature of education is such that we very much need to reestablish a social contract that sees public education as a public good, and thus in his administration he will find a way to invest in public education.
He wants to broaden the discussion, and not just talk about polarizing ideas. He wants to find out what has been working and what has not been working, both in DC and in other school systems. He wants that discussion to be broadly inclusive. To be successful teachers and other educational professional cannot have it imposed upon them, but must participate in its development.
Because education occurs in the larger context of society, we need buy-in by parents, which can only happen if their voices are included. Because their taxes pay for education, others in the community without children in the public schools and the business community needs to feel invested in what happens, not to dictate, but to participate knowing that the graduates of DC Public Schools will be their employees, their customers, their neighbors.
Andy Shallal was kind enough to spend 40 minutes on this interview.
I have been a teacher since 1995, and an educational activist for some time before that, having first served on a school board advisory committee in my community a decade earlier. It is refreshing to see a candidate for a high office who has thought seriously about educational issues even if he is not himself a professional educator.
Some of the ideas Andy Shallal has offered will need refinement. I suspect that would not upset him, but that he would welcome a broad-based dialog that includes the entire community. He would use his influence over schools not to impose his own personal vision, but rather to use it as a starting point to develop a community-based vision of what DC Public Schools can and should be.