May 8, 2013 at 8:00 pm EDT | by Peter Rosenstein
Another good education idea gone awry?

It’s fair to ask why Council member David Catania hired Hogan Lovells to handle research and development of new education legislation and why — if this is so important — it’s being paid for with private donations rather than public funds. Is there public oversight that will be avoided by paying for it this way?

The Hogan Lovells Education Practice Group has some impressive individuals, including Elizabeth Meers, practice area leader. They have a wealth of background working with schools and higher education. But there is little in their online biographies to engender confidence in their familiarity with teaching or running K-12 schools. Only one member of the practice group claims a background as a principal and teacher and that is in the Montgomery County Schools. She also has a connection to Teach for America, which sounds like a warning bell to some.

None of this should stop them from doing a good job in researching D.C. education regulations and policies; looking at other policies around the nation; or helping to draft new legislation. But it does make you wonder why there aren’t D.C. education experts, administrators, teachers and parents as part of an initial group doing this research and discussing and debating the relevance of the research found.

Catania should be applauded for taking the time to learn about education, visiting schools and meeting with parents, administrators and teachers. But that begs the question of whether the people at Hogan Lovells will be meeting with them directly. Will the final product from Hogan Lovells be a surprise to everyone except Catania?

D.C. has recent experience with someone making decisions about our schools and our children without really listening to parents, administrators and teachers. That happened during the tenure of Michelle Rhee. What began as an exciting idea ended in defeat for both Mayor Fenty and his chancellor with recriminations on all sides continuing. It will be a shame if the $300,000 spent on the team at Hogan Lovells ends up the same way — a good idea gone awry.

School reform means different things to different constituencies. There have been various reform efforts going back to the 1960s; from Ocean Hill/Brownsville in New York to Rhee in D.C. with educators moving to open classrooms and ridding schools of ability grouping and back again. Every 10 or so years we give an old idea a new name and call it reform. We went from saying you can’t educate children in classrooms with more than 20 students to again saying good teachers can teach larger classes. We tried all kinds of reading programs from Hooked on Phonics to Success for All and still have huge achievement gaps, students who can’t read and low high school graduation rates.

I taught grade school in Harlem, served as executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children for 14 years and served on the education transition teams of Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray. I both fought the teachers union and was a member of the union and can attest that education reform is neither easy nor simple. I agree with Sam Chaltain who wrote, “Despite public stereotypes of the profession, K-12 education is a complex web of cognitive, social, emotional, language, ethical and physical challenges and opportunities.”

George H.W. Bush’s much-touted 1989 education summit resulted in six national education goals. We have never successfully attained the first “All children in America will start school ready to learn” and in many ways that is the crux of the problem. We know the first five years of a child’s life are crucial to brain function and making synapse connections. If a child isn’t challenged in those five years because of where or how they grow up, they spend years trying to catch up.

With this knowledge, many in the community will be uncomfortable turning to a bunch of lawyers, no matter how smart, to do the research and make recommendations on how to improve education without having direct and ongoing input from parents, teachers and local education experts.

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