The thing that is so frustrating about the nation’s education crisis: It doesn’t have to be this way. Rich kid, poor kids-they are capable of learning. There are certainly damaging sociological trends that hinder school performance (unmarried parents who don’t provide an environment in which homework can be done-indeed, don’t provide an environment where kids are even urged to do their assignments). But all too often there are people within the system who contribute to failed schools. Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute writes today of the man-made flaws that confront D.C.’s new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee: 

“One bit of the conventional wisdom hampering school reformers is the belief that if superintendents taking over troubled districts just concentrate on curriculum, instruction and ‘best practices,’ everything else will sort itself out. This myth has been promoted by education professors and others who think large-scale reform entails simply figuring out what a good classroom looks like and then replicating it as necessary.

“The new D.C. schools chancellor , Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty, are expoosing the bitter fruits of that mind-set. By looking closely at the agencies responsible for textbook distribution and personnel records, they have already revealed the astonishing incompetence, lethargy and lack of organization that have long been acceptable in the school system.

“The District’s textbook department, for example, had tens of thousands of books sitting in crates stacked in its warehouse, with no plan — pressing or otherwise — to get them to the schools. When the former superintendent tried to address the system, his emphasis was on short-term patches. Even after his administration spent $3 million on the problem, just one-third of principals send notification of their book needs on time, the warehouse operation remains a disaster and no reliable systemwide count of textbooks exists.

“Regarding personnel, Rhee’s staff has discovered more than 4 million documents relating to employee benefits, recommendations and payroll that have never been filed. The immediate concern for sorting through these papers is assuring the District of a ‘clean’ audit. More critical is the longer-term need to track personnel, money and resources to competently manage a billion-dollar organization.”