December 11, 2011

THERE WERE two, seemingly unrelated, announcements about education in the District last week. The first was the unveiling of a new rating system for public charter schools in which a number of schools were identified as being in the top tier for student performance. The second was the release of national test data that made clear the formidable challenges facing the city’s public schools even as reform has brought progress. What struck us was how the experience of some of the city’s best-performing charters — those with high-poverty student populations — should inform efforts to eliminate the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white peers.

Analysis of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results showed D.C. students, like those in many of 21 urban districts studied, improving in math but not in reading. One factor may be an increase in special education students taking the test. In 2009, 12 percent of fourth-graders and 14 percent of eighth-graders were excluded from the test because they required special accommodations. In 2011, all but 4 percent of students were included.

The most heartening finding was that the percentage of proficient or advanced students across all grades and subjects increased from 2009, a validation of the city’s vigorous reforms started in 2007. But the fact that those proficiency levels are scandalously low — less than 25 percent, according to the NAEP — is a sobering reminder of how far the system has to go.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the gap — the nation’s largest, according to the federal analysis — between black and white students. D.C. is unusual in that its schools enroll relatively few poor white students. As Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools observed, the gap in the District is more of an income divide.

That’s precisely why the experience of standout charter schools is so relevant. Achievement Preparatory Academy PCS, with 86.2 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, for example, or Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, with 79.1 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, can help show how to overcome the obstacles posed by poverty.

One big advantage that charter schools offer low-income children is more time in school. An extended school day, weekend classes, a longer school year and summer instruction are tools that successful charters have used to lift students disadvantaged by a home life that doesn’t include educational support. D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told us that officials are examining ways to elongate the school day for students who are in most need of added class time. Another advantage of charter schools is flexibility in basic school management such as, for instance, requiring teachers to submit weekly lesson plans to principals, a practice inhibited by the public schools’ contract with the teachers union.

The national results mirror earlier state tests suggesting a slowing in the pace of improvement as officials confront the more intractable ills of urban education. That calls for bigger thinking and bolder action, not for backing down.