March 7

David Catania is an at-large member of the D.C. Council and chairman of council’s Education Committee.

I was interested to read the Feb. 25 op-ed by former Washington Post publisher Donald E. Graham on the District of Columbia Public Schools and the D.C. Council education committee’s recent hearing on DCPS [“Has D.C. learned its lesson?”]. This hearing was part of the council’s regular performance oversight process. The committee is required to hold such hearings on the agencies in its purview, which include the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the deputy mayor for education, the state board of education, the public library system and the public charter school board.

I welcome Graham’s participation in local education policy, and I share his optimism about the direction of our public school system. I see the incredible improvement firsthand in my near-daily visits to D.C. public schools, where I have met hundreds of dedicated and talented educators. When you have been to as many schools as I have — 124 in the past year — you do not need test scores to know that we are making progress.

But we still face big challenges, and looking beyond the top-line test results to better understand these challenges does not make one, as Graham suggested, a member of the “Flat Earth Society.” It makes us intellectually curious and thorough. There is substantial evidence that the recent improvements are rooted, at least in part, in demographic shifts in our schools.

Between 2007 and 2013, the share of D.C. fourth-graders who are African American fell from 83 percent to 67 percent. Meanwhile, the share of white students more than doubled, from 6 percent to 13 percent. Similar shifts occurred on the eighth-grade level. It is well established that socioeconomic status and student achievement are correlated. Because socioeconomic status often tracks with race in our city, this demographic shift matters in understanding overall results.

In support of his position, Graham pointed to data from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures fourth- and eighth-graders’ aptitude in reading and math. Those data also show that African American fourth-graders in the District scored, on average, 68 points lower in reading and 59 points lower in math than their white classmates. It is significant that the average-scale score for reading remained unchanged between 2007 and 2013 for African American fourth-graders, at 192. Among African American and white eighth-graders in the District, there was a 64-point difference in average reading scores and a 62-point difference in average math scores. These are the largest achievement gaps in the nation. And in most cases, they are growing, not shrinking.

Furthermore, in 2013, only 49.7 percent of African American males in DCPS graduated high school on time, compared with 88 percent of their white counterparts. I am not satisfied with progress that does not reach low-income and minority students. And I do not believe that this is merely an area in need of improvement. This is an emergency.

Over the past year, the D.C. Council’s education committee has developed several strategies to address this crisis, including additional funding for the schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, to support low-income students and those at risk of academic failure; greater budget autonomy for principals to make decisions that are in students’ best interest; and replacing a policy that required social promotion with one of early detection and mandatory intervention. Each of these new laws incorporated the views, and ultimately the support, of the mayor and his education team.

Speaking of supporting the chancellor, last year I stood with her on two especially controversial public education issues: school closings and allegations about her role in a cheating scandal. I attended every community meeting on the chancellor’s plan to close 15 schools and listened to the concerns of those who opposed her proposal. It would have been far more politically expedient to join ranks with them. But the chancellor was right, and I supported her decision.

When allegations about test cheating resurfaced last spring, I found it more productive to strengthen our testing protocols going forward than to prolong finger-pointing. For this I earned the wrath of another major media outlet, which accused me of whitewashing Henderson’s alleged involvement. Previously, it was not against District law for adults to participate in cheating on academic assessments. Thanks to the committee’s work, our city now has one of the most comprehensive testing integrity laws in the country.

Perhaps Graham and I simply disagree about the value of an engaged legislature. I see the committee’s role as helping to remove the barriers between students and their success and providing oversight and accountability for the system. I welcome continued substantive contributions from Graham and organizations such as the CityBridge Foundation in helping to remove these barriers. But the city’s elected leaders, educators and parents have important roles in building a public education system that provides our students with opportunities to succeed in life.