March 21, 2014

Ask most of the candidates in the District’s April 1 Democratic primary about the gap between our most and least successful public schools, and they’ll tell you they want every school to be great. That’s a laudable aspiration, but at our current pace it will take more than a generation to get there. Sadly, few candidates support acting boldly to change the lives of students being left behind.

The District’s traditional public schools have made significant strides, with scores rising to the point at which last year 47 percent of D.C. Public Schools students scored proficient in reading on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (D.C.-CAS), the District’s standardized test, and 50 percent did so in math. But that means only about half of our students are able to perform fairly basic math and reading tasks.

There is a long way to go. And the gap in achievement between wealthier and poor kids not only persists but also is increasing in some areas.

The bottom line is that the pace of change has been excruciatingly slow, with scores rising only about 1.3 percentage points per year. At that rate, true change will not come until the children of many of today’s elementary school students are starting school.

What do the candidates for mayor and D.C. Council have to say? Several, including Mayor Vincent Gray, are calling for extended school hours or after-school programs. Many talk about modernizing buildings. Charles Allen, a candidate for council in Ward 6, wants to involve parents more. Brianne Nadeau, running in Ward 1, and Andy Shallal, running for mayor, emphasize bringing wraparound services into schools to combat the effects of poverty. At-large candidate John Settles would create more specialized or magnet programs, while his competitor Nate Bennett-Fleming says we should “raise expectations” to push all kids to go to college.

These all are worthwhile steps on a long road to gradually improving a system that faces many challenges. But Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has set a goal of reaching 70 percent proficiency by 2017, and it’s hard to believe that any of these initiatives will move the needle fast enough to get us close to that.

Gray suggests that there is no “magic bullet or quick fix” and that education reform simply takes time. He may be right. But some education activists point to schools that seem to have figured out ways to help disadvantaged students achieve at higher levels quickly. If they’re right, shouldn’t we try to bring their approaches to more students, without delay?

Of the 143 D.C. public schools where 70 percent or more students are low-income, 23 are also high-achieving, with proficiency levels at 60 percent or higher. Of those 23, 19 are charter schools. For example, at KIPP D.C.’s Key Academy middle school, where 81 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals last year, the D.C.-CAS proficiency rate was a phenomenal 81.5 percent. That rivals Alice Deal in Tenleytown, the city’s most desirable middle school, which had 85.6 percent proficiency but was only 21 percent low-income.

At D.C. Prep’s Edgewood Elementary, which was 85 percent low-income, third-graders who have been at the school since pre-K scored as well as their counterparts at Upper Northwest’s Murch, which was only 9 percent low-income. Meanwhile, only 42 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals citywide score proficient in reading.

These charter operators seem to have come up with ways to improve the performance of low-income students more rapidly than DCPS. Some observers say the District should ask these schools to scale up their approaches. Why not try to maximize the number of students who benefit from something that appears to be working?

Others point out that not all charters are high-performing, and that’s true. And critics claim the reason that some charters are successful is that they’re able to “skim the cream,” either because the parents who apply to charters care more about education than those who don’t or because the schools somehow manipulate their admissions processes.

We’re not taking a position on that claim here. But it’s clear that if we’re going to bring fundamental change to education in the District, we have to reach all kids, not just a select group. One way to do that, and to test whether the methods of successful charters would work on a broader scale, would be to require certain charters to give a preference in admissions to all the kids in a given neighborhood, as DCPS schools do. Another would be to have high-performing charter organizations partner with struggling DCPS schools to try to turn the schools around while working with the same population of students.

That’s beginning to happen in at least one school. Stanton Elementary in Anacostia, which was one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the District, has been operated by a charter organization, Scholar Academies, for the past three years. (Disclosure: One of us, Natalie, serves on the board of a charter school, DC Scholars, that is also operated by Scholar Academies.) In that time, while Stanton has remained a DCPS school subject to the same union and other requirements as all DCPS schools, math scores increased from 8 percent proficient to 42 percent, and reading from 13 percent to 20 percent. Those who knew the school in its “before” phase say it’s now almost unrecognizable. Could that happen at other schools as well?

We asked the leading mayoral candidates about these ideas. Most demurred. Muriel Bowser said she would defer to the Public Charter School Board and didn’t take a position. Gray and Jack Evans are open to charter schools broadly, but weren’t eager for the mayor to play a major role in recruiting school operators. Shallal had strong reservations about expanding the role of charters.

Tommy Wells, however, said he would like to give this a shot. Rather than closing neighborhood schools, or waiting years for DCPS to try to turn them around, he advocates recruiting charter operators with proven track records to do the job. The schools would remain part of DCPS and might at some point become traditional public schools again. “But we can’t wait,” he said. “We can’t close more schools and consign more neighborhoods to not being able to have great schools.”

This wouldn’t be the right approach in every sector of the District. And at this point, we can’t be sure it’s the answer even for poor neighborhoods. But thousands of students in D.C. schools aren’t getting the education they deserve, and we need to try something bold if we want to reach them before it’s too late. Isn’t it worth a try?

The writers are, respectively. the editors of the blogs Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education.

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