Jonetta Rose Barras
Jonetta Rose Barras
Opinion Writer

Jonetta Rose Barras: You call this an ‘education election’?

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other officials were giddy last month when they announced D.C. Public Schools’ test scores. But a closer examination of the 2013 Trial Urban District Assessment exposes troubling weaknesses and disturbing class-based fault lines in the city’s seven-year-old education reform movement.

It’s true that scores for fourth-graders increased by five points in reading and seven in math. Eighth-graders saw their numbers rise by eight points and five points, respectively. Those numbers sound good. Chancellor Kaya Henderson declared herself “super-duper thrilled” and characterized the results as “leapfrogging growth.”

Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras’s weekly column focuses on local life, government and politics, with an emphasis on the District. With more than 20 years’ experience reporting and commenting for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, City Paper, WAMU and other outlets, she is a familiar voice in the D.C. region.

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I wish I could celebrate with her. I can’t. There is more to the story — depressingly more.

Scores for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) actually lagged behind those of other big-city school districts. For example, in 2013, the average reading score for eighth-graders in large cities was 258; for DCPS it was 245; interestingly, in 2002, the D.C. average was 240. In 2013, only 18 percent of DCPS eighth-graders scored at or above proficient in reading.

Anyone who thinks that’s worth a jig may be a practitioner of what former president George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

There was a 64-point spread between the reading scores of white DCPS eighth-graders (301) and blacks (237). The achievement gap between the two groups remains one of the widest in the country.

That means African American students in the District scored lower than their counterparts in other cities. For example, only 9 percent of black eighth-graders scored at or above proficient in reading, according to the report. This alarmingly poor performance comes even as the number of African Americans enrolled in DCPS has fallen. In 2007, for example, 88 percent of eighth-graders were African American. In 2013, they constituted only 74 percent of that student population.

The income gap is equally disconcerting. According to the report, low-income eighth-graders in DCPS scored 40 percentage points lower on reading than other students. That’s 17 points wider than in 2002.

Why is a predominantly African American government with an African American chancellor having such difficulty educating African American children, particularly those who are from low-income families?

The District’s education reform movement was expected to assault and eliminate such disparities, which could only perpetuate the economic woes of many communities while increasing social-service spending by the government. Instead, there have been tons of excuses from local officials for their failure, coupled with extensive masking of the truth.

Chuck Thies, the manager for Gray’s reelection campaign, has said that 2014 is an education election. Was he serious or simply trying out political slogans to determine which might better assist his severely tarnished candidate?

Until last year, education reform under Gray (D) was — to use one of his favorite words — moribund. He started to rise to the challenge and responsibility only after the D.C. Council created a separate education committee, headed by David Catania (I-At Large). Catania and council member David Grosso (I-At Large) spent last summer breathing life into the movement through a series of ward-based meetings with parents and education advocates.

But if this is indeed an education election, then we’re all in trouble. Neither Gray nor any of the other candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s mayoral nomination has offered a cogent, innovative or aggressive plan for improving public education.

Andy Shallal actually wants to repeal mayoral control, taking a step back in time. Except for allowing preschool enrollment of children 2 years of age, council member Jack Evans (Ward 2) essentially would stay the course. His colleague Vincent B. Orange (At Large) told me he would provide opportunities from preschool through college — specifically the University of the District of Columbia.

Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) has focused on middle school, introducing legislation that advocates for the proliferation of Ward 3 institutions, in the model of Alice Deal Middle School, in every community. Tommy Wells, who once served on the school board, told me he has a “very clear blueprint” that would, among other things, allow neighborhood preference for charter schools. Mostly, he would replicate what happened in his Ward 6: a resurgence of traditional elementary schools and a push to revive middle schools and Eastern High School.

Ironically, public education is the one area where the mayor has near-absolute control. That’s why this absence of thoughtful or bold plans is surprising. It means the DCPS achievement and income gaps exposed by the Trial Urban District Assessment report likely will grow wider. Every D.C. resident should be troubled by that possibility.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
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