October 12, 2012

In his Sept. 24 column, “D.C.’s goal for higher test scores in lowest-performing schools is a risky trip to Fantasyland,” Post education writer Jay Mathews looked at the D.C. schools’ new plan to raise achievement at the district’s 40 lowest-performing schools by 40 percentage points in five years and declared: “It is hard to understand how intelligent adults could believe that target has any connection to reality.”

“The District’s records show that those schools have made no significant improvement in the past five years. . . . The team that former chancellor Michelle Rhee brought in five years ago, including current chancellor Kaya Henderson, can’t explain what it will do differently in the next five years,” he wrote.

As the principal of Kramer Middle School, one of those lowest-performing 40, let me take a shot at it, at least with regard to my own school.

At the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, Kramer logged barely double-digit scores on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS): 17 percent proficient in reading and 26 percent proficient in math. The school had a much-warranted bull’s-eye on its back. But after a year of planning and a three-year School Improvement Grant and two-year Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Education Department, we have high hopes for change. Our secret weapon and education equalizer? Broadband.

Kramer is the first school in the district to implement a new program that is predicted to elevate student engagement and drastically improve test scores. The grant funding has increased the number of laptops available for use in our classrooms, so that we now have a one-to-one student-to-laptop scenario at Kramer, a rare gift in the field of education. Under Henderson’s direction, our campus is testing a learning model combining online instruction and face-to-face teaching.

Here’s how it works. At one time, half of the students in a classroom are on laptops, engaged with broadband-enabled lessons that require active participation. This shrinks the student-to-teacher ratio, allowing the other half to receive more one-on-one attention from the teacher to reinforce their learning. Midway through the class period, the students switch places.

Requiring the completion of task-oriented lessons online means that students can’t daydream during a class-long lecture. It also means that they receive performance scores immediately, allowing teachers to quickly hone in on problem areas. Learning materials that support each course are available 24/7 to students online; eighth-grade social studies students, for example, now have access to videos and interactive maps connected to the era being studied that they can view as many times as needed to ensure understanding. All this broadband-enabled learning also centrally locates schoolwide data, improving organization and communication among the staff.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm in our country. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, only 37 percent of all teachers reported having electronic access to achievement data for students in their classrooms. Building out reliable broadband access must remain a national priority.

After a few short weeks, there is already a heightened level of excitement throughout the halls and classrooms at Kramer. Students, teachers and administrators are regularly logging on to access their curriculum through the Brainhoney Learning Management System. To overcome the huge disconnect in digital access typical in high-poverty areas, we literally have an open-door policy with parents. Throughout the year, moms and dads can visit the school and attend workshops with parent coordinators. By making education a family affair, we believe we can quickly and efficiently identify trouble areas or subjects that should be monitored at home, as well as in the classroom.

I know how much Mathews is concerned about the future of education in Washington, and he raises serious issues. I’m highly committed to proving him wrong and hitting our goal of boosting test scores by 40 percentage points in five years. As we closely monitor the progress at Kramer, let’s encourage the public and private sectors to invest in the networks that make online learning possible. Broadband is the bridge that will connect D.C. Public Schools’ goals to reality.

The writer is the principal of Kramer Middle School in Southeast Washington.