Fenty's political fortunes tied to success of D.C. school reforms

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; B01

For Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, the metric is the message: They pay assiduous attention to the reams of data generated by the D.C. school system in an effort to define what success looks like.

In their view, the numbers more than justify the decision to give Fenty (D) direct control of the long-troubled schools in 2007. Test scores and graduation rates are up. Enrollment is stable after years of decline, even with the continued robust growth of the city's independent public charter schools. Thousands of students will begin classes Monday on renovated campuses. Families with special-needs children get faster responses when they seek help.

But underlying the numbers are caveats and complexities usually lost in the sound-bite staccato of a political campaign. Drill deeper, and the Fenty-Rhee record of improvement is discernible but more modest -- even fragile. The data show how far the city remains from the goal the mayor set three years ago: to make the District's public schools the highest-performing urban system in the country. Even those who admire the energy Fenty and Rhee have brought to D.C. education say they have hurt their cause by overstating their success.

"It's not just that it's fragile. It comes close in my mind to selling the public a bill of goods," said Mary Lord, the Ward 2 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. She has not taken a public stance on the mayoral race.

Fenty, facing a stiff challenge from D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, is among a handful of big-city mayors whose political fortunes are tethered to improvements in public education because they control the schools. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) trumpeted gains in his city schools when he won reelection last year, but the luster of his record dimmed after New York state officials reported last month that more than half of city students failed English tests.

Fenty has staked his bid for a second term in part on progress in the schools and his steadfast support of the outspoken chancellor he hired. Here's a look at the four areas that make up the basis for his case:

Scores: They are indeed up, continuing a trend that began under Rhee's predecessor, former superintendent Clifford Janey. The three-year record shows double-digit growth in secondary school scores on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System -- an average gain of 14 percentage points in the reading pass rate and 17 points in the math rate. Experts say those gains surpass the norm for large urban school districts.

"There is no question in my mind that the schools are better," said Kati Haycock, president of the D.C.-based Education Trust, an advocate for disadvantaged students.

But this year, elementary pass rates declined about 4.5 points. That setback followed gains of 19 points in math and 11 points in reading from 2007 to 2009. Rhee said she is analyzing the results but has no answers yet.

Analysis of test scores by ward shows the persistent gulf in achievement between the city's poorest children and its most affluent. In 2007, 27 percent of Ward 8 elementary students read proficiently, compared with 78 percent of their peers in Ward 3 -- a spread of 51 percentage points. This year, the Ward 8 children were at 29 percent and those in Ward 3 at 86 percent, widening the gap to 57 points. In Ward 7, reading proficiency rates for secondary students rose from 17 percent in 2007 to 28 percent in 2010 -- 11 points. But Ward 3's rate rose almost 13 points in that time, and the disparity between the two wards remains about 50 points.

"It's maddening and it's hard," Rhee acknowledged in a recent interview. "Have our ward 7 and 8 schools progressed? Absolutely. But the gap is still ridiculous."

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test, shows a six-year run of gains that span the tenures of Janey and Rhee. Last year, math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders in the District grew more than for peers in any other urban district that took the test.

But here again, the achievement gap remains wide. Average math scores of white D.C. fourth-graders grew from 262 in 2007 to 270 last year (on a scale of 500). Scores rose three points for D.C. African American students, from 209 to 212. So the gap widened from 53 points to 58.

In addition, more D.C. schools are failing to meet the rising test-score targets of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Last year, 34 out of about 125 schools made adequate progress. This year, 10 did.

Enrollment: In 1960, D.C. public schools had 146,000 students. A half-century of steep decline leveled off last school year, when enrollment stood at 44,467, a dip of less than 1 percent from the previous year. Much of the stabilization has come on the strength of an effort to attract more pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. The system is still losing students in many grades, but at a slower rate.

For example, between the school years 2007-08 and 2008-09, the District lost 7 percent of the children moving from kindergarten to first grade. That annual attrition rate fell to 1 percent in the last school year, and officials project no loss in the coming academic year. The exodus appears to be easing at other levels, as well. The net loss of sixth-graders headed to seventh grade has dropped from 20 percent to 5 percent. The system is actually gaining enrollment in the rise from seventh to eighth grade.

But retention of high school students remains a challenge. Many opt for private schools.

Meanwhile, leaders of the charter sector complain that Fenty has been unresponsive to concerns that traditional public schools get more funding. Last fall, charter schools enrolled 27,617 children, an 8 percent increase over 2008, and 50 percent more than in 2003. About 38 percent of public students are now in charter schools -- outside Fenty's control. Some charter schools, especially in the middle grades, outperform the regular schools.

Graduation rates: Fenty points to data showing that 72 percent of students graduated in 2009, up nearly three points from the previous year. Officials attributed the gains to stronger intervention programs and closer scrutiny of transcripts to make certain students have the credits to finish.

But the Office of the State Superintendent of Education uses what many experts call a flawed method for calculating high school completion. The formula divides the number of graduating seniors by that same number plus those who have dropped out in the previous four years. Analysts say a better way to track graduation rates would be to measure the percentage of ninth-graders who graduate within four years. D.C. officials say they are planning to switch to the more widely accepted "cohort" method. That would probably show a less-rosy picture. Education Week this year estimated the District's 2007 graduation rate at about 59 percent.

Facilities: Fenty invested heavily in a physical renewal of the system. He and Rhee closed or consolidated more than two dozen schools, claiming a savings of $17 million in security, custodial and food service costs. A new agency created under the mayoral control legislation, the Office of Public Education Facilities Management, spent nearly $1 billion on the city's aging schools. It has provided many campuses with boilers or plumbing and electrical upgrades. Three middle schools (Sousa, Hardy and Deal) and a dozen elementary schools (including Brent, Burroughs and Ferebee-Hope) have been completely renovated. Within two years, four high schools (Eastern, Wilson, Anacostia and Woodson) will be renovated or rebuilt.

Officials say the money has been spread throughout the city without favor to class or race. Predominantly black Ward 5, for example, received $156 million for school construction, more than any other ward in 2008 and 2009. Ward 8 was second with $133 million.

But some school advocates question Fenty's approach. Mary Filardo, director of the 21st Century School Fund, who has been reported to be a Gray supporter, said dollar totals are not as meaningful as spending per square foot. Her analysis shows that D.C. school construction since 2007 has favored wards 2 and 3, where outlays average between $118 and $152 per square foot. In wards 7 and 8, it drops to between $40 and $54 per square foot. Another study, by the D.C. Council's budget office, shows that nearly 75 percent of the students in Ward 3 attend class in modernized buildings, compared with 21 percent in Ward 8.

Allen Y. Lew, Fenty's school facilities chief, declined a request for comment.

Special education: There are tangible signs of improvement in service for 11,000 students with disabilities. In January, the schools system opened Early Stages, a diagnostic center for children ages 3 to 6, where developmental delays can be spotted and addressed early in life.

City officials say part of the Blackman-Jones lawsuit, which has kept D.C. special education under federal court oversight for years, could soon be dismissed. The principal attorney representing families of special education students said the city has made significant strides in providing timely administrative hearings for families dissatisfied with services.

But doubts have been raised about the city's contention that it successfully closed and implemented on a timely basis 90 percent of hearing officer decisions calling for special ed services. Clarence Sundram, one of the two court-appointed monitors, told U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman in May that the rate was "substantially lower than the claimed 90 percent rate of compliance."

This is one of a series of articles on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray as they compete for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

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