Then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson in August. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The resignation of D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson in the wake of two embarrassing scandals at the high school level could provide D.C. schools with an opportunity to change course and regain its reputation as a national model of education reform. But that can only happen if officials recognize the true source of both scandals: elementary school, long considered the bright spot in the system. 

The first scandal involved the disclosure that the record-high graduation rates of recent years were largely a mirage. Under pressure from the D.C. Public Schools central office to achieve ambitious goals, high school principals passed that pressure on to teachers. More than a third of last year’s graduates, an investigation revealed, shouldn’t have gotten a diploma. 

The second scandal, coming hard on the heels of the first, resulted from Wilson’s efforts to avoid sending his oldest child to one of those scandal-plagued high schools. Like many parents, Wilson didn’t want to subject his child to the dysfunctional high school she was zoned for. Unlike others, he was able to pull strings to have his daughter admitted to the one DCPS neighborhood high school that is seen as functional, located in affluent Ward 3. 

The second scandal only reinforced what the first one revealed: DCPS’s high schools — like high schools in low-performing school districts throughout the country — have yet to benefit from the massive amounts of time and money that have been expended on improving public education. Test scores at the high school level, locally and nationally, haven’t budged in years, and the gap in scores between lower- and higher-income students looms larger than ever. Clearly, even a hard-charging reformer like Wilson realized that. 

The pressure to graduate students by any means necessary can’t be laid entirely at Wilson’s feet. While he did nothing to alleviate that pressure, it began well before he arrived on the scene. He bears more responsibility for the second scandal, but it’s understandable — if not forgivable — that a parent would do whatever he could to ensure a decent high school experience for his child. Wilson’s real culpability lies in the fact that he did nothing to address the root of the problem he was trying to avoid, even though he had every reason to be aware of it. 

Wilson’s two younger children attend J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Ward 6. In December, another J.O. Wilson parent, Andrea Tucker, testified at a D.C. Council roundtable on the then-emerging graduation rate scandal. Tucker complained that instead of following the official DCPS curriculum, which calls for daily 45-minute lessons in social studies or science, the principal was confining students to a steady diet of reading and math. 

Her fourth-grader, Tucker said, was getting two and a half hours a day of reading, and his homework consisted only of more reading. And, she said while choking back tears, she recently learned — after repeated inquiries — that he was one or two grade levels behind. She fears that he and many other students aren’t learning what they need to succeed at higher grade levels. (J.O. Wilson’s principal responded that the school is committed to “providing opportunities to learn social studies and science” as well as other subjects.) 

Most parents at J.O. Wilson, Tucker told me, have been “in an uproar” over the narrow curriculum. But apparently their number didn’t include the one parent who was in a position to do something about it: Wilson. Tucker says she contacted top DCPS officials, including the then-chancellor, but received no response. 

Perhaps that’s because Wilson subscribes to the prevailing theory that students whose reading test scores are low simply need more work on reading. That might sound reasonable, but the problem is that “reading” has been interpreted to mean not just matching letters to sounds but also reading comprehension. Comprehension has been taught as a series of free-floating skills: finding the main idea, making inferences, etc. The assumption is that what students are reading isn’t that important, as long as they’re practicing skills. And standardized reading tests appear to be testing those skills. 

In fact, though, cognitive scientists have found that whether you can understand what you read depends primarily on whether you have relevant background knowledge and vocabulary, not on general skills. If you can’t understand a text because it’s full of unfamiliar words and concepts, you’ll never be able to “find the main idea.” At the elementary level, it may look like students are making progress after years of practicing comprehension skills, but that’s only because the books they’re asked to read — and the reading passages on the standardized tests they take — often don’t assume much knowledge. 

The bottom line is that the way to improve kids’ reading comprehension and prepare them for the more complex texts they’ll be expected to read in high school and beyond is to expand their knowledge by teaching them about social studies, science and art. Not only is that approach good for kids, they enjoy it a lot more than endlessly practicing “skills” on a random assortment of books. But in a misguided effort to boost scores, many elementary schools — and some middle schools — have nearly eliminated those subjects from the curriculum. And while the skills-focused approach to reading comprehension is almost universal, its effects fall hardest on children who are least likely to be exposed to knowledge of the world at home. 

The result is that students often arrive at high school without the basic knowledge they need to even begin to tackle high school level work. Teachers at several DCPS high schools have told me it’s not uncommon for students to confuse the Civil War and the civil rights movement, to be unclear on the difference between a city and a state or a country and a continent, or to be unable to find the United States on a map of the world. One student in an SAT prep class was amazed to see the words “South America” on a map, apparently for the first time. How can it be called that, he wanted to know, if it’s not in America? 

At any high school, some students are capable of doing grade-level work. But their progress can be stymied if many of their classmates lack basic knowledge of the world. And those who lack that knowledge may decide there’s no point in showing up for class when they struggle to follow what’s being taught, especially if they know there are no consequences. 

Firing teachers and principals — or even replacing the chancellor — won’t necessarily fix this problem. It’s systemic, the result of pressure to boost test scores in elementary and middle school combined with pressure to graduate students who are tragically unprepared for high school. 

Unfortunately, getting rid of tests isn’t the answer either: Without tests, we would have no way of comparing students at different schools. And while tests don’t measure everything, they do uncover broad inequities in our educational system. But we need to understand that tests don’t tell us how to address them. 

It’s not impossible to fill the gaps in students’ knowledge at the high school level, but for many students that will take more than four years. Long-term, it makes far more sense to address the problem at its source: elementary school. But that will require a chancellor who understands that the pressure to boost test scores at lower grade levels is only setting students up for failure later on — rather than a chancellor who apparently couldn’t see that the narrow curriculum at his younger kids’ school was creating the very dysfunction he was trying to avoid for his oldest one. 

 Natalie Wexler is co-author with Judith C. Hochman of “The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades.”