Emily Langhorne, a former high school English teacher, is a policy analyst for the Reinventing America’s Schools project at The Progressive Policy Institute.
For the past six months, scandal after scandal has come to light in the nation’s capital as the media’s interrogation lamps have shone on D.C. Public Schools.
In November, WAMU exposed a graduation scandal at Ballou High School, leading the Office of the State Superintendent to launch an investigation into DCPS. The investigation revealed district-wide complicity in a systemic culture that pressured teachers to pass students regardless of their attendance or academic performance. The report concluded that one in three 2017 DCPS graduates were awarded diplomas in violation of district policies.
Best-case scenario, 67 percent of the class of 2018 graduated. That’s a significant drop from the 73 percent rate the district claimed in 2017.
What’s happened in DCPS is tragic — not only that the number of students graduating declined but also that DCPS has been graduating students who aren’t prepared for life beyond school.
Yet there is a story of real academic progress in the nation’s capital. It’s the story of the other public schools, the ones educating nearly 50 percent of public school students. It’s the story of D.C.’s charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools operated by independent organizations, usually nonprofits. Most are schools of choice, and unlike magnet schools in traditional districts, they cannot select their students. Freed from many rules constraining district-operated schools, charters exchange increased autonomy for increased accountability. They are normally held accountable for their performance through contracts with authorizers, who close and replace them if students aren’t learning enough. The D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB) has closed more than 40 failing schools since 2007.
In 2017, D.C.’s 21 charter high schools graduated 73.4 percent of their students in four years. Since the PCSB audits every graduating student’s transcript, that number is an accurate reflection of student achievement.
That number also includes two alternative high schools: one for students involved in the criminal justice system and another for “at-risk” and overage students. Knowing it will benefit students in the long term, charters often encourage students to stay for a fifth year if they aren’t ready to graduate in four. In 2017, the sector’s five-year graduation rate was 78.8 percent.
The PCSB audit is done in partnership with the schools. A PCSB auditor and a school representative review the documentation together. In addition to looking for credit competition and course requirements, PCSB auditors check for discrepancies between students’ report cards, grade change forms and transcripts. The PCSB also audits a random sample of ninth grade students’ transcripts. If they find any discrepancies, they’ll the audit the transcript of every ninth grade student at that school.
While no system is cheat-proof, it would take extensive effort to cheat this one. A PCSB audit is not like having a principal look over records. The charter board is an outside entity concerned with data, quality, regulation and oversight; it has no motivation to claim a school is succeeding when it’s failing. Unlike DCPS, in some recent years the charter sector has reported declining graduation rates. In 2013, charters’ four-year graduation rate fell from 77 percent to 75.3 percent, then again to 68.9 percent in 2014. Since 2014, the sector’s rate has slowly increased back to 73.4 percent.
Other data confirm the very real outcomes D.C.’s charters are delivering. In 2017, for instance, 95.8 percent of charter graduates were accepted into four-year universities. And D.C. charter students have made some of the last decade’s largest gains on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, widely considered the best test for measuring student achievement. It’s no wonder that more than 11,000 children in the nation’s capital are on waitlists for public charters.
DCPS expects steep declines in the number of graduates at its non-selective high schools. In Ward 8, the city’s poorest ward, Anacostia and Ballou High Schools have projected graduation rates of only 25 percent and 33 percent, respectively. In contrast, the three public charters in Ward 8 had an average graduation rate of 78 percent last year.
Even Wilson, DCPS’s highest-performing non-selective high school — and the only public high school in affluent Ward 3 — expects only 62 percent of students to graduate. That’s lower than all but two of the 17 charter high schools (excluding alternative schools) that had graduation rates in 2017.
Amid all the negativity surrounding DCPS, we should remember that 43,340 of the district’s 91,322 public school students attend charter schools. Many of these students walked across a stage this month, and each diploma they received stands as a testament to the true progress of D.C.’s other public schools.