When it comes to forecasting the educational future of District youth, especially for those living in low-income communities, there are some impressive words and initiatives being thrown around by past and present city leadership. Whether it’s Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s “Raise D.C.,” a recently established public-private sector partnership dedicated to “cradle-to-career” success for D.C. youth, or Michelle Rhee’s new “Radical” book tour, the prescriptions are impressive. Yet they continue to miss the mark.
Much has already been discussed about Raise D.C.’s report, released last week, which cites that 4-in-10 District third-graders read proficiently and four out of every 10 young adults has a full-time job.
Although reformers laud Rhee for cleaning up an intransigent education system, she left in her wake a wreckage of closed schools, doubled-up classrooms and performance statistics that fail to impress — a practice that current Chancellor Kaya Henderson is, unfortunately, continuing.
There is nothing radical about closing schools. It fails to address the problem, shifts the burden elsewhere and moves this city closer to a privatized all-charter system, out of accountability’s reach and away from public oversight. A “radical” approach would have been for Rhee to tackle poverty and unemployment in D.C., a far more effective method of advancing early childhood education.
Meanwhile, Gray’s new educational “blueprint,” as laid out in his State of the District speech last week, takes pride in the fact that D.C. is the “first-ever city to have a public-education system approaching a 50-50 balance in enrollment between traditional public schools and public charters.” This might be laudable if the 50-50 balance took us closer to educational equity, a goal of Gray’s, but the inequity gap remains chasmic.
Together these prescriptions are tepid.
If Gray (D), Rhee or Henderson were serious about the “cradle” part of the mission, and truly raising the District from the muck and mire of under-performance, they would look far beyond education for more radical reform.
Gray’s limited blueprint thinking was evident in how he delineated educational partnerships and objectives in his speech. The blueprint is primarily in coordination with D.C. Public Schools, the state superintendent of education, the Public Charter School Board, the interim deputy mayor for education and his office. With the aforementioned few he’ll:
“1) empower families to understand and access all aspects of our education system,
2) promote equity so that all children, regardless of which school they attend, have the resources they need to succeed,
3) plan across our education sectors to ensure access to quality educational seats in every neighborhood,
and 4) develop a transparent way to hold District government leaders and their education partners accountable”.
All of this is meritorious and much needed, but they are still relying on educational fixes for socioeconomic problems. Will any of it fix, for example, what’s happening in Southeast Washington schools?
A neighbor of mine in Anacostia, who was interviewed for this article, is a teacher in a Ward 8 school. He notes that kids are dropping out of high school because they don’t have the basic skills that should’ve been acquired in elementary school. His high school students can barely “decode” (that’s teacher speak for sounding out words), and most of his students, with the exception of one, needed a calculator to tell him the answer to this math problem: What’s half of three? Remember, these are high school students.
Even Raise D.C. recognized last week that roughly one-fourth of the District’s African American third-graders are proficient in math and only one-third is proficient in reading.
Compare this with 87 percent and 89 percent, respectively, for white students. This should be an outrage for anyone who believes in justice and equality, or anyone who believes in strengthening America’s workforce and economic competitiveness in the 21st century.
Beyond the basic deficiencies, it is life skills too – everything from managing emotions, to arriving on time, to being polite.
We need three times as many school therapists, according to my neighbor. This should be no surprise, given the high rates of poverty and unemployment in Ward 8, but our students are struggling with fear, instability, hunger, displacement, family breakup and the death of many, many loved ones. Nearly every child that my neighbor teaches needs grief counseling. Yet, in his school, they have only one school psychologist. One.
Our low-income high school kids are not prepared to function in the workplace. Educators know how to fix this by focusing on early childhood education, scheduling year-round schooling, bridging the achievement gap between middle-upper-income children and their lower-income counterparts and ending social advancement. (Kids currently get passed on to higher grades, even if they fail to pass basic reading, writing and math benchmarks.) This, and myriad other remedies, requires more funding, staffing and scheduling, which may give city council pause, but a failure to fix it merely costs our economy more in the long run.
This is where Gray’s fixes fall short. They’re looking at what ultimately is a socioeconomic problem, albeit manifested in the classroom, with educational lenses and educational tools. The adage is true: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
A more effective mayoral blueprint would operate across all sectors of D.C. jurisdiction, including housing, health and human services, public safety, environment, business, and education. This should be an all-cabinet and all-council conversation.
The architectural integrity of this city is a stake if we don’t wake up to what is happening in our classrooms. Amid decorated State of the District speeches and ceremonious book signings, our kids’ minds are closing at a faster rate than D.C. can close its schools. Time to wake up and smell the mental decay, Mayor Gray, before it’s too late.
Michael Shank, a resident of Anacostia, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum. He is a regular contributor to TheRootDC.
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