D.C. PUBLIC schools have, as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) remarked in her State of the District address, experienced some “bumps in the road — frankly, there have been some pretty significant bumps in the road.” The revelations of dubious graduation rates and the spectacle of the former chancellor using his office to get his daughter into a desirable school represent serious setbacks.
But those issues, while significant, should not obscure the fact that public education in the city has come a very long way since the start of school reform a decade ago. If the District is to meet the difficult challenges that still confront the public school system, it must double down on — not abandon — methods and policies that have proved to be successful.
Recent school controversies have given license to critics of school reform to weave a misleading narrative of what has occurred since the elected school board was dissolved and control of the schools given to the mayor in 2007. Under their scenario, reform has been an abject failure, with most schools worse off except for those that have seen improvement because of demographic changes.
These critics need to be reminded about conditions in what was then the nation’s worst school district. So dysfunctional was the central office that textbooks went undelivered, teachers unpaid and student performance untracked. So ill-maintained were school buildings that students shivered in the winter and sweltered in the spring, assuming of course that officials managed even to get classrooms opened. So badly managed was special education that the courts had to take charge.
All that has changed. So, too, have instruction, learning and student achievement. The teaching staff has been transformed, the curriculum made more rigorous and instruction enriched with new strategies and resources. The success of those efforts can be seen in the system’s increased enrollment following decades of decline, surveys showing teacher satisfaction and steady gains in student test scores, including the rigorous and independent National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington is no longer at the bottom of rankings; its progress has been held up as a national model. Meanwhile a flourishing charter-school sector provides competition and choice.
There is still a long way to go to competently serve students who have been handicapped by poverty and other social conditions. That was underscored by the graduation-rates controversy. While critics tried to blame the system’s emphasis on data and accountability (never mind that data eventually revealed the extent of the problem), the issue was more fundamental: students who enter school unprepared, arrive at high school lacking skills and miss so much school, they never catch up.
It’s important to be honest about their absentee rates. It’s more important to offer solutions so that they can go to school and learn — and to measure progress in that as in other challenges. For this to happen, the city must correct problems, embrace what has worked and continue on the trajectory of school improvement.