In 2003, when only a handful of urban districts participated, DCPS fourth-graders trailed the other cities by 28 points in reading and 29 in math. (Because 10 points is considered a year’s learning, this was an enormous gap.) In 2019, the gap was down to 5 points in both subjects. DCPS should be proud.
Sadly, however, one group has been left out of this good news: low-income children. In 2019, DCPS eighth-graders eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL) scored 25th out of 27 urban districts in reading, 21st out of 27 in math.
The gap between these children and others in DCPS was 49 points in reading — almost five grade levels. In math it was even worse, 53 points.
Though low-income fourth-graders did a little better, they still had a 51-point gap in reading and a 41-point gap in math.
The bottom line: DCPS has improved by leaps and bounds, but it has not figured out how to educate its poorest students. In contrast, many of the city’s charter schools have figured that out. The 2019 NAEP score gap between D.C.’s FRL-eligible charter students and other charter students in eighth grade was 12 points; in fourth grade it averaged just 10 points.
The city’s annual PAARC test results confirm what we saw on the NAEP. In wards 5, 7 and 8, which have the highest concentrations of poor children, 22 of the top-performing 23 schools were charters. The one DCPS school in the top 23, McKinley Tech High School, selects its students. The charter schools vastly outperform DCPS schools in these three wards — roughly doubling DCPS’s percentage of students who score a 4 or 5 (meeting or exceeding expectations).
There are reasons charters produce better outcomes for poor children. If you talk to DCPS school principals, as we have, you will hear frustration with the district’s centralized rules and decision-making, which limit their ability to tailor their programs to their students’ needs. Unlike charter school leaders, they don’t control the length of their school day or year. They face a multitude of rules about staffing. They are frustrated by a procurement system that can leave teachers and students waiting for the materials they need as the school year marches on.
And though DCPS has a world-class curriculum, if you are teaching sixth grade and most of your students are reading at a second- or third-grade level, what good is that sixth-grade curriculum?
In contrast, charter school leaders have much greater flexibility to design schools that meet children where they are and do whatever is necessary to help them. Charters also face heightened accountability for performance: The Public Charter School Board has closed roughly four schools a year under its current leader, Scott Pearson. So charters face powerful incentives to improve, and those that don’t are weeded out. Low-income students benefit because they aren’t stuck in failing schools, as so many DCPS students are in Wards 5, 7 and 8.
The solution is pretty obvious. DCPS should learn from the charter sector and replace its failing schools with school operators and models that have succeeded with similar students — whether in district or charter schools. Then it should give those schools the autonomy they need to succeed.
DCPS already has a few autonomous schools, including Duke Ellington and Bard Early College high schools. Both are exciting school models that motivate students. To their credit, district leaders are working with community members to replace Anacostia and Ballou high schools with a more promising model. For the sake of the children, they should repeat that with other failing schools — creating exciting new schools, holding them accountable and replacing them if they don’t succeed.