There are some who question my commitment to educational reform. In fact, it was Adrian Fenty’s advocacy of reform that helped me decide to support him for mayor in 2006. And I strongly back Mayor Vincent Gray’s nomination of reformer Kaya Henderson as schools chancellor.
However, while we have now had four years of educational reform in the District, it was too narrowly defined by Mayor Fenty and former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. From the start, Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee emphasized facility modernization (the physical plant is important, but is it more important than what goes on inside the classroom?), higher test scores and mayoral control. Only in the past year or so has there been much emphasis on teacher quality and evaluations.
Educational reform has to mean more than that. It should include an even greater concern for the quality of the teachers in all schools, because they are the key to learning. There should be a set of goals and programs aimed at greatly reducing truancy and dropouts and increasing graduation rates. And reform must include the establishment and development of high-quality schools in every neighborhood so that parents don’t have to send their children out of their own neighborhoods to get a good education.
Right now, that’s not the case. How has educational reform affected Ward 8 and other low-income communities in the city?
It has bypassed them.
The numbers are dramatic. On average, according to 2010 test results, only about 30 percent of Ward 8 elementary school students are proficient in reading and math, while elementary schools in Ward 3 have an average math and reading proficiency of over 80 percent.
This vast disparity has to end.
In the upper grades, the story is the same. Math and reading proficiency rates for the three Ward 8 middle schools average under 20 percent. Deal, the only middle school in Ward 3, has more than 80 percent proficiency. A similar gap exists between Ward 8’s Ballou and Anacostia senior high schools and Ward 3’s Wilson.
How about modernization? There has been major discrimination here. A total of $225 million was allocated by Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee to four Ward 3 schools. However, just $94 million was allocated to Ward 8 schools.
It’s clear that the school system is failing to meet the needs of low-income parents and students. We need real educational reform — for everyone.
Here are some of the solutions I propose:
1. Assign the most experienced and proficient teachers to the lowest-performing schools.
2. Assign highly effective principals to every school, and hold these principals accountable.
3. Make educational reform a family affair. Mayor Gray should step up his efforts to get all D.C. agencies that work with children and families to develop a strong support system for those who need it.
4. End all out-of-school suspensions, except in extreme cases. Using the KIPP model, we should keep all suspended students in the school and in the classroom.
5. Step up the pace of staff development to increase the number of highly proficient teachers in both traditional and charter public schools.
6. More than 80 percent of D.C. Public School students are African American. We should join Education Secretary Arne Duncan in advocating the hiring of more African American men as elementary school teachers.
7. Provide major job training, career development and job placement for parents. The way you get children out of poverty is to get their parents out of poverty. Seventy percent of people who work in the District live somewhere else; the business community must hire more D.C. residents.
Overall, the missing factor has been the vicious cycle of poverty. All over America, educators and researchers have found that the children of low-income families are less likely to come to school ready to learn. Unless we deal with the adverse effects of poverty and generate major support for low-income parents and students, the educational advances we achieve will be minimal. The higher the rate of the poverty, the lower the educational gains.
How do we end the disparities and discrimination in resources? My philosophy is that those who have the most need should get the most funding. All we have to do is look next door to Maryland. The state’s Commission on Education, Finance, Equity and Excellence, commonly known as the Thornton Commission, found that by restructuring its basis for educational funding from even distribution per school to a distribution based on the actual needs of students, it could reduce the achievement gap for African Americans. We need such a commission in Washington.
We can accomplish the same thing, higher test scores, by ending funding disparities and putting quality schools in every neighborhood. But it will take the entire community working together to do it.
The writer, a Democrat, represents Ward 8 on the D.C. Council.