School reform in the District is looking sweet. Public charter schools, which now educate half of the students in the District, boast a promising track record. And everyone agrees that things have vastly improved in D.C. Public Schools.
That’s not just my opinion. A long-awaited report released by the National Research Council concluded that all students, including low-income minorities, are doing better. For an area whose schools were considered among the worst in the nation not too long ago, that’s remarkable.
The reason for charters’ success is simple: great leadership that closes bad charters and offers a tailwind to the best ones. And DCPS schools have benefited from consistent reforms overseen by two chancellors and three mayors.
So we should be happy, right? Not really. What worked to make things better won’t work to make things truly great.
For starters, the District’s school leaders — Scott Pearson, who oversees charters, and Kaya Henderson, who runs DCPS — are national education rock stars. They could get snapped up at any moment. What then?
District schools have improved only because the two chancellors and three mayors agreed on what needed to be done. That’s rare, and it won’t last forever.
In addition, the governance overseeing schools is antiquated. As the NRC report made clear, no one anticipated that half of District students would end up in charters.
Education reform efforts are at a crossroads. The crux is this: District leaders need to be more aggressive about transforming underperforming schools, and charter schools need to get better at serving all students.
One example: Henderson probably should turn over Ward 8’s struggling Moten Elementary School — where 15 percent of the kids are proficient in reading and 17 percent in math — to a good charter. Not Moten? Pick another of the District’s low-performing schools.
One reason there’s little change is that Henderson is judged on metrics that include only DCPS, such as whether enrollment is growing and academic outcomes are improving. If she turns a school over to a charter, she is blamed for losing enrollment rather than lauded for making a bold decision for students.
But to entrust struggling schools with charters, the organizations need to serve students with special needs, enroll students midyear and serve adjudicated youth.
The NRC report recommends that the District devise an overarching authority to conduct “centralized, systemwide monitoring and oversight of all public schools and their students, with particular attention to high-need student groups.” That should be the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. But, as the report pointed out, it might not be up to the task. In building a local solution, D.C. leaders would be wise to tap into innovation happening across the country.
In Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan (and soon in Nevada and Georgia), third-party governmental entities can transform any failing school, traditional or charter.
Patrick Dobard, a former public school teacher who oversees the Recovery School District in Louisiana, correctly sees himself more as a protector of equity than a traditional school superintendent. He’s not worried about who’s up or down in the enrollment competition; he wants to transform all failing schools and ensure that all schools are open to every student.
Chris Barbic, a former charter school leader, plays a similar role in Tennessee. In Michigan, the governor and the mayor of Detroit are negotiating an authority to oversee all schools in the city for performance and equity.
Imagine if outstanding D.C. charters could get quick access to empty buildings, if a failing DCPS school could get turned over to a great charter or if DCPS could form deep partnerships with charters in the city’s attempt to serve every child.
The District has the leadership, educators and resources to launch the next phase of public schooling in the United States.
It won’t be easy, but every time you think it can’t happen, think of the kids stuck at underpeforming schools. And then think again.
The writer is an Emerson Collective fellow and author of “The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.”