Tag: District of Columbia

The Real Conversation About DCPS That Should Be Had

No one should be surprised by last night’s resignation of Antwan Wilson as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. In light of Friday’s revelations that he successfully subverted the district’s school…

No one should be surprised by last night’s resignation of Antwan Wilson as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. In light of Friday’s revelations that he successfully subverted the district’s school zoning rules to place his daughter into a highly-coveted spot in Woodrow Wilson High School, it was only time before Mayor Muriel Bowser (mindful of her re-election campaign) told him to pack up his office.

The real question is where does DCPS go from here? This can only be answered by looking honestly at both the district’s successes over the past two decades in improving student achievement that many reformers prefer to think about as well as admitting the shortcomings that conservative reform camps and many traditionalists prefer to harp on.

Even before Wilson’s resignation, his tenure was becoming more of a clean-up of the mess left behind by predecessor Kaya Henderson than an effort to continue overhauling DCPS’s teaching and curricula. He had to deal with wide public scrutiny (as well as a federal investigation) into last month’s revelation that the district allowed one-third of its graduating Class of 2017 to leave its high schools without taking the credits, courses, or attendance needed to get legitimate sheepskins.

Wilson also had to deal with criticism from conservative school reformers (especially hardcore school choice activists) who, despite the fact that the problems happened under Henderson, blamed him for the academic fraud. This, in turn, opened the door for that group of erstwhile reformers to tag team with traditionalists in arguing that the gains in student achievement made by DCPS under his predecessors were illusory at best.

Now that Wilson is gone, it is now up to Bowser and whoever she ultimately appoints to succeed him as chancellor to clean up the mess. More importantly, continuing the overhaul of DCPS is critical, especially for the Black and Brown children who make up the vast majority of the students attending its schools. This must start with honest consideration, based on objective facts and evidence, of how far the district has come in the goal of helping all children succeed and how many steps it must continue to take. Something that nearly everyone, including reformers defending DCPS’ efforts and those criticizing them, have so far failed to do in an honest way.

This must start with this basic fact: The overhaul of DCPS has helped more children in the District — including poor and Black children who make up the majority of enrollment — gain high-quality education.

Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of D.C. fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined by 25 percentage points (from 69 percent to 44 percent) while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels tripled (from 10 percent to 27 percent). This included a 17 percentage point decline in the number of Black fourth-grade children on free- and reduced-priced lunch reading Below Basic (from 76 percent to 59 percent) and a doubling in the percentage reading at and above grade level (from five percent to 12 percent in that same period). Not only did DCPS keep pace with the nation in improving student achievement, it outpaced it. The 17 percentage point decline in poor Black fourth-graders struggling with literacy, for example, is greater than the 13 percentage point decline nationwide during that period, while the 12-point gain in math scores by eighth-graders in poverty outpaced the nine-point national average.

While traditionalists and hardcore school choicers among conservative reformers want to attribute these improvements to wealthier White and Black families moving into the District (you know, gentrification), that assertion isn’t borne out either by demographic or NAEP data. While the percentage of White children served by DCPS tripled between 2001-2002 and 2014-2015 (from 4.6 percent to 12.7 percent), Black children, especially those from low-income households, still make up the vast majority of students in the district’s care.

DCPS has achieved some real improvements. But it still has a long way to go before it can be considered successful in educating all children. Photo courtesy of Kate McGee of WAMU.

Meanwhile DCPS has also increased the opportunities for families to gain college-preparatory learning. The percentage of DCPS high schoolers taking Advanced Placement courses doubled between 2009 and 2013, from 10.1 percent to 23.5 percent, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights database. This included a tripling in the percentage of Black high schoolers taking A.P. coursework (from 6.4 percent to 19.2 percent) in that same period. The percentage of DCPS high schoolers taking calculus, trigonometry, statistics and other forms of advanced math quadrupled (from 10.1 percent to 41.8 percent), including a six-fold increase in the number of Black high schoolers taking such courses (from 7.9 percent to 43 percent).

Put simply, DCPS, under the leadership of four different mayors (Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray, and Muriel Bowser), six different chief executives (including Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee), and two different forms of governance (elected school board and mayoral control), has made demonstrable and substantial improvement in how it serves the children in its care.

Yet it is also clear that DCPS has miles to go and promises to keep. The graduation fraud merely exemplifies this basic fact.

As Dropout Nation detailed last month in its report on college-preparatory education, both DCPS and the city’s charter schools are struggling mightily to provide children with the knowledge they need for success in adulthood. Even worse, the achievement and expectations gaps that have long plagued the district remain a problem, especially during the high school years. There is no reason why there is a three-fold disparity between the number of Black and White high schoolers taking AP courses, especially when Black children are the majority of students at elementary and secondary levels.

DCPS is no longer the Superfund Site of American public education. But there are still far too many children who cannot gain higher education and employment after they graduate from school, something that is also clear from the Alvarez & Marsal report on the district’s graduation fraud. The fact that DCPS’ improvements, strong as they have been, have trailed those of the city’s charter schools, is also a reality that must be acknowledged.

The gamesmanship of DCPS’ leaders, a problem that has been around long before Rhee’s tenure as chancellor, remains as troubling and unacceptable as ever. Even before the revelations of the graduation fraud, the district still struggled with allegations of test-cheating during the Rhee era that neither she nor Henderson addressed. Over the past year, the allegations of fraud became more-prominent, especially with revelations after Henderson’s departure that principals and others were hiding their overuse of out-of-school suspensions in order to reduce their numbers. Meanwhile Henderson got into trouble for her moves allowing some city officials to send their children to schools outside of their school boundaries (when ordinary citizens would find themselves in trouble for doing the very same thing). [Oddly enough, Wilson ran afoul of that very policy after having approved a restriction that keeps him from doling out such favors to the well-connected.]

The biggest problem for DCPS — and for the District of Columbia at large — is the reality that there are limited opportunities for high-quality education, especially for poor Black and Latino families in the city. The school zones and other Zip Code Education policies that help middle class White and Black families in Northwest D.C., gain access to the top-performing schools in the district also keep out the poor families who live in the Southeast parts of the city. Just as importantly, even when the schools serving the poorest kids do well academically, they are still lacking the variety in extracurricular experiences — including those found in private schools and the toniest suburban districts — that all parents regardless of income want for their kids. While DCPS announced plans last year to add lacrosse, archery and other such programs to its schools, that effort may have stalled with Wilson’s exit.

This lack of opportunity isn’t just a problem in DCPS alone. When you consider that the many of the city’s high-performing charter schools are located in Northwest, far from the southeast communities where the vast majority of poor Black and Latino children and their families live, the reality remains that those youths bear a burden in the form of time required to go to and from school that isn’t borne by middle class Black and White counterparts. As Dropout Nation noted last month, the lack of college-preparatory education provided by the city’s charters to the children in their care is absolutely unacceptable, especially given the need for such knowledge in achieving lifelong economic and social success. Put this way, contrary to what some conservative reformers want to argue, school choice in the Nation’s Capital hasn’t worked nearly as well as they proclaim.

Addressing these challenges requires DCPS and the city’s political leaders to build on the successes of the past two decades as well as heeding the lessons from its shortcomings. This starts not by engaging in sophistry that denigrates those achievements nor in propagandizing that ignores the problems. It starts by being honest about where the district has been, where it is and where it needs to be.

Whether this will actually happen is ultimately up to D.C.’s leaders and the families whose children they are supposed to serve.

Featured photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

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D.C. Denies Children Access to College Prep

Discussion about the reform of public education in the District of Columbia has long tended to be driven by two equally-true narratives. On one side, as reformers such as David…

Discussion about the reform of public education in the District of Columbia has long tended to be driven by two equally-true narratives. On one side, as reformers such as David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute correctly note, there is clear evidence that the three-decade-long effort to transform education in the Nation’s Capital is reaping some fruit. Fewer children are struggling with literacy while more high-quality teachers are working within its traditional district and public charter schools.

On the other side, news over the last few months that D.C. Public Schools allows children to graduate from high schools such as Ballou and Wilson despite high levels of absenteeism and unpreparedness for success beyond secondary school is a clear reminder that those efforts, especially within the district, have been plagued by allegations of test-cheating, favoritism to city officials, efforts to hide the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh school discipline by all school operators, and gamesmanship that have little to do with teaching and curricula.

But there is a third story in the District of Columbia, one that hasn’t been given much consideration by reformers or traditionalists: The state of access to college-preparatory coursework, from Algebra 1 courses in middle schools to Advanced Placement and trigonometry classes critical to success in American higher education. Based on a Dropout Nation analysis of Civil Rights data submitted by traditional district and charter schools to the U.S. Department of Education, the narrative that emerges should displease every D.C. parent, caring adult and political leader.

Regardless of whether a student attends a D.C. traditional district or charter, there is little likelihood of any of them gaining access to college-preparatory education. This is absolutely unacceptable.

Few traditional district and charter school students take AP: Just 23.5 percent of D.C. Public School high school students and 11.4 percent of high schoolers attending charters took AP courses during the 2013-2014 school year. Overall, just 18.8 percent of high school students in the Nation’s Capital took the college preparatory courses that can help them prepare for the rigors of traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships (which are often run by community colleges). Put simply: The average D.C. high school student has just a one-in-six chance of taking an AP course by the time they are supposed to graduate with a diploma.

As you would expect, the numbers are even worse when broken down by race and ethnicity. Just 19.4 percent of Black high schoolers served by DCPS accessed A.P. courses that year. This is lower than the 61.9 percent rate for White students, 47.7 percent for Asian peers, and 26.9 percent for Latino high school students. It doesn’t get much better in charters. Just 11.2 percent of Black high schoolers served by charters accessed A.P. courses in 2013-2014; 36.2 percent of Asian high school students, 12.2 percent of Latino peers, and 8.9 percent of White students accessed AP that year.

Few D.C. high schoolers will take advanced math: Overall, just 30 percent of D.C. high schoolers accessed calculus, trigonometry, statistics and other forms of advanced math important for success in the working world in 2013-2014. But the bad news gets worse depending on whether you attend a DCPS school or a charter: While 41.8 percent of DCPS high schoolers took advanced math that year, only 11.7 percent of charter high schoolers did so.

Again, the numbers get worse when broken down further. Forty-three percent of Black high school students served by DCPS accessed calculus and advanced math in 2013-2014. Good news on its face. But that’s still lower than the 58 percent of White high schoolers, and 57.4 percent of Asian peers accessing those courses. Latino high school students trail behind, with just 38.9 percent of them taking calculus and advanced math.

Meanwhile, just 12.6 percent of Black high school students served by charters accessed calculus and advanced math that year. This was higher than the four percent of White high schoolers and 7.3 percent of Latino peers accessing those courses, but lower than the 17 percent of Asian high school students taking some form of advanced mathematics.

Only one in six take physics: Few D.C. high schoolers are taking physics, a key course for gaining preparation for success in science and technology courses in higher education (and ultimately, higher-income careers in those fields after college graduation). Just 18.4 percent of all high schoolers in the Nation’s Capital took physics in 2013-2014; this included 19.4 percent of DCPS high schoolers and 16.8 percent of peers served by charters.

Twenty-point-three percent of Black high schoolers served by DCPS took physics that year. That is higher than the 15.4 percent access rate for Latino high schoolers, but lower than the 28.7 percent rate for White peers and 24.7 percent rate for Asian high school students. Within charters, 13 percent of Black high schoolers took physics, compared to 19.7 percent of Latino high schoolers, 16.9 percent of White peers and 12.8 percent of Asian counterparts.

Few middle schoolers gain access to Algebra 1: Just 8.5 percent of the District’s seventh- and eighth-grade students take this important gateway course to other forms of math in 2013-2014. This includes a mere 9.3 percent of DCPS middle-schoolers and a woeful 7.6 percent of peers in charters. Put bluntly: D.C. children are losing out on future opportunities to learn.

Within DCPS, only 5.8 percent of Black middle school students took Algebra 1 that year, the lowest rate of access among all student subgroups. Twenty-seven-point-six percent of Asian middle-schoolers, 24.3 percent of White counterparts, and 10.7 percent of Latino peers took Algebra 1 that year. But it doesn’t get better for those in charter schools. Just 6.6 percent of Black middle school students took Algebra 1, versus 20 percent of Asian middle-schoolers, 12.4 percent of Latino counterparts and 11.9 percent of White peers.

Certainly it is clear in some ways that children in Washington are receiving higher-quality education than they did back in the 1990s, when DCPS was known as the Superfund Site of American public education.

Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of D.C. fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined by 25 percentage points (from 69 percent to 44 percent) while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels tripled (from 10 percent to 27 percent). This included a 20 percentage point decline in the number of Black fourth-graders in the city struggling with literacy (from 72 percent to 52 percent) and an 11 percentage point increase in fourth-graders reading at and above grade level (from seven percent to 18 percent).

The reform efforts within DCPS that began under Michelle Rhee and have continued under successors Kaya Henderson and Antwan Wilson helped more children gain the knowledge they need for greater chances of success. Charter schools also contributed to these improvements; the percentage of fourth-graders in charters reading Below Basic declined by 19 percentage points (from 64 percent to 45 percent) between 2005 (when NAEP began including charters in testing) and 2015, while the percentage reading at and above grade level increased by 12 percentage points (from 10 percent to 22 percent).

But as Dropout Nation‘s analysis demonstrates, far too many children, especially Black children (who make up 75 percent of high school students and 77 percent of middle-schoolers in the District’s traditional district and charter schools) continue to be shortchanged of the knowledge they need for success beyond their elementary and secondary years. This is especially clear when looking at how poorly charters in the city are doing in providing such opportunities to the children in their care compared to the traditional district.

D.C.’s public charter schools have helped the District become a better place for children to learn. But their failures in providing college-preparatory courses is stunning and unacceptable.

Some charter school leaders will, of course, argue that this analysis is painting their operations with a broad brush. After all, some charters, most-notably See Forever Foundation’s Maya Angelou schools (which was featured in a Dropout Nation commentary seven years ago), focus on youth who previously dropped out of school or were incarcerated in the District’s juvenile justice system, and therefore, are working hard to stem the years of neglect to which those children were subjected while in DCPS.

Others such as the Knowledge is Power Program, which nationally has done a better job of preparing children for college completion than all but a few traditional districts, will likely argue that college preparatory curricula is already part of the agenda, and thus, AP isn’t needed. Some seem to be doing the work: Some 43 percent of Black high schoolers served by E.L. Haynes Public Charter School took physics in 2013-2014, one of the highest numbers among charters in the District in this category.

But it is hard for Friendship Public Charter Schools, one of the nation’s premiere charter school operators, to explain why it provided calculus and advanced math to 18.2 percent of Black high schoolers attending its schools (and 18.1 percent of its students overall). KIPP can’t explain with credibility why not one student regardless of background took physics that year.Or why BASIS, which has been ranked the top charter school in the District, only had four students —  out of 520 — taking advanced math and calculus in 2013-2014.

Excuses cannot and should never suffice when the numbers are absolutely woeful — and children are being denied high-quality opportunity. There are far too many charters that should be providing college-preparatory learning that aren’t doing so. Which is unacceptable in light of the charter school movement’s mission of providing all children with high-quality educational options that cannot otherwise be found within traditional districts.

As for DCPS? The good news is that it is doing better than its peers among charters in providing college-preparatory courses to its middle- and high school students. But as the data shows, the district is still doing poorly by far too many of our children, especially those Black and Brown. Given the latest news about graduation rate inflation and allowing children wholly unprepared for college and life to walk out of its schools with sheepskins, there is also reason to be skeptical about how well the traditional district is doing in actually educating the youth who are in those classrooms.

District of Columbia officials, including Mayor Muriel Bowser (who oversees DCPS), the city council and the Public Charter School Board need to put pressure on all school leaders to step up and provide all of the city’s children with high-quality education. [Congress, which has oversight over the District, should also help. But given the penchant for doing harm, it may as well stay out.] This includes doing better in providing information to families on how they can access college-preparatory courses, continuing to overhaul elementary and preschool curricula (a reason why so few children gain access to college preparatory courses down the road), and pushing both DCPS and charter school operators to ensure that all children are given the classes they need for lifelong success.

Reformers at the national level must also play their part, holding their counterparts in D.C. (and in other districts and school operations inside the Beltway) to account for failures to meet the high expectations we implicitly set for school operators in the rest of the nation. The District must be the model for transforming public education and ensuring high-quality options, curricula, and teaching for all children, especially those Black and Brown.

Certainly the progress being made in D.C.’s district and charter schools should be noted — as should the failures in leadership that still remain. But that isn’t enough. It is also time to address the failures of the District’s school operators to help the children they serve gain college-preparatory learning they need and deserve.

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