Tag: Muriel Bowser

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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The Children of D.C. Suffer

There will be plenty of conversation — not necessarily among school reformers — about yesterday’s revelation that D.C. Public Schools allowed one-third of its graduating Class of 2017 graduate from…

There will be plenty of conversation — not necessarily among school reformers — about yesterday’s revelation that D.C. Public Schools allowed one-third of its graduating Class of 2017 graduate from its high schools without taking the credits, courses, or attendance needed to get legitimate sheepskins. There will even be speculation on the implications of this news on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s re-election campaign as well as the possible challenge by predecessor Vincent Gray (now back on the city council). Others will note that what happened in D.C. is one of many revelations of graduation fraud going on in districts throughout the nation.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that DCPS’ alleged graduation fraud is more than simply an embarrassment to the district, to school leaders currently on the job who oversaw the violations, and Former Chancellor Kaya Henderson (under which most of the fraud occurred). This is also about young men and women cheated by the adults who should have done better by them.

Thirteen young men and women who can no longer claim they are high school graduates because they didn’t earn enough credits in the first place. Another 572 youth who cannot really claim to be DCPS graduates because they 30 or more many days of school unexcused during the 2016-2017 school year. Four hundred eleven more were awarded diplomas by the district because it wrongly designated their work through credit recovery programs (or make-up classes) as original high school credits.

Altogether, 937 young men and women who have been given phony diplomas, paying the price each day for the errors, incidental and deliberate, overseen by principals at Ballou, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and the district’s other high schools.

But the damage extends beyond those young men and women. There are 1,821 high school graduates within DCPS, young men and women who went to their classes, completed their courses, did what they were supposed to do. Yet those young adults have now become guilty by association because there will be questions about whether they have learned exactly what DCPS said they did. This is simply unfair to them.

Former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson deserves more than a little scorn for the violations of graduation policies (and the underlying causes of them) that took place under her watch.

Also touched by the scandal are the thousands who have graduated from DCPS over the past five years. After all, the district didn’t just start violating state laws and its own graduation policies overnight. The failure of DCPS to link its Aspen school data system to its system for tracking attendance, for example, has probably been noticeable since the district implemented it three years ago. This means a look at graduation numbers over the past three-to-five years will likely reveal more examples of sheepskins being handed out when they shouldn’t have been. Even if that isn’t so, those graduates are now tarred by association.

The children and youth deserve an apology. First from the district’s current leadership, including Chancellor Antwan Wilson (who came onto the job near the end of the 2016-2017 school year and has little responsibility for what happened), who should have addressed these issues, even if it meant students wouldn’t have been able to graduate with their classmates. Secondly, from Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has oversight responsibility for the district because she appoints the chancellor. Both should embrace the recommendations of the Alvarez & Marsal report and implement them promptly to avoid future graduation fraud.

Former Chancellor Henderson, along with other former executives working in the district, must also apologize and admit their responsibility for the shortchanging of these children.

After all, Henderson was the chief executive of the district during most of the 2016-2017 school year, and the issues mentioned in yesterday’s report existed throughout her tenure. It was under Henderson when the Aspen system, which failed to alert teachers about the number of high school seniors missed 30 or more days unexcused, was put into place, and the failure to connect the system to the district’s attendance data system happened under her watch. Henderson was also the chief executive under which several principals implicated in the graduation fraud, including Ballou High School’s Yetunde Reeves (now on leave pending a decision about her future employment), were put into their jobs, and when many of the complaints from teachers and others about the violations were lodged.

Certainly there are reformers who want to soft-peddle Henderson’s responsibility for this mess. Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute (whose own tendency for using and perpetuating misleading and dishonest ‘research’ has been exposed by this publication), is now leading the charge to ignore Henderson’s role altogether by blaming the fraud entirely on her successor even though he arrived on the job in February 2017, or at the midpoint of the school year. But Henderson’s failure of leadership cannot be ignored. By not addressing problems with the school data systems, failing to holding teachers and school leaders to account for violations, and not clarifying district and District of Columbia attendance and credit recovery rules under her watch, she damaged the very children she was supposed to help.

Meanwhile Henderson’s failure to address these issues, and the scandal resulting from them, is a reminder that Henderson’s tenure has been marked by an unwillingness to address allegations of test-cheating under predecessor (and mentor) Michelle Rhee; public embarrassment over her moves to allow 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); and revelations (after she left office) that principals and others were hiding their overuse of out-of-school suspensions in order to reduce their numbers. These failures put another black mark on what has otherwise been a strong record of success, both her own and that of other reformers in the Nation’s Capital working on transforming education for all children.

No one’s leadership is perfect. This goes without saying. But it shouldn’t have taken news outlets such as public radio station WAMU (whose initial report focused on Ballou) to bring these revelations to light. The district’s former and current leadership should have addressed these problems long ago, and should have been transparent about them.

At the end of the day, it is the children and youth of the District of Columbia, including the 937 now found to have incomplete and, ultimately, fraudulent, diplomas, who suffer the damage. These boys and girls, young men and women, go to school expecting that the adults who serve them are actually going to help them gain high-quality education. They expect to graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for success in higher education and in the working world. Yet the adults serving them failed them miserably on this count, as well as in providing them with higher ed-preparatory coursework. Now, at least 937 children are walking around with diplomas that are literally not worth the paper on which they have been printed. ,

Our children and youth in D.C. deserve better. And honestly, apologies aren’t even close to being enough.

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