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From Jack Jacobson. He is an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Dupont Circle (ANC 2B-04), and is a candidate for State Board of Education representative for Ward 2.
Early in our academic careers, all of us at some point became aware of the significance of the elusive 100% score on a test. To some that figure signified perfection, or simply that you knew all the answers to the test questions. However in hindsight, as with many experiences from childhood, the reality is not that simple.
Earlier this year, Mayor Vincent Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson unveiled “A Capital Commitment,” a five-year plan to right the District of Columbia’s faltering public schools. While it is vital to lay out a clear vision for increasing student achievement and successfully implement a strategic plan, “A Capital Commitment” — as it is written — would continue to allow an unacceptable number of students to fail. Moreover, it leaves a great deal of uncertainty for current students entering traditional public middle and high schools in the District.
The Goal of an Education System
Education cannot simply be about the test scores, far from it. Everyone learns at his or her own pace and in his or her own way. To attempt a cookie cutter solution to DC’s education system is neither practical nor sound. That being said, the goal of any education system should be 100% proficiency system-wide. But how do you get there? I’ll leave that to those best suited to the task: the teachers and administrators of our public schools who deal with each child on a daily basis.
The five-year goals of “A Capital Commitment” are straightforward:
- Improve achievement rates: At least 70% of students will be proficient in reading and math, and the number of advanced students in the District will double.
- Invest in struggling schools: The 40 lowest-performing schools will increase proficiency rates by 40%.
- Increase the graduation rate: At least 75% of entering 9th graders will graduate in four years.
- Improve satisfaction: 90% of students will like their school.
- Increase enrollment: DCPS will increase enrollment over five years.
The Mayor and Chancellor have been aggressively touting their plan, with the Mayor speaking extensively to it during his budget roundtables held across the city this year. The Chancellor has been hosting a series of “The State of Schools” presentations and listening sessions in every Ward. I attended the “State of Ward 2 Schools” event on June 27, which was well attended by DCPS and Ward 2 school administration officials. Unfortunately it was poorly attended by parents and community members. (It should be noted that the original “State of Ward 2 Schools” meeting was scheduled for June 6 — before the end of school — but was cancelled at the last minute following then-Council Chairman Kwame Brown’s resignation earlier that day. The meeting was rescheduled twice before settling on the June 27 date, after the school year had ended).
The Chancellor’s presentation began with a thorough overview of the campaign, highlighting its goals and objectives, then led into a Q&A session with attendees. Chancellor Henderson discussed at great length the anticipated increases in proficiency and student achievement that the plan would accomplish at the end of five years.
However, during the entire discussion and Q&A, there was no mention of 100% proficiency, a 100% graduation rate, or 100% of students liking their schools. This is in stark contrast to the expectations of parents and guardians. From their perspective, all students deserve the opportunity to achieve 100% of their potential. To compete locally, regionally and globally we must do a better job of educating our children. For years jobs have been leaving the region and the country. Cheaper labor is often cited as the cause, but just as often the need for technical proficiency in mathematics and the sciences is touted as a reason. As the nation’s capital, with the resources and intellectual capacity at our disposal, we should set the bar higher. The issues plaguing the school system are significant, but academically we must aspire to be the best. Frankly, when DCPS students complete their academic careers and enter the workforce, their employers will expect nothing short of their best.
The Lowest Performing Schools
“A Capital Commitment” has a five-year goal of transforming its 40 lowest-performing schools to achieve an average 63% proficiency in reading and 62% proficiency in math. A 63% proficiency in reading would equate to 37% of graduates not being able to fully comprehend this article, an abysmal statistic for students who are a product of the public schools in our nation’s capital.
To help achieve proficiency goals, Chancellor Henderson this spring announced a $10 million “Proving What’s Possible” grant program to improve student outcomes. All DCPS schools could compete, but it was largely assumed that the grants would go where there was the most need to increase student achievement. The June 14 press release from DCPS announcing the recipients of the awards trumpeted, “Funds to spur innovation, improve learning in 40 lowest-performing schools.”
But the funding didn’t go to those 40 schools, at least not exclusively. In total, 59 of 125 DCPS schools (47%) received grants, including Benjamin Banneker High School and Hyde-Addison Elementary School, both top-rated schools by GreatSchools.org. (According to DCPS, approximately 85% of the “Proving What’s Possible” grants went to the lowest-performing schools.)
Another goal of “A Capital Commitment” is to achieve a traditional public school system-wide proficiency rate of 70% in reading and math. That means that at the outset, 30% of our students will not achieve the same proficiency as their peers. Washington will never be a “world class” city if our graduates cannot be competitive in the global workforce.
It is better to set the bar high and fall short than to set it too low and lose another generation of students to mediocrity or worse. Keep in mind the DCPS had 43,866 students in the system in the 2009-2010 academic year, according to the US Census Bureau, far fewer than cities like New York and Chicago. However, we spend $18,677 per student per year versus $18,618 in New York and $13,078 in Chicago (the national average is $10,615). We are smaller system, spend more money, but are not achieving better results.
Middle and High Schools and the Pre-School Boom
The ward-by-ward DCPS presentations failed to address the continued uncertainty for rising middle and high school students under “A Capital Commitment.” Five years ago, when then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee asked young parents to stay in the District and believe in the reforms being implemented, they stayed and sent their children to our traditional public schools. Unfortunately, school reform has not yet significantly improved our middle and high schools across the city. The reality is that most of the parents of these rising fourth and fifth graders have no viable traditional public school options.
The high-achieving schools within DCPS are over enrolled and thus not viable options for the majority of students. In contrast, our under-achieving and failing schools have been left, seemingly, to fend for themselves as elementary school students continue to exit traditional public schools to attend private middle and high schools and the growing number of public charter schools across the District. Without a specific plan for improving our traditional public middle and high schools, the goal of increasing DCPS student enrollment will never be achieved.
Keep in mind the difficult economy and other factors that have led to a larger number of families staying in the District. However, this has resulted in a steep rise in preschool and pre-kindergarten enrollment. Overall, DCPS has placed a great deal of attention on the elementary school system, but our middle and high schools must be ready academically to meet the impending student population boom. And that boom is coming much sooner than the five years “A Capital Commitment” promises.
Otherwise, instead of the traditional flight to the suburbs for better schools, you’ll see a flight from ward to ward. The end result is only those that can afford to rent or buy in “better” neighborhoods will get access to high-achieving schools. This cannot be allowed to happen in any city, much less Washington, DC.
Start the Conversation
“A Capital Commitment” is an admirable plan at the end of the day – it sets reasonable, achievable goals and will benefit a significant segment of our students who are falling further and further behind their peers nationally. However, there is a difference between developing a plan and successfully executing it.
It is imperative that Chancellor Henderson and Mayor Gray continue to conduct a full, comprehensive and sustained public education and involvement campaign to engage parents, teachers, administrators, and the broader business, non-profit and residential communities in supporting our schools and improving student outcomes.
“A Capital Commitment” should be the beginning of a conversation for goal setting and what’s possible for student achievement, not the endgame. DCPS schools have produced amazing leaders like Duke Ellington and Warren Buffett. Washington’s children are as bright and have as much potential as any children in the country. Our public education system should acknowledge this and provide them every opportunity to reach that potential and excel – and all Washingtonians will be better off for it.