Greater Greater Education

Greater Greater Education is on hiatus this week

We're away for spring break.

Greater Greater Education will return on April 21. Please come back then and rejoin the conversation about public education in the DC area.

Segregation is causing Montgomery County schools' achievement gap, but Josh Starr won't admit it

A new report says Montgomery County schools are becoming segregated by income, race, and ethnicity and that "white flight" is occurring in the lowest-performing schools. But officials deny that it's even happening.

Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

This week, the county's Office of Legislative Oversight released its findings on the achievement gap in Montgomery County Pubic Schools. Researchers note that low-income, black, and Latino students are still lagging their more affluent, white, and Asian peers, especially as both groups grow increasingly concentrated in different parts of the school system.

While MCPS as a whole is a majority-minority school system and has been for over a decade, most low-income, black, and Latino students attend one of 11 high schools, mostly in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Gaithersburg. Meanwhile, higher-income students, as well as 80% of the school system's white students and 67% of its Asian students, now cluster at schools on the western side of the county, including the vaunted "W schools" in or near Bethesda.

An achievement gap between schools

The result is an "achievement gap ... between [high-poverty] high schools and [low-poverty] high schools" in which all students perform worse, notes Dr. Elaine Bonner-Tompkins, who produced the report. Those 11 "high-poverty" schools include the Northeast Consortium, with Blake, Paint Branch, and Springbrook; the Downcounty Consortium, with Blair, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood, and Wheaton; and three schools in the upcounty, Gaithersburg, Seneca Valley and Watkins Mill.

Students at these schools are less likely to graduate on time, to maintain grades high enough to participate in extracurricular activities, and to earn high scores on AP exams or the SAT. Meanwhile, they're nearly twice as likely to drop out of high school or get suspended.

Whether real or perceived, the performance of high-poverty schools in East County may be leading to white flight. Dr. Bonner-Tompkins notes that the share of white and Asian families at high-poverty schools is falling faster than the rest of the school system, suggesting that they're fleeing for low-poverty schools with better reputations.

The study, which then-Councilmember Valerie Ervin commissioned, is a follow-up to a 2009 report about the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. The consortia gave students a choice of several different high schools as a way to promote racial and economic integration, which studies show can improve academic performance. Both reports conclude that MCPS policies designed to reduce segregation "have not worked as intended."

Starr denies that "white flight" is even happening

School officials were quick to dismiss many of the report's findings. In a four-page response, superintendent Joshua Starr called suggestions of white flight in MCPS "unsupported" and said that the school system wasn't to blame for larger demographic changes in the larger community.

"The [Downcounty and Northeast consortia] communities have become important locations for families with limited means to reside and raise their children," wrote Starr, linking the growing concentration of low-income and minority students in East County schools to "disparities in the spread of wealth and race/ethnicity across the county."

Starr also dismisses the notion that minorities or low-income students are isolated in certain schools. He says the report's own demographic findings, which come from MCPS data, "clearly demonstrates very diverse student populations at the consortia high schools." Does Starr really think a school like Wheaton, where there are few white students and almost 4 out of 5 students receive reduced lunch, is a more diverse school than Whitman in Bethesda, where there are virtually no black or poor students?

MCPS doesn't cause school segregation, but it contributes to it

It's true that the school system isn't directly responsible for socioeconomic and racial segregation in Montgomery County. The western side of the county has historically been more affluent, and over time has drawn most of the county's jobs, shopping, and other amenities. But MCPS does contribute to segregation so long as some of its schools are perceived as better than others, whether those perceptions are real or fake.

MCPS is quick to announce positive statistics about its schools; just this week, it issued a press release that 8 of its high schools led the US in the Washington Post Challenge Index, a nationwide measure of academic rigor. All but one of those schools are on the western side of the county and have a relatively small amount of black, Latino, or low-income students.

Rankings like that send a message to families looking for the best schools, and those who have the means to choose vote with their wallets. It shows in home prices, which are three times higher in the Whitman High catchment in Bethesda than they are at Seneca Valley in Germantown, one of the county's worst-performing schools. It also shows in the attendance at each school.

In their push for school construction funding, county leaders have noted that MCPS is adding 2,000 students each year, and that schools are becoming overcrowded. But for every high-ranked school like Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which is nearly 300 students over capacity, there are lower-ranked schools like Springbrook in Silver Spring, which was built for 2,100 but has just 1,700 students, and Watkins Mill, with nearly 500 empty seats.

We can't run away from these issues

MCPS officials say this report isn't news. It's true: there have been warnings about segregation, and the potential consequences for Montgomery County schools, for over 20 years. But the school system has done little about it, and Dr. Starr insists that integration won't close the achievement gap.

As he points out in his letter, Dr. Starr does have some promising initiatives for closing the achievement gap, like smaller class sizes, or extra pay to recruit and retain strong teachers in high-needs schools, though he's not afraid to use them as a bargaining chip for more funding. That's why it's frustrating that he seems so unwilling to talk about or even acknowledge the school system's issues.

The role of Montgomery County Public Schools isn't just to teach, or to prepare students for happy, successful lives. It's also one of the county's major assets, a tool used to attract families of all backgrounds who want to move here for their kids and for businesses who want to come here so they can hire our graduates. If there's an impression that not all Montgomery County schools are up to speed, that's bad for our kids, bad for our neighborhoods, and bad for our economy.

Morning bell: Bowser takes a position on school boundaries but keeps other issues open

Photo from Muriel for Mayor website.
Candidates on school boundary proposals: Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser opposes cutting neighborhoods east of the park out of the Deal-Wilson feeder pattern, and presumptive independent candidate David Catania would "press pause" on the whole thing until schools have been improved. (Post)

Bowser cagey on keeping Henderson: The candidate met with the DCPS Chancellor but has not yet made a decision. In an interview, Bowser also expanded on her "Alice Deal for all" campaign pledge. (WAMU)

And she's not ready to debate education: Bowser declined to participate in an education-oriented candidate forum in June, saying she wants to wait until Catania collects enough signatures to qualify for the general-election ballot. (Post)

More analysis of the boundary proposals: What they do, who's happy, and who freaks out. (City Paper)

And more anxious parents: Parents who like their currently assigned schools vented their dismay about the proposed changes at Coolidge High School Tuesday night. (City Paper)

The details on the school lottery: DCPS has released data that shows how many children applied for slots at each DCPS school, how many got in, and how many of those admitted had a lottery preference. (Post)

Snow day aftermath: DCPS got a pass on two of its 6 snow days, but students will need to have additional school time in June to meet the 180-day requirement. (Post)

Longer school days in school budget: Next year half of DCPS schools could have an additional 4 hours of instruction per week, at a cost of $100,000 per schoolexcept for Dunbar, which would get 6 times that amount. (DC Fiscal Policy Institute)

Achievement gap grows in Montgomery: A new report says the county schools are increasingly divided on ethnic and economic lines, with students at high-poverty schools doing worse than those at more affluent schools on a number of measures. (Post)

Asians predominate at selective Fairfax school: The freshman class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology next year will be 66% Asian and 24% white, with only 10 black and 8 Hispanic students. (Post)

Why are so many DCPS schools listed as 99% low-income? It's not necessarily because they are.

Publicly available education data shows that many DCPS schools have a 99% poverty rate. But that figure is based on an average and doesn't reflect the actual number of poor kids at any particular DCPS school.

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr.

In the past, each DCPS school counted how many of its students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMs). Last year, DCPS began participating in a federal program that allows some schools to provide free lunches to all their students without determining how many are actually eligible.

The new method reduces the administrative burden on schools and allows more poor kids to get free meals. But it's made it harder to figure out how many poor kids there actually are, and it lumps an undetermined number of higher-income kids into the low-income category. That makes it harder to track the academic progress of low-income kids.

The new method, called the Community Eligibility Option (CEO), is a federal program available to any school district that includes at least one school where 40% or more of students can be identified as needy through certain measures. Those measures include whether they're receiving food stamps or other federal welfare benefits, are homeless, or in foster care.

The formula then multiplies that "direct-certified" percentage by a certain factor to get the percentage of kids eligible for FARMs. FARMs includes not only students on welfare, but also students whose family income is equal to up to 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. The FARMs figure is commonly used as a proxy for low-income status.

Charter schools can also participate in the CEO program, but generally they only have one or perhaps a few campuses. DCPS chose a group of 75 of its schools for the CEO program, and the average rate of direct-certified students for the group as a whole is 62%.

Under the CEO formula, that average gets multiplied by 1.6, and the result is 99%. And that explains why DCPS school profiles and school equity reports show the same percentage of FARMs students at many schools: 99.

Wide variation in underlying percentages

But according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers the FARMs program, there's actually a wide variation in the percentage of direct-certified students within the group of 75 schools in the CEO program. The number ranges from about 38% to 85%.

If you multiply 38% by 1.6, the result is much lower than 99%60.8%, to be exact. So almost 40% of the students at that school are being classified as low-income when in fact they may not be.

Officials at DCPS and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) have the direct-certified percentages for individual schools but declined to release them. They did not provide a reason.

Dr. Sandra Schlicker, Deputy Superintendent at OSSE, pointed out that the previous method of determining FARMs eligibility often resulted in undercounting poor students. Parents didn't always bother to fill out the FARMs application, even if they were eligible, and school administrators were powerless to provide free meals to students who clearly needed them.

Even the direct-certified percentages may understate the extent of need, especially at schools with a large immigrant population. Undocumented immigrant families aren't eligible for the federal programs that often trigger certification. Grouping those schools with others that have a higher percentage of direct-certified kids enables them to provide free lunch to all students.

Beyond that, the CEO program clearly has other benefits. It relieves schools of the burden of dealing with the paperwork required under the old method. Under the new method, OSSE simply compares lists of children who are receiving federal benefits or are otherwise eligible for direct-certified status against lists of students at the CEO schools. And including all students at a school in the lunch program avoids stigmatizing low-income children.

Measuring the achievement gap

But education policy activists and researchers say the new method has made it hard to determine the size of the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income children.

Local and national standardized test scores compare subgroups using the FARMs percentage to determine the performance of low-income students. School reports also separate out suspension and expulsion rates for FARMs students.

HyeSook Chung, executive director of DC Action for Children, said in an email that "any evidence of low-income student performance in DC now comes with an asterisk, because there are likely more than a few non-low-income students being lumped into that category."

It's also become difficult to compare test scores and other data to information from previous years when FARMs kids were counted differently, she said.

The DC Council passed a bill last year providing additional funds for "at-risk" students. That designation could be used as a proxy for low income in the future, but, like the direct-certified designation, it's limited to a fraction of those counted under FARMs, only about 30% of students. The FARMs category has included more like 70% of them in the past.

Other problems with the method

The CEO program also makes it hard to track demographic changes that may be taking place at some DCPS schools, since there's no way of knowing whether more affluent kids are beginning to attend them.

And some critics of high-achieving charter schools that serve high-poverty populations have suggested that their success is due to lower FARMs rates than comparable DCPS schools, say 80% rather than 99%. But if a DCPS school is in the CEO program, it could actually have a FARMs rate significantly lower than the 99% figure attached to it.

This is a problem that will soon become more widespread. The federal government has been phasing the CEO program in gradually, with only 10 states and DC participating this year. But next year it will be open to all qualified schools and school districts nationwide.

It's great that more kids who need free meals are getting them, and school administrators are undoubtedly relieved that they no longer have to spend time identifying low-income students. But if we're going to understand how poor kids are actually doing in DC, and elsewhere, we're going to need to come up with some more accurate way of determining who they are.

At the very least, DCPS and OSSE could literally add an asterisk when they list a school as having a 99% FARMs rate, and use the footnote to let the public know just how it was calculated.

Contributor forum: Changes in school boundaries and feeder patterns

The DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment released its proposals for changing school boundaries and feeder patterns on Saturday. It's a subject that evokes strong emotions and opinions.

The committee, spearheaded by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), floated three different scenarios reflecting different combinations of policy objectives.

One example (Example B) would basically retain the current system of geographic boundaries and assigned schools, albeit with some changes. Most significantly, schools would set aside between 10% and 20% of their seats, depending on grade level, for out-of-boundary students whose assigned school is "low-performing."

The other two proposals (Examples A and C) would use combinations of "choice sets" and lotteries for some grade levels. In a choice set situation, families would apply to several schools within a certain boundary and would be guaranteed a slot in one of them, but not necessarily their first choice. In Example A, elementary-level choice sets might include charter schools.

Lotteries might have preferences for proximity, low-performing assigned schools, and other factors. In both Examples A and C, admission to high school would be by citywide lottery only.

Do these proposals provide enough predictability to families who have made decisions about where to live based on existing boundaries? Do they go too far in trying to use the assignment process to promote equity? Or not far enough? Our contributors weigh in below, and we invite you to use the comments to join the conversation.

Sandra Moscoso: I'm really impressed by the massive organization on the DME's part that is going into this effort. Regardless of how I feel about components of the policy examples, I can at least begin to envision scenarios.

The fact that the DME's team is also publishing data behind this makes me hopeful that ideas will also come from parents and advocates who may not be directly involved in the committees, focus groups, or working groups.

On charter coordination: If including elementary charters in choice sets is on the table, that should be applicable to all charters, not just those who choose to participate. And in EVERY meeting I attended leading up to Saturday's working group, someone raised the misalignment of grades between DCPS and charters. [Charters often start middle school at 5th grade, but DCPS starts it at 6th.] Why is this not reflected in any of the policy examples?

On citywide schools: The working group questionnaires put forth proximity preference for secondary citywide schools and NOT for elementary citywide schools. As the parent of both elementary and middle school students, I can confirm that proximity is much more important when getting a younger child to school.

With two proposals making all high schools lottery-only, I wonder if serious consideration is being given to removing high schools from the feeder track. The value of predictability is very quickly lost in that scenario. I sincerely hope this is not how this process will end.

Allison Link: I would be incredibly disappointed if Policy Example A were adopted. Eliminating neighborhood schools altogether would be a bad idea on several fronts. I currently work as a teacher's assistant at Anne Beers Elementary School, and several of the kids I work with are second- or even third-generation Beers students. This policy would almost completely sever this meaningful tie between families, their communities, and their schools that remains prevalent in DCPS.

Additionally, if parents moving into a neighborhood don't know which school their child will attend, the number of young families who choose to stay in DC as their children reach elementary age will diminish drastically.

Finally, a policy based on school choice would likely eliminate academic diversity altogether from DCPS schools, as the most accomplished and/or aggressive students and parents would clamor for the highest quality schools. DCPS already suffers from significant racial and socioeconomic segregation, and this policy would probably worsen that.

At the same time, holding onto the current neighborhood-school-only policy ignores the significant and lasting presence of charter schools in the DC area. For this reason, Example B doesn't sit well with me either. It essentially ignores several of the problems we already face, such as the flight of families as their children reach middle-school age, and the low in-boundary percentages of many schools on the east side of town.

These thoughts might point me in the direction of Example C, but unfortunately I don't think this compromise proposal totally gets the job done either. If students are entirely unsure of what high school they will attend, they might be unable to develop relationships with friends and future teachers/coaches/mentors through their siblings or older friends.

I like the idea of a lottery-based middle school system, as it would allow DCPS to spread its resources more evenly among middle schools across the district. But I wonder if we should then have a specific high school that students would attend once they get their middle school through a lottery.

David Alpert: Setting aside 10% of seats at a school for lower-income students seems like a great idea. The percentage probably should be 25%, but maybe 10% is what they could get.

I think having predictability is important. The pattern in DC of parents getting their kids into a good elementary school and then spending every year trying to get into a good middle school seems destructive. Parents should know where their kids will go to middle school.

Martin Moulton: I get the idea of a lottery-only high school scheme. High-schoolers can get around on their own. It would also give them a greater appreciation for the diversity of the city. BUT we don't yet have enough high-performing seats to make that work.

With all the low income/black families in the District, I'm not clear on why a 25% low-income set-aside would be such a stretch. There is surely a tipping point when it's probably counterproductive. But the small subset of those who need extra services will be better served in a 25%/75% arrangement than being warehoused with more students in need of extra attention and services.

Below high school, there should be more predictability. And we must simply stop acting as if the nation's capital is a small southern hamlet rather than an international city. Every student needs to be at least bilingual.

I don't have a dog in this race. And I realize many people are invested in their community/feeder expectations. But those special interests should have ZERO impact on how the system is designed for the future success of public schools.

A year in the lives of two DC schools: a Q&A with the author of a new book

A new book takes an in-depth look at two DC schools: a DCPS school in a gentrifying neighborhood that is struggling to improve, and a charter school navigating its first year.

Book cover from Sam Chaltain.

Sam Chaltain, an education activist and blogger, has written Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice, scheduled for release later this month. It focuses on a year in the lives of Bancroft Elementary School, in Mt. Pleasant, and Mundo Verde, a bilingual charter school that has adopted a progressive "expeditionary learning" approach.

Chaltain embedded himself deeply in both schools, and the result is an almost novelistic exploration of what teachers, administrators, parents, and students at these schools experienced.

The narrative sometimes breaks away from these detailed stories to consider larger questions like the effect of high-stakes testing on instruction and the role of freedom in education. And a 15-page epilogue catalogs Chaltain's recommendations for change.

The result is an engaging and thought-provoking book that raises some timely questions. Here are his answers to some of them.

What motivated you to write this book? What questions were you hoping to answer?

So much of the conversation about school reform today is contentious and two-dimensional, and we'll never figure out how to reimagine public education if we continue to fight over whether unions are great or horrible, or whether school choice is the devil or angel incarnate. It's more complicated than that.

I wanted to paint a personal, yearlong story about what it's like to be a teacher, a student, or a parent at this moment in time, with the hope that doing so might help people better see the state of modern school reform as it isand begin to hint at what it ought to be.

How did you choose the two schools that you wrote about?

I chose Mundo Verde because I believed that the thoroughness of their overall plan would carry them through the inevitable first-year challenges and speed bumps; I wasn't interested in chronicling a story of failure.

And I chose Bancroft because I wanted a public school that was neither a de facto private schoolbased on locationnor a school that was struggling to survive. Plus, Bancroft is located in a neighborhood that features both million-dollar homes and public housing, which means it brings together a diverse cross-section of the city.

You recently co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post advocating more socioeconomic diversity in DC's schools. How diverse were the schools in the book, and do you feel that diversity made a difference to the schools' level of achievement?

Both schools are extremely diverse, but I think focusing on the schools' levels of achievement is the wrong way to assess the value of having such diversity.

These days, the word "achievement" has actually come to mean just two thingsstudent reading and math scoresand how well or poorly students score on those exams can almost always be predicted by their socioeconomic status. That doesn't mean test scores don't matter; it just means that the way we use them now overstates their value.

Once we view school quality through a wider lens, I think the value of greater socioeconomic diversity becomes clear. The public school system is the only institution that is guaranteed to reach 90% of every generation, and it was founded to help young people become active and productive members of a democratic society.

It's harder to do that when you're the only "anything" in a school community, or if everyone around you comes from similar circumstances. And that's why I believe we all benefit when we feel a sense of shared ownership for our schools and, by extension, our children.

What advantages or disadvantages did you see to being a charter school rather than a DCPS school, and vice versa?

One of the more interesting things I learned over the course of writing Our School was that to a large degree, each sectorthe charter community on one side, and DCPS on the otheris in need of the other's core strength.

In the charter world, for example, there's so much energy and creativity, in large part because, for better and for worse, everything is being reinvented, from the professional development calendar to the school report card.

What charters lack, however, are the advantages of scale, which is why you see groups of them banding together to defray, say, the total costs of special ed or content specialists.

Of course, scale is precisely what the districts have in spadesbut that scale can (and has) come with a cost. Lots of key decisions get made too far from the individual school or classroom, and that distance ends up having a sort of stultifying effect.

So what would it take to unleash the innovative spirit and autonomy of a charter school within the system of a citywide district? Well, this is essentially what they have in Boston, where a certain number of "pilot schools" within the district have charter-like autonomy. I profiled a year in the life of one of these schools, and you can see for yourself what it engendered.

But DC is its own unique entity, and what excites me most about the future is the level of collaboration that exists between DCPS and the charter community. Can these two systems find a way to interact in the interest of creating more high-quality public schools?

Can our city's policies start to incentivize educators to tend to the full range of our children's developmental needsand stop pretending that the only thing that matters is a narrow slice of their cognitive growth? And can we find a way to make our public school system(s) the foundation of a deeper commitment to a more equitable, vibrant civic life for us all?

Our School was not written to answer all of those questions. But I do hope it helps spark some more fruitful dialogue that can point us all in the right direction. Now is the time.

Sam Chaltain will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, on April 12 at 1 pm.

Parents of kids under 3 need more access to good daycare. Here's a way for them to get it.

Parents are urgently in need of child care for children too young to go to preschool. A DC Council bill scheduled for a vote tomorrow morning would help them by increasing the number of "infants" allowed in home-based daycare.

Photo by the author.

Current DC law allows a total of 6 children to be cared for in a home-based environment, but only two can be under age two. Bill 20-607 would permit any of the 6 children to be under age two, while requiring a provider-to-student ratio of one-to-two or more.

Councilmember Jim Graham sponsored the bill "to address a great need for child care for children under two years old while ensuring the highest quality of care."

The greatest need for daycare is for children ages zero to two. This bill would immediately end extra restrictions on 500 daycare slots and might induce the creation of more home-based daycare centers in the future.

Sixteen witnesses testified at a March 20 hearing on the bill. Fifteen parents and child care providers, including myself, spoke unanimously in favor of the bill in its current form. The State Superintendent of Education for DC, Jesus Aguirre, recommended several changes.

One key change relates to the Child Development Associate (CDA) license, which child care providers must currently obtain. Mr. Aguirre recommended increasing the licensing requirements so that "both providers and their assistants obtain this credential." But Aguirre ultimately supported the bill.

"This expansion is important," he said, "because this is the age range where there is the most unmet need in DC."

Cory Mengual of Mary's Center, who supports home-based daycare providers in the licensing process, explained that the bill would correct an anomaly created by the recent expansion of public preschool in DC to children as young as 3.

Daycare centers that previously served children through age 5 now primarily serve them only until approximately age 3. But the law allows them to accept only two kids younger than age two.

"A lot of the providers we work with are unable to fill to capacity and are contemplating closing their businesses or returning to unregulated nanny-share arrangements to be able to support their livelihoods," Mengual said. "This would represent a huge blow to licensed capacity and would restrict access to safe, healthy environments for young children."

"Finding affordable quality childcare in DC is extremely difficult," said local parent Isabel Friedenzohn. She said the proposed changes "would allow more employment opportunities" and "allow more children to be served by daycares in total."

A common theme among daycare providers at the hearing: parents are begging them to care for their kids who are two or under, but they can't under current law. Providers, some with up to 20 years of experience, also emphasized the critical developmental period from age zero to 3 and lamented being able to provide care for so few children in that age group.

The bill was the brainchild of local parent Charles Koppelman-Milstein, who was personally affected by the law. "After moving our son through several care situations," he said, "and never getting off any of the waitlists we'd been on for months, we had finally found a person we could entrust with our son whom we could afford.

"Three adults took good care of 4 toddlers in a home much like our owntaking them outside daily, teaching them, and talking with them nonstop," Koppelman-Milstein said. "Unfortunately, it is illegal for a home daycare to care for more than two children under two, regardless of staff, so my son and one of his classmates were kicked out, leaving us to continue our search."

The bill is currently being introduced as emergency and temporary legislation, which would allow it to take effect quickly. A permanent bill would come up for a vote later.

With support for the bill strong among those who are currently aware of it, the main threat is inertia. If you have an opinion on the bill, you can contact your representatives on the Council, including at-large Councilmembers. At-large Councilmember David Catania, as chair of the Committee on Education, is expected to be a particularly critical voice.

How to assign DC students to schools? We now have a menu of possibilities

The committee working on changes in DC's school assignment policy has floated some proposals. They're not as radical as some fearedor perhaps hopedbut there's still plenty of fodder for debate.

Photo by Mike_fleming on Flickr.

The DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment has been working for 6 months on the knotty issue of DC's school boundaries and feeder patterns, which haven't been fundamentally changed since 1968. Now they've unveiled three possible systems that reflect different policy priorities, along with proposed new boundaries for DCPS elementary schools.

Until now, the committee members and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), Abigail Smith, would only say that "everything" was "on the table." That open-endedness led to much speculation. Some residents on the geographic fringes of the coveted Deal-Wilson feeder pattern feared they would be assigned to lower-performing secondary schools. Others imagined the committee adopting a lottery for all students, with an algorithm that would ensure socioeconomic diversity.

The committee members haven't necessarily taken anything off the table, since they haven't committed to any one of the 3 proposals. They say they're simply examples of how different elements might be combined, and they could still be rearranged in a "one from column A, one from column B" approach. But at least we're now getting a menu rather than an unlimited smorgasbord of possibilities.

Some suspected that the committee wasn't only trying to adjust outdated lines on a map but had broader social goals in mind. There's now confirmation that they were correct. At a community meeting at Dunbar High School on Saturday morning, Smith kicked off the proceedings with two questions that the committee has been asking and that she now threw open to the public:

  • Do our policies reflect our vision for public education in the city?
  • How can these policies help accelerate our work to increase quality at all our schools?
Given the inequities in the school system, it makes sense to ask those questions. But none of the proposals engages in radical social engineering. None, for example, adopts the controlled choice approach that would try to ensure a certain level of socioeconomic diversity at as many schools as possible.

Set-asides to varying degrees

On the other hand, all of them include, to varying degrees, a certain number of seats that would be set aside for out-of-boundary students, with preferences attached to certain categories of applicants. One category would be students whose assigned schools are "low-performing," a term that has yet to be firmly defined but would probably include a combination of test scores, attendance, and other measures.

Those schools generally have high-poverty populations. And presumably, the schools using the set-asides would be the higher-performing ones, which generally have wealthier populations.

The set-asides range from a minimum of 10% to 20%. While that would provide high-performing schools with some socioeconomic diversity, it wouldn't do anything to improve low-performing schools. In fact, it could actually harm them by draining off the most engaged parents and most motivated students.

Looked at another way, though, it provides a much-needed escape hatch for those who live in areas with sub-standard schools.

"My child will not be a sacrifice," said one mother at the Dunbar meeting who lives in Ward 7 and wants to preserve her right to apply to an out-of-bounds school. "I shouldn't be penalized because we bought a house where we could afford one."

Carrots and sticks

In addition to the out-of-boundary set-asides, the draft proposals employ some carrot-and-stick techniques to try to spread middle-class and engaged parents across the system more evenly, especially at the middle and high school levels. Right now most of them are either in the charter sector or clumped at Deal MS, Wilson HS, or one of the selective DCPS high schools.

The "stick" part of the proposal may not be as bad as some anticipated. Parents at Lafayette and Bancroft elementary schools, currently in the Deal-Wilson feeder pattern, wouldn't simply be assigned to less desirable destination schools. In the scenario that is closest to the current system, Example B, the only elementary school taken out of that feeder pattern is Eaton, whose students would be assigned to Hardy MS.

Two others, Bancroft and Shepherd, might get feeder rights to a proposed new Center City Middle School. Oyster-Adams, a preschool-through-8th grade school, might feed into Cardozo High School instead of Wilson. And Hardy, which currently feeds into Wilson, could feed into a proposed new high school if Wilson became too crowded.

The "carrot" part of the proposals includes establishing specialized programming, such as dual-language or International Baccalaureate, to make schools attractive.

More uncertainty

But two of the scenarios would introduce a greater level of uncertainty into school assignments. In Example A, both elementary and middle school students would list their choices for a set of nearby schools that, at the elementary level, might include a charter school. They would be assigned to one of those choices, but not necessarily their first choice.

In Example C, only middle school students would get a "choice set," and every middle school would have some kind of specialized program. And in both A and C, admission to high school would be entirely by lottery.

The lotteries might have preferences for factors like proximity and students in specialized programs like dual-language. Still, the lack of predictability could drive some families out of the system, and possibly out of the District.

At the Dunbar meeting, one Bancroft Elementary parent predicted that families like his won't stick around if they can no longer rely on going to Deal and Wilson. Rather than trying to improve the other schools they're assigned to, he said, "they'll leave."

Working groups

Smith's presentation at Dunbar was combined with discussions of the proposals by "working groups," composed of anyone who happened to show up. The groups sat at round tables in Dunbar's impressive atrium, and each group had a trained facilitator who took notes.

Everyone in attendance also received numerous forms that asked for their reactions to the ideas. The group I joined included residents of Capitol Hill, Petworth, Ft. Dupont, and Mt. Pleasant.

A similar community meeting took place Saturday afternoon at Anacostia High School, and a third will be held tomorrow from 5:30 to 8:30 pm at Coolidge High School.

There was a lot to take in on Saturday morning, when those in attendance were seeing the detailed proposals for the first time and trying to simultaneously digest and discuss them. Sometimes the conversation at my table veered off onto tangents or overlooked important aspects of the scenarios.

But all in all, it was a remarkable instance of democracy in action: a group of strangers sitting around a table and having a civil conversation that touched on potentially explosive issues of race and class. No doubt the process won't end up pleasing everyone, but the DME's Office seems to be making a genuine effort to hear what everyone is saying.

The conversation will continue, with more meetings scheduled at all 3 locations later in the month. Additional community meetings will take place in May and June, before the final plan is released in September. Those who want to participate online should soon be able to do so at, a site that is not yet live.

No doubt future discussions will go deeper, but some questions may stubbornly recur. Smith began the Dunbar meeting by saying that the question she gets most often is: Why now? Why not wait until all schools have improved before redrawing boundaries and feeder patterns?

Smith explained, as she has before, that although DCPS has been "working feverishly" to raise school quality across the board, it could take a long time to get there. And given the irrationalities in the current assignment system, she said, we have to do both things at the same time.

Over two hours later, the next-to-last question Smith got was: Why now? Why not improve the schools first, and then redraw the boundaries?

Morning bell: Big changes on the horizon?

Photo by r.j.wagner on Flickr.
Changes in boundaries and feeder patterns: The committee that has been reviewing DC's student assignment policies released three potential plans and a proposal for redrawing elementary school boundaries. To see details, click here. (Post)

Henderson's future: Neither Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser nor her rival David Catania will commit to keeping DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson on the job. (Post)

Test typos: Errors in the instructions on standardized tests led to confusion for some DC students and teachers. (Post)

DC is failing adult learners: A new report says that agencies are educating only a fraction of the population that needs help, and funding is uneven. (WAMU)

Call for school renovation: Parents and community members are pushing hard for long-delayed improvements at Murch Elementary, which houses almost twice the number of students it can accommodate. (Current)

Prince George's schools reorganize HR: Nearly all employees in the system's human resources office were told to reapply for their jobs. (Post)

Field tests are bumpy: Students field-testing new Common Core-aligned assessments at a Rockville high school encountered numerous glitches. (Ed Week)

Virginia cuts number of tests: The governor has signed a bill that reduces the total number of standardized tests in elementary and middle school from 22 to 17 and requires districts to substitute authentic performance assessments. (Post)

Michelle Rhee defends testing: The former DCPS chancellor says parents who pull their kids out of standardized tests are on the wrong track. Not surprisingly, Valerie Strauss disagrees. (Post)

Effects of "Promise" scholarships: A program in Kalamazoo, MI, that has some similarities to a proposal for college aid to DC students has reduced suspensions and boosted GPA among African-American students. Politico took a more in-depth look at the program. (Education Next)

School choice to the nth degree: When New Zealand moved to a system of total school choice, sophisticated (and wealthier) parents snatched up the best seats, resulting in increased racial and economic polarization. (Ed Week)

What does Muriel Bowser's primary victory mean for education in DC?

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser has displayed her strengths as a campaigner, but her education platform is pretty thin. Before the general election 7 months from now, she has the opportunity to flesh it out.

Photo from Muriel for Mayor website.

Bowser's main campaign promise on education has been that she would replicate the success of Ward 3's Deal Middle School in other parts of the city. While the middle grades in other schools need attention, it's far from clear that replicating Deal district-wide is a workable strategy.

Only 23% of Deal's students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At other middle schools in DC, that proportion is far higher. While it goes without saying that all kids deserve an excellent education, delivering that education to low-income kids requires a different set of skills and methods.

Simply recreating Deal's amenities in high-poverty schools or moving its excellent teachers there (assuming they would be willing to go) won't automatically transform those schools. To succeed there, teachers will need expert classroom management skills in addition to all the other qualities that make teachers great. And given the high proportion of special education students in high-poverty schools, it would help if they also had training in that area.

There are a host of other things that will be necessary before high-poverty middle schools, or high-poverty schools at any grade level, can reach Deal's level. You need strong principals who can inspire their staffs to work together and to persevere in the face of discouraging setbacks. You need support services for kids who have been traumatized by the effects of poverty.

Most fundamentally, you need to develop a positive school "culture" that motivates kids to adopt behavior that will lead to their success. At the same time you need to teach them to reject behavior that is destructive to themselves and disruptive to the education of others.

Other issues

Bowser has also said that she would focus on schools that are "on the brink" of excellence. But she hasn't defined what that means, or how she would get them over the brink. And what about the schools that are far from that brink? There are thousands of DC kids in schools fitting that description. Shouldn't we be focusing on them at least as much?

Bowser has also given contradictory signals on whether she would retain Chancellor Kaya Henderson. While DCPS is still in many ways a work in progress, Henderson has launched some promising initiatives that may be close to bearing fruit, and it would be worth keeping her in place for that reason if for nothing else. A commitment to do that sooner rather than later would help ensure that progress doesn't stall while the Chancellor's status is in limbo.

Nor has Bowser indicated how she would coordinate the DCPS and charter school sectors, aside from saying that she would try to prevent new charters from locating near existing DCPS schools. With 44% of DC public school students in charter schools, we can no longer view charters simply as competition against DCPS that needs to be held in check. It's time to figure out how to connect the two sectors into something that resembles one coherent system.

Education and the general election

Bowser may not feel much urgency to develop her positions on education at this point, given that she won a resounding victory over Mayor Vincent Gray with the little information she's divulged so far. But things may change.

The issue of corruption dominated much of the primary. But in the November general election Bowser will face Councilmember David Catania, chair of the DC Council's Committee on Education. Catania has turned himself into a genuine expert on DC public education in very little time, and there's no doubt he'll have detailed, well thought-out stands on education issues.

Right now Bowser may have a 30-point lead over Catania in the polls, but that could disappear once attention turns to the vital issue of education. If Bowser is going to win the general election, she'll need to be able to hold her own against Catania on that issue in a debate. And he will no doubt be a formidable debater.

Bowser needs to start researching and thinking seriously about education in DC now, and not just because she'll need ammunition against Catania. The pace of progress in public education in the District has been distressingly slow, and for the sake of DC's children, anyone who is elected mayor this fall will need to be able to hit the ground running.

Support Us