Greater Greater Education

Some see the DCPS-charter relationship breaking down, but charter leaders disagree

Shortly before the advisory committee on school boundaries and feeder patterns released its final proposal, the DC Public Charter School Board's representative resigned in protest over one of the committee's recommendations. Does that move reflect a deepening rift between the charter and traditional public school sectors? It depends on who you ask.


Photo of arguing fingers from Shutterstock.

There's been a lot of brouhaha surrounding the committee's recent recommendations, their adoption by Mayor Vincent Gray, and their repudiation by both of his likely successors. The resignation of Dr. Clara Hess, the PCSB's official representative on the committee, has gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle.

But in interviews, members of the committee candidly expressed anger and dismay at Hess's resignation, seeing it as one more step in the apparent deterioration of the relationship between DC's charter sector and DC Public Schools.

"Everybody was disappointed," said Faith Hubbard, a member of the committee who lives in Ward 5. "It was like, all this work we did over a year, and you want it to come down to this?"

Others disagree that the once cordial relationship is breaking down. "I think actually relations between the sectors are better than ever," said Scott Pearson, executive director of the PCSB. "And I think the level of collaboration will continue to grow."

Priority for at-risk students

The recommendation that prompted Hess's resignation focuses on "at-risk" students, a new designation that includes kids who are homeless, in foster care, eligible for food stamps or welfare benefits, or a year or more below grade level in high school. The category includes 43% of DC students.

Beginning this school year, the DC government will provide additional funding to schools based on the number of at-risk students they enroll.

The committee recommended that all public schools, including charter schools, with fewer than 25% at-risk students give priority to such students for 25% of the seats they allocate through a lottery each year.

Pearson said the committee hadn't sufficiently analyzed the impact of that recommendation. The committee did produce data showing how many schools would be affected (19 DCPS and 13 charter schools) and how many seats at each school would be set aside for at-risk students (between two and 38).

But Pearson said the committee should also have analyzed whether at-risk students would displace others who are economically disadvantaged but don't fall into the at-risk definition.

PCSB's authority to bind charters

More fundamentally, Pearson said the PCSB did not have the authority to agree to a recommendation that would bind individual charter schools. There were no representatives of individual charter schools on the committee.

Hubbard argued that it would have been impossible to have representatives of all DC charter schools on the committee, just as it was impossible to have all DCPS schools represented. There was one representative from DCPS, she said, just as there was a representative from the PCSB.

But Pearson said those representatives were not equivalent, since all of DCPS is a single Local Education Agency, while each charter operator is its own LEA.

Part of the problem was that the committee didn't begin focusing on charter schools until fairly late in its 10-month process, so there wasn't time to canvass charter leaders on the at-risk issue. The committee's initial mission was to redraw boundaries and feeder patterns for DCPS schools.

But at community meetings on the first round of proposals in April, parents repeatedly called for comprehensive planning that would include both sectors, according to committee members.

Pearson said those meetings, held at DCPS schools and organized according to DCPS feeder patterns, didn't adequately represent charter school parents. Committee members responded that parents often switch back and forth between sectors, so there was more charter representation than was apparent.

"To say charter parents weren't represented in the process is erroneous and is convenient if you don't like what came out of it," said Eboni-Rose Thompson, a Ward 7 resident who was on the committee. Thompson has also been a contributor to Greater Greater Education.

The DCPS-charter relationship

The more important question, especially now that the future of the committee's recommendations is uncertain, is what the disagreement means for the DCPS-charter relationship. Thompson and Hubbard were pessimistic, feeling that a generally positive process had ended on a sour note.

But Pearson was more upbeat, pointing to another recommendation that calls for a task force to be set up by the end of December that will focus on collaboration and planning across school sectors. The PCSB still supports that recommendation, he said.

His perspective was echoed by Emily Bloomfield, a committee member and former board member of the PCSB who is in the process of launching a new charter school.

"I'm very optimistic about collaboration partly because I've seen more of it over time," Bloomfield said, citing the common school lottery and an annual school fair that used to be limited to charter schools and now includes DCPS.

But those who have called for collaborative planning generally envision a process that would impose some limits on charter growth and location. As Pearson has made clear, the charter sector is adamantly opposed to any limits that aren't voluntary on its part.

Hubbard feels that attitude will be a problem for the task force that the recommendations call for. "Charters have been allowed to grow without much oversight," she said, "and this task force is going to infringe on that. Anytime, they could say: we're going to take our ball and go home."

Both Hubbard and Thompson, an alumna of a charter school, say that things have changed since charters were a small part of the educational landscape. Now that they educate nearly half of DC's students, Thompson said, charter autonomy shouldn't be seen as sacrosanct.

"Now it should be about how we ensure we're making a good faith effort to serve all students," she said, "and not just buying into words that sound attractive like 'innovation' and 'autonomy.'"

Perhaps, as Thompson predicts, the DC Council will soon be ready to impose limits on charter growth, although so far there have been few signs of that. Or perhaps, as Bloomfield suggests, charter operators will be willing to voluntarily adjust their plans in exchange for a better way of obtaining suitable buildings from the DC government.

What's clear is that many in both sectors share a sense of mission about improving the quality of education for DC's low-income students. But they don't always agree on the best way to achieve that.

Let's hope the task force, which is scheduled to begin meeting before Gray leaves office, will provide a better forum than the advisory committee for hashing out differences between the sectors. Unlike the committee, the task force will most likely include representation from charter school operators, and it will be clear from the outset that its mission is cross-sector planning and collaboration.

Reassign students before improving school quality, not the other way around

Both of the leading candidates in the DC mayoral race have come out against Mayor Gray's new school assignment plan, saying school quality should be addressed first. But reassigning students may be the only real way to inspire parent confidence in less desirable schools.


Photo of chalkboard from Shutterstock.

Councilmember and mayoral candidate David Catania announced yesterday that he will "take action to delay" the new school assignment plan recently approved by Mayor Vincent Gray, saying that DC first needs to focus on improving school quality. And today his rival Muriel Bowser said that only the next mayor can address the "unanswered question" of "inherent inequalities across neighborhoods."

Catania issued his statement as chair of the DC Council's education committee, although it's not yet clear what he can do in that capacity to delay implementation of the plan. Nor is it clear how Bowser could do that from her current seat on the Council. But obviously, if either is elected mayor he or she will have a lot more power in that regard, even if some of the planned changes will already be underway.

Catania also says he's concerned there isn't enough time to do the planning that's necessary before the recommendations take effect a year from now, as scheduled. For that reason, he intends to take action to delay their implementation "until at least school year 2016-2017."

Catania, Bowser, and others who insist that improvements in quality must come before reassignment have a point. Telling people they have to send their kids to a school they regard as inferior will not only make them angry, it risks driving them out of the system entirely.

But if the core issue is equalizing school quality across the District, it's hard to see how the essence of the plan could be implemented as soon as 2016, as Catania suggested he might do. In fact, it's impossible to predict when DC schools will be equal enough in quality that families will be happy to attend any school they're assigned to.

The limits of improvement plans

Catania has called upon DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to come up with a plan for school improvement. Catania spokesperson Brendan Williams-Kief elaborated on that by saying DCPS needs to be able to tell families who are being reassigned that "this is the new school leader, and this is the curriculum, and this is how it's going to look." The idea is that these plans will instill confidence in, for example, middle-class families who don't want to leave the coveted Deal-Wilson feeder pattern for lesser schools.

But will they instill that confidence? Eastern High School, which sits on the eastern edge of largely middle-class Capitol Hill, was the target of just such a plan. The school, which had a troubled history and served an almost entirely low-income population from across the Anacostia River, was closed for a year and underwent a dazzling $77 million renovation.

It reopened 3 years ago with a dynamic new principal and an energetic new staff. Last year it began offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma program, just the kind of thing that should inspire confidence in nearby middle-class families and attract them to the school.

The school now has the second-highest test scores of all non-selective high schools in the District. But so far, it hasn't attracted middle-class families from its neighborhood. Eastern is still almost entirely low-income.

That's partly because its boundaries largely extend to the eastall the way to the Prince George's County border. Some Capitol Hill residents as close as 6 blocks from Eastern are zoned for Dunbar High School. Others in the neighborhood are actually zoned for Wilson, in Upper Northwest. But even those middle-class families who live within Eastern's current catchment area aren't sending their kids there.

The new assignment plan would extend Eastern's boundaries all the way west instead of all the way east, giving some reality to its slogan, "The Pride of Capitol Hill." But no doubt many Capitol Hill families who are now within Wilson's boundaries are dismayed at the prospect of sending their kids to Eastern instead, despite the improvements there.

The importance of a critical mass

Maybe that's because parents are looking for more than just a good plan, or even a good principal, faculty, and curriculum. They also want some assurance that there will be other kids like theirs at a schooland not just in terms of race and socioeconomic status, but in terms of academic preparation and achievement level.

And it's a sad but undeniable fact that, at this point in our history, kids who are more affluent generally achieve at higher levels. Many people are working to change that fact, but there are no guarantees about when, or if, that will happen.

There are, of course, plans to improve DCPS schools. DCPS may not have formulated the plans in exactly the way Catania wants, but the fact is the school system is trying all sorts of things. Some of them are working better than others.

But if what middle-class parents want is a critical mass of middle-class kids at a school, the only way to get to that point may be through reassignment. Yes, some of the reassigned families may leave the system. But let's hope that, given the lead time engineered into the plan, others will band together and commit to sticking aroundand being, as the bumper sticker says, the change they wish to see.

Anxious about the new school boundaries? Here are some things to consider.

Last week DC Mayor Vincent Gray accepted the new school boundaries and feeder patterns proposed by the advisory committee that has been working on the issue for the past 10 months. While some residents have legitimate concerns about the change, it may not prove as bad as they fear.


Photo of chewed pencils from Shutterstock.

Even after the committee backed away from the more radical proposals it floated in April, the plan still managed to disgruntle many residents who found themselves rezoned to less desirable schools. The charter community is ticked off as well, angered by the committee's recommendation that charter schools with more affluent student bodies reserve 25% of their seats for "at-risk" students.

But Gray, immunized from popular disapproval by his lame-duck status, has taken a statesmanlike position. As he said in his letter to the committee, "there will never be a good time to make changes to our assignment policies." Unless, perhaps, you're about to leave office.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the next mayor will undo the whole thing. While neither of the leading candidates has weighed in specifically on the proposal Gray has adopted, both have said they would prefer to delay the boundary overhaul.

But undoing the plan may take some doing. One senior government official told WAMU's Martin Austermuhle that Gray's adoption of the proposal will set into motion a process that will be difficult to reverse. The official cited the fact that the school lottery scheduled to begin in December would have to be started over again when a new mayor takes office in January.

And the Post's Mike DeBonis has suggested that Gray has done his successor "a huge favor" by making a decision that is politically unpopular but necessary. It might be convenient for the next mayor to say that his or her hands are tied.

As DeBonis points out, the current system has led to overcrowding in some schools and underenrollment in others, while many students are assigned to multiple schools. And putting off the change until all DC's schools are "high-quality," as some have advocated, is likely to mean that changes in the assignment system would be held in abeyance for a decade if not longer.

At the same time, I can understand why parents may feel apprehensive, or even panicky, if their children have been reassigned, say, from Wilson High School to lower-performing Roosevelt, or from Eastern to lower-performing H.D. Woodsonor even from Wilson to Eastern.

Such reactions don't mean they're bigoted or racist. Parents want what's best for their children. And no one wants her child to be the only one, or one of a handful, of any category in a school.

No doubt some parents will depart the system for charter schools or other school systems in the region. But I hope they'll consider the following factors before making that decisionand that DCPS will do whatever it can to ensure that they do:

Nothing is happening right away. While the proposals are set to take effect a year from now, no student who is currently attending her neighborhood school will have to switch. And students in 3rd grade or above will be able to stay in the same feeder patternas can younger ones with older siblings in the pattern. So there's time for middle and high schools, the sources of the most concern, to improve.

Your new school may be better than you think. It might be worth a visit, and DC Public Schools should make it easy for parents to tour a prospective school and sit in on classes. The quality of a school isn't necessarily reflected in its test scores. I've seen some impressive teachers and motivated students in relatively "low-performing" DCPS schools.

You may be able to band together with other parents in the same situation. In some neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill, parents have pledged to send their children to the local public school and sometimes worked together to improve a school even before their kids enroll. DCPS and individual school administrators should do whatever they can to encourage such commitments and work with prospective parents.

Your child may be challenged academically even in a generally low-performing school. No parent wants his child to be held back by classmates who require a slower pace. But AP classes are currently offered in all neighborhood high schools, and Eastern has just begun offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma program.

Indeed, one of the advisory committee's recommendations is that all neighborhood high schools should "ensure that specialized and selective programs are developed and supported." But that won't be enough to ensure that more advanced students are challenged. Schools will also need to limit those selective programs to students who can actually handle advanced work.

Right now AP classes in DCPS high schools are open to all, and DCPS requires students to earn at least two credits in an AP or IB course in order to graduate. (Students can also fulfill that requirement with a Career and Technical Education course, but many don't.)

While some argue that lower-achieving students benefit from taking AP or other advanced classes even if they don't perform well in them, they would probably benefit just as much if not more from a truly rigorous class pitched at a level they're equipped to handle. And they'll almost certainly hold back the students in an advanced class who are better prepared.

Some may object to this kind of sorting by ability as "tracking," and perhaps it is. But if the alternative is socioeconomic segregation on a school-by-school basis, tracking doesn't seem so bad. And it may be the only way to keep higher-achieving students in the system.

While middle schools generally don't engage in as much tracking as high schools, technology is making it possible for learning to become more individualized there, enabling each student to move at her own pace. The same is true at the elementary level.

No doubt some parents will object that all of this is easy for me to say, since I don't have a school-age child who has been reassigned. They certainly have a point. I can only say: I hope that if I did, I would be willing to take my own advice.

Does education reform have to be impersonal?

Do education reformers rely on "impersonal" solutions, as a recent New York Times op-ed argues? Not from what I've seen in DC. Teachers care about students, but the effects of their caring are hard to measure. And caring may not be enough.


Photo of teacher and student from Shutterstock.

Today's education reformers ignore the "inherently complicated and messy human relationships" that are at the core of education, says Berkeley professor David Kirp in Sunday's New York Times. Instead, he claims, they turn to ostensibly simpler and neater strategies that rely on competition between schools or the transformative power of technology.

Predictably, Kirp's piece has unleashed a storm of commentary and an avalanche of tweets. Those who place themselves in the ed reform camp have assailed the flaws and oversimplifications in Kirp's argument.

They note that few if any education reformers treat test scores as "the single metric of success," as Kirp asserts. They point out that Kirp overlooks the fact that many charter schools actually do get better results for low-income African-American students.

And they express bafflement at his claim that reformers focus on "markets and competition" to the exclusion of factors like talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum. In fact, much of education reform (a term so broad and loaded it should perhaps be retired) is directed towards creating those very things.

I agree that, like many articles that get a lot of attention, Kirp's suffers from exaggeration and a lack of nuance. At the same time, though, he's hit on something, albeit with a blunt instrument.

The importance of caring

Kirp's basic point is that for education to be effective, schools need to foster personal "bonds of caring" between teachers and students. I imagine most if not all teachers and administrators, including those who consider themselves education reformers, would agree.

I've met teachers in DC's charter and traditional public school sectors who have not only formed personal bonds with students, but who probably would have done so even if some misguided "reformer" had explicitly tried to prohibit them. And I've seen those teachers chafe against a system that doesn't always acknowledge the importance of those bonds or reward their formation.

At a high-poverty DC public high school, one teacher told me about a student who had come to him with a request. Holding out the program from a funeral, the boy asked if the teacher could "fix" it. Eventually the teacher came to understand what the problem was: The boy's mother had told him that the deceased was his father. But the program failed to include the boy's name in the list of survivors.

The teacher recruited a more tech-savvy colleague to try to figure out a way to insert the boy's name so it would look like part of the program. In the end, the only way to do that was to retype the whole document, carefully matching its font and formatting. The teachers stayed far past the end of the school day in order to have the new program ready for the student by the next morning.

The teacher who told me this story was making a point: the DC Public Schools teacher evaluation system has no way of taking into account teachers' willingness to extend themselves on behalf of their students. And no doubt stories like this could be found many times over, in DC and elsewhere.

I'm sure students benefit in many ways from knowing their teachers care about them personally. And a teacher who doesn't care about her students as individuals probably isn't going to be very good at her job.

Caring may not be enough

But it's hard to know, and especially to measure, what effect those personal bonds have on students' ability to learn. Even the most caring teacher may not be equipped to teach effectively, possibly because of a lack of training or support.

And, surprisingly, in some instances personal bonds can actually get in the way of teaching. One study found that a computer program that gave students feedback on their writing actually produced more positive feelings, and more improvement, than feedback from a human instructor. Apparently students didn't take the criticism so personally when it came from a machine.

In a broader sense, of course, Kirp is right that personal connections between teachers and students are crucial. But, as with any one element of education, they're not sufficient. We also need to figure out ways to assess whether teachers are actually teaching and students are actually learning.

The tension, as always, is between the bright clean lines of standardizationwhether in testing, curriculum, or teaching methodsand the messy individualization that's necessary when you're dealing with real people who vary greatly in their needs and capabilities.

We haven't yet figured out the right balance between the two, but peopleincluding some who identify as education reformersare definitely working on it.

Michelle Rhee takes a break from education reform

Last week former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that she is stepping down from her post as head of StudentsFirst, the non-profit advocacy group she founded. Is this the swan song for an education reform leader who rose to prominence through her time at DCPS?


Photo by Commonwealth Club on Flickr.

Rhee says she will remain involved in StudentsFirst and is proud of what she's accomplished there, but the group has struggled recently. The organization has pulled out of 5 states where it was active, and even some supporters acknowledge that StudentsFirst has not met the ambitious goals Rhee outlined at its launch.

It's not clear whether Rhee plans to take on another high-profile assignment in the education world, but her recent announcements suggest a move out of the spotlight.

Rhee says she's stepping down from the StudentsFirst job to focus on her family and support the career of her husband, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. She also recently took on the role of interim board chair for a small network of Sacramento charter schools, likely a welcome change from the size and prominence of DCPS. A gig on the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. also won't hurt her recuperation from years in the trenches.

Love Rhee or hate her, she had a significant impact on education in DC. Her successor as Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, has continued many of Rhee's key initiatives with a tone that is more community-minded, as GGW anticipated at the time of her appointment.

While much of Rhee's legacy lives on in the District, many of her signature reforms are taking a step back in that large city to the north. Several years ago, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein was implementing many of the same initiatives as Rhee. (I once attended a conference where Klein recalled fielding requests from Rhee antagonists asking for help in modulating her; Klein responded, "I'm not her Daddy!")

The trajectory has changed, though, with current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio winning election on a platform that opposed Klein/Rhee-style school closures and ratings of schools. And some politicians, including Rhee's own husband, are shying away from even using the phrase "education reform."

At the same time, others are taking up Rhee's mantle. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has formed an organization that is fighting teacher tenure laws, among other goals.

If Rhee does step back from the spotlight, who will be the new face of education reform? And what impact will that new leader have on changes throughout the country and here in DC?

A summer break, and then some changes

Greater Greater Education will be on hiatus until August 19th because I'll be out of town. When I return, there will be a few changes.


Photo of feet from Shutterstock.

I will continue to write posts about education in DC just as I have in the past. But I'll be doing so as a contributor and volunteer editor for Greater Greater Washington rather than as primary editor of Greater Greater Education.

If you come to Greater Greater Education directly, you'll still be able to read posts on education at greatergreatereducation.org, subscribe to the GGE RSS feed, get the daily email, or follow us on Twitter. One change you may notice is that we'll no longer be running our Morning Bell compilation of links, although local education news will sometimes appear in Greater Greater Washington's Breakfast Links.

If you've been reading Greater Greater Education articles on Greater Greater Washington, you'll notice education-related articles now appearing in their entirety on Greater Greater Washington's home page, rather than as brief summaries with links to the full articles on GGE.

One struggling reader plus another may equal a boost in reading skills for both

A DC nonprofit called Reach Incorporated hires struggling high school readers to tutor struggling elementary school readers. It may sound counterintuitive, but both groups seem to benefit.


Photo from Reach Incorporated.

Fewer than 20% of DC 8th-graders read at a proficient level, according to national test results last year. The proportion of proficient 4th-grade readers is only slightly better.

Where others might see just a yawning educational gap, Mark Hecker saw a potential bridge. Hecker, a former social worker, envisioned a program that would train 9th-grade students to teach younger ones, and in the process, help the older students make up lost ground.

Hecker launched Reach Incorporated in 2010 and serves as its executive director. The program matches high school students with second- and third-graders.

Although the teens start out reading at a 4th- to 6th-grade level, Hecker says 75% of the program's 11th-graders end up reading at grade level or above after 3 years in the program. And as paid workers with a purpose, they save face.

"Instead of handing them a Dr. Seuss book, we hand them a Dr. Seuss book and a 7-year-old, and that eliminates the stigma" of school failure, explained Hecker, who expects to have 100 Reach tutors on the job serving a like number of students at 4 elementary schools this fall.

During the school year, tutors spend 4 hours a week in the program, two of them mentoring students and the other two learning the skills needed to teach reading. Over the summer, the program ramps up to 4 paid hours a day for older participants, who read books, craft resumes, visit workplaces, and tour colleges.

With the help of two college art students and one professional writer, the teens also team up to create something still rare in libraries: picture books that reflect the lives of low-income children. "We thought the best way to address the lack of material was for the teens to write it," Hecker said.

Last summer, the program produced 4 of these volumes, with titles such as One Lonely Camel and The Airplane Effect, about a sick boy who throws a paper airplane out of the window, setting off an unexpected chain of events. This summer, 5 original books are underway.

Importance of empathy

The teens bring a crucial strength to their work: empathy. "They recognize what it's like to be a struggling reader," Hecker said, "and so they want to prevent that from happening to someone else."

Za'Metria Froneberger, a rising 11th-grader at Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School, began working for Reach roughly a year ago. Her task was simple but daunting: to help Makea, a struggling second-grader at Burroughs Elementary School, learn to love reading. The high schooler discovered the younger child had a penchant for humor and responded to funny books.

"It changed my personality," said Froneberger of her tutoring. "It taught me to be more patient, that you can change the impact of a child's life by the things you do."

It's no accident that the Reach program targets students in the mid-elementary grades. Hecker cites the research suggesting that between third and fourth grades, children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. "Our goal is to prepare them for that transition," Hecker said.

One professional observer of the Reach model counts herself "thoroughly impressed," and she has the data to prove it. As academic intervention coach for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Jennifer Johnson serves as liaison between Reach and one of the schools it serves, Simon Elementary.

"Oh, my goodness, we saw great gains," Johnson said, pointing to Reach results from the last academic year: Some 50% of the second-graders served (12 children) boosted their reading ability significantly, she said. Among 3rd-grade students in the Reach program, that was true for 83%.

Yet even those gains are insufficient for some students, cautions Johnson. She cites the case of one boy in the program who shot up 6 reading levels yet still failed to meet the benchmark expected for his grade. He had started too far behind.

"They come with so many needs, so many deficiencies that for them, 25-plus in the classroom may be too much," Johnson said, referring to typical class sizes in the early grades. "If we had more tutors, we'd definitely have students to receive the services."

Tutor on the honor roll

The tutors benefit as well. Sarita McCard says her son Rico, a rising junior at Eastern High School, joined Reach during a tough transition to 9th grade. At the time, McCard says, "he wasn't making A's and B's." She credits the program for giving him the confidence and motivation to attain the honor roll for every marking period in 10th grade.

"He's more focused, more inspired," said McCard of her son. "He feels he's doing something greater than simply working and making a paycheck."

Yet such striking turnarounds, even multiplied by 80 to 100 tutors recruited annually by Reach, represent only a sliver of the achievement gap affecting tens of thousands of District students. Asked about the modest size of his program, Hecker says he is deliberately growing it slowly, in order to preserve "depth over breadth." But he hopes to double the number of participants over the next few years.

Meanwhile, inquiries about Reach have been streaming in from across the country and from as far away as South Africa and Curaçao, Hecker says. He has a simple message for those who wish to replicate the success of his fledgling program.

"What makes Reach work is that the teens feel cared about, supported, and empowered," Hecker said. "The model is helpful, but it's the relationships that matter."

A school choice advocate argues for a student assignment proposal that no longer exists

An op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post expressed support for a "recently released proposal" that would shift DC from a system of neighborhood schools toward "a geographically broader school assignment process." But that proposal, which DC officials put forward in April, was abandoned months ago in favor of one that would keep neighborhood schools in place.

The op-ed, by the former chief executive of an education reform center in New Orleans, argues that neighborhood schools reinforce geographic patterns of racial and socioeconomic segregation.

The author, Neerav Kingsland, suggests an enrollment system similar to that adopted in New Orleans, where schools serving kindergarten-through-8th-grade students reserve half their seats for neighborhood kids. The other half are open to students from all over the city. At the high school level, all seats are open to all students.

As far as the DC boundary proposals go, Kingsland seems unaware that this particular train has already left the station. Yes, the advisory committee charged with revising the student assignment system did put forward proposals in April that would have shifted away from a neighborhood school system to one in which choice and chance play a larger role.

But, as anyone who has been paying attention to this issue knows, those proposals precipitated a huge outcry of opposition from parents. As a result, the committee released a new proposal in June that embraced the idea of neighborhood schools, albeit with some redrawn boundaries.

Perhaps Kingsland, who apparently doesn't live in DC, can be forgiven for his obliviousness to recent events here. But it's surprising that Post editors were equally oblivious, given that the paper has reported extensively on the controversy over school boundaries.

These days the threat to neighborhood schools comes not from the boundary proposals but rather from DC's burgeoning charter sector. Charter schools, which now serve almost half of DC's students, have fiercely resisted the idea of a neighborhood preference in admissions. Kingsland does refer in passing to that threat, although he sees it more as an opportunity.

On the merits, Kingsland's argument against neighborhood schools underestimates the very factor that induced the advisory committee to back down from its initial proposals: parent opposition. He mentions parents' concerns about the downsides of a non-geographic assignment systema lack of predictability, long commutesbut says they must be balanced against the segregation inherent in a neighborhood system.

But if middle-class parents dislike a non-neighborhood system so much that they pick up and leave, as many were threatening to do in DC, Kingsland's New Orleans model won't work. Even allocating 50% of seats to neighborhood children wouldn't necessarily provide parents with the guaranteed slots many want.

So instead of achieving the kind of racial and socioeconomic mixing Kingsland envisions, we could end up with a school system entirely composed of those who can't afford to escape it. In fact, that's more or less what DC's public school system did look like until fairly recently.

Kingsland also overlooks the kind of segregation that can occur in an all-choice system, where students tend to sort themselves into different schools based on achievement. That's what seems to be happening in Chicago, which has adopted an all-choice system for its high schools.

Reasonable people can disagree, of course, about the pluses and minuses of neighborhood schools. What they can't disagree about is the fact that the specific proposal Kingsland is advocating for no longer exists.

Morning bell: Back to Latin at some schools, onward to technology at others


Photo of Roman forum from Shutterstock.
Latin and literacy: Some educators, including a few in DC, are advocating spoken Latin as a remedy for literacy problems, including those among low-income and special-education students. At School Without Walls @ Francis-Stevens, Latin begins in preschool. (Post)

High-tech charter finds a spot in Anacostia: Rocketship, a California-based charter network that blends technology with traditional instruction, will build its first DC school on a wooded hilltop across from a public housing development in Anacostia. (Post)

Summer school blitz: At one San Francisco high school, a teacher tries to cram an entire year-long algebra course into 5 weeks, for students who struggle with math in the first place. (NPR)

Home visit blitz: Before school starts in Henderson County, KY, teachers knock on the door of every student in the county to build relationships with them and their families. (Ed Week)

Celebrities and education reform: Whoopi Goldberg is only the latest boldface name to speak out on the subject, in her case weighing in against teacher tenure. (NPR)

The promise, and the limits, of tutoring

Tutoring can be an effective way to bring a struggling reader up to grade level. But, as I discovered when I volunteered with one highly regarded tutoring program, it isn't always easy. And it may not be the whole solution to a problem that is at the root of the achievement gap.


Photo of boy reading from Shutterstock.

If a child isn't reading on grade level by 3rd grade, chances are she'll never catch up. And in DC, only 23% of 4th-graders were reading on grade level according to national tests given in 2013.

One method that has been shown to work with at-risk readers is one-on-one tutoring. But it's expensive to have professional tutors work with all the students who need help. What about using volunteers?

According to a recent rigorous study, at least one program that uses volunteers actually works. Students got the equivalent of one-and-a-half to two months of additional growth in sight-word reading over the course of a school year, as compared to a control group. The study also found statistically significant results for comprehension and fluency.

The program, called Reading Partners, is active in 7 states and DC. It works with about 600 students in kindergarten through 5th grade in the District, and deploys about the same number of volunteers. This past school year I was one of them.

I decided to volunteer for two reasons. First and most obvious, I wanted to help a child in need. Second, I had learned from a previous tutoring experience how important it is to spend time in schools if you're interested in education, and especially if you're writing about it.

The challenge of Keisha

I suppose I imagined getting an adorable, bright-eyed child who would be grateful for the attention I was showering on her, and whose progress would be gratifyingly obvious.

I know there are many such kids, but instead I got a 4th-grader I'll call Keisha. When I first met Keisha in January, she sat as far from me as possible at the small table in the school's reading center where we met for 45 minutes every Tuesday, turning her chair to face away from me. She was quiet to the point of being unresponsive.

I thought she would warm up as she got to know me, but her behavior was unpredictable. One week she'd be bouncing off the wall and the next she'd be back inside her shell, refusing to answer my questions.

Thanks to a goal-setting system I devised with the help of the Reading Partners site administrator, things eventually got better. But the difficulty of reaching Keisha gave me some idea of what classroom teachers are up against.

I did everything I could think of to establish a rapport, including bringing her a small damp bag of moss to illustrate a vocabulary word that had stumped her. But nothing seemed to work.

I confess there were busy weeks when I was less than eager to make the 90-minute round-trip journey to Keisha's school. But I reminded myself that all kids deserve to learn, regardless of their level of cuteness. (And to be fair, there were times when even Keisha was pretty cute.)

A focus on skills, not content

The other problem, though, was that it wasn't always clear to me that Keisha was learning. To be sure, there were some aspects of the highly structured program that seemed valuable. I liked the fact that Keisha was writing, at least a little, about what she was reading. And reviewing vocabulary words several times over a period of weeks seemed like a good way to reinforce them.

But the Reading Partners approach, like much of education today, is focused on teaching discrete skills rather than fostering an appreciation for literature or conveying a particular body of knowledge. Over the course of about 6 months, we covered only 3 skills: Sequencing in Informational Text, Making Inferences, and Summarizing.

At each session, I would explain or review the relevant term and make sure Keisha understood it. When it was time for her to read, the protocol required me to interrupt her every page or two to ask her about Sequencing, or get her to Make an Inference, or Summarize.

That approach tends to take the joy out of reading, and I couldn't really blame Keisha when she seemed annoyed by my questions. I found myself wondering why we couldn't read a book all the way through and then go back and talk about it in a more natural way.

I also noticed Keisha's level of engagement varied with how much she liked what she was reading. Some books clearly grabbed her. But because she was only reading at a 2nd-grade level, she found others babyish.

"I'm in 4th grade!" she said disgustedly about one of them. "This isn't a 4th-grade book." She may have been behind in reading, but she was no dummy.

Tying tutoring to classroom work

More fundamentally, I wondered if it wouldn't have been more helpful for Keisha to spend time with a tutor working on the material she was actually supposed to be learning in class. That's the kind of tutoring affluent kids get, paid for by their parents.

Keisha might have been more responsive to that kind of tutoring, as well. Not only would we have avoided the "babyish" problem, but she might have seen a more direct connection between tutoring and her education. At one point she told me she really ought to be back in class, where she'd be learning something.

But no doubt it would be difficult, if not impossible, to engineer that individualized approach for a large-scale program that relies on volunteers.

But perhaps I accomplished more with Keisha than I thought. At the end of the school year, my Reading Partners site administrator sent me an excited email announcing that Keisha had made over a year of growth in her reading skills in the 6 months that I and another tutor worked with her. She was still about 18 months below her grade level, but she'd narrowed the gap by almost half a year.

I also got a handwritten note from Keisha that read: "Dear Ms. Natalie, I had Fun with you & I Love how you ask me great questions." It was accompanied by a drawing of the two of us.

I'm sure she wrote it because she was instructed to, but still, it made me tear up a bit. I've volunteered to tutor again next year, with Keisha if her schedule permits.

I don't know that tutoring is the whole answer to the problem of struggling readers. I suspect that the kind of tutoring Reading Partners does works best with younger children who are still learning the basics. For older children, I wonder if different classroom teaching methods are also needed.

But I'm not ready to give up on Keisha. And maybe Keisha's not the only one who learned something. It's possible that, with 6 months of experience under my belt, I'll be a better tutor.

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