Greater Greater Education

Morning bell: Answers and questions about DC's schools

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Not taking no for an answer: The plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging school closures say they'll appeal a ruling that DCPS closed the schools for reasons having nothing to do with discrimination. (Post)

What if?: A DCPS teacher reflects on his lunch with President Obama and imagines a world where low-income kids learn to write they way they'll be expected to in college, and teachers get time to collaborate. (Hechinger Report)

Using the summer to catch up: Prince George's County is providing a free 6-week program to 500 rising second-graders who are below grade level in reading and math. (Post)

Rocketship slows trajectory: The California-based Rocketship charter network, which will open a school in DC next year and could ultimately serve over 5,000 students here, has recently suffered a slip in test scores and scaled back expansion plans. Its critics are celebrating, but some say the network is still doing far better than its competitors in the traditional public school sector. (Hechinger Report)

And : American kids are getting healthier and better educated, but progress has been glacial. (Ed Week) A Slate article blaming private schools for Sweden's drop in test scores was full of mistakes. (Education Next) Answers on standardized tests are based on specific textbooks, and many low-income students lack access to them. (The Atlantic) ... What good are "college-and-career-ready" K-12 standards if colleges don't buy into them? (New America Foundation)

Tensions over DCPS-charter planning reflect different perspectives

Recent calls for coordinated planning between the DCPS and charter sectors have led to the fraying of a once-cordial relationship between the two. But the underlying tensions aren't new.

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Recently, the DCPS Chancellor and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) have called for "joint planning" between the traditional public school and charter sectors that would place limits on the growth and location of new charters. The charter sector has adamantly resisted that suggestion.

To Chancellor Kaya Henderson and DME Abigail Smith, along with some DCPS parents, joint planning signifies rationality and an end to a wasteful duplication of resources. To many in the charter sector, the phrase smacks of bureaucracy, centralization, and dangerous inroads on the autonomy that has enabled them to thrive.

As someone with a foot in each education sector, I can understand and sympathize with both points of view. I'm a member of the board of a DC charter, and I've tutored in two DCPS high-poverty schools. I've contributed financially to both DCPS and charters. And I've had both formal and informal conversations with educators and officials in both sectors, from classroom teachers to top administrators.

DCPS's perspective

DCPS wants to ensure that the plans it's making aren't undermined by charter competition. Henderson would like to avoid situations where charter schools locate close to DCPS schools that have a similar focus, as will happen in one DC neighborhood this fall, and lure away students the system expects to serve.

Henderson has said that she would like to see a process that allowed officials of DC's Public Charter School Board (PCSB) to join with other DC policy-makers in identifying which neighborhoods most need new schools or specialized programs. The PCSB, which is the District's charter authorizer, would then use those priorities when it considers new charter applications.

The DME's recent proposal to redraw DCPS boundaries and feeder patterns has put a spotlight on the difficulty of making plans for DCPS without knowing how many more charters will spring up and where they will locate. The proposal, for example, calls for DCPS to open several new middle schools. But what if, after DCPS spends millions of dollars renovating or constructing these schools, new charter middle schools locate nearby?

As the charter sector has grown rapidly, DCPS has faced significant challenges. The District now has the third-largest charter sector in the nation, enrolling 44% of the students here, and it's poised to grow larger.

When students leave DCPS for charters, they take money with themaround $10,000 per student, per year. You might think that DCPS's costs would go down commensurately. But there are fixed costs associated with maintaining under-enrolled school buildings. And it's hard to provide a full range of programs at schools with few students. Those are the reasons that prompted Henderson's decision last year to close 15 DCPS schools, in addition to the 23 closed by her predecessor.

As Henderson tries to plan to serve students in the future, not knowing where or when competing charters will pop up, she may feel like a bride reciting her wedding vows while the groom eyes the attractive bridesmaids standing nearby.

The charter sector's point of view

The charter sector, for its part, wants as few restrictions placed on it as possible. Leaders of high-performing charters in DC feel, justifiably, that their relative nimbleness and freedom to experiment has enabled them to devise ways of educating kids more successfully than DCPS. And they want to expand, rapidly, in order to bring the benefits of their innovations to more students.

They also argue that DCPS enjoys advantages that charters don't, particularly when it comes to buildings. DCPS is able to draw on hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds for renovated or new buildings, many of which are dazzlingand, in some cases, half empty. Charters receive far less to fix up, rent, and maintain their facilities and often have to draw on private contributions to do so.

More fundamentally, it's notoriously difficult for charters to find suitable space at all in DC, and charter leaders complain that DCPS has been slow to release its vacant school buildings for their use. While some have been leased to charters in recent years, securing one is a lengthy, uncertain, and time-consuming process. And there are still around 20 buildings DCPS is sitting on, hoping to use them again someday.

In fact, the charters point to the lack of available space as one reason that joint planning between the sectors wouldn't work. At the time they apply for authorization, prospective charter operators never know exactly where they'll be able to find a place to locate.

Charters are proud that, despite these obstacles, they've been able to compete and generally outperform DCPS, especially in raising the achievement of low-income students. Competition, they say, has improved the quality of education for allincluding, to some extent, those remaining in DCPS.

And, unlike DCPS, charter advocates see no reason to limit that competition. If DCPS students leave for the charter across the street, so be it. Why, they ask, doesn't DCPS just make its schools better? Privately, they may attribute DCPS's lagging performance to incompetence and overspending on a bloated bureaucracy.

I can see legitimate points in both the charter and DCPS perspectives. But I also see what appear to me to be some blind spots as well. In a future post I'll elaborate on those and discuss how the two sectors may yet be able to work together towards their common goal of raising the quality of education for DC's students as quickly as possible.

Morning Bell: Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" plan could benefit boys in DC

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Support for black and Latino males: Before an audience at Walker-Jones Education Campus that included 200 DC-area students, President Obama announced a new initiative to raise performance among male students of color. The program includes commitments by 60 of the nation's largest school districts and a host of foundations and other organizations. (

Montgomery parents stumped: Montgomery County parents voice confusion over report cards that have replaced letter grades for elementary school with a four-letter scale that some parents say lacks nuance. (Post)

US ranks low on fresh education ideas: The United States lags behind other countries on innovation in its schools, says a new report. Only two countriesthe Czech Republic and Austriaranked lower. (Ed Week)

The pot boils at DC charter board: A charter school advocate has called for the resignation of DC Public Charter School Board member Barbara Nophlin after news surfaced that she has a $195,000 consulting gig with a charter school network in the city. (Examiner, Post)

Teen parenthood still on a slide: Recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show birth rates steadily falling among teen mothers aged 15 to 18, among all racial and ethnic groups, over the past 12 years. (CDC)

How a writing program helped Daniel and other struggling middle-grade DCPS students

[Editor's note: During the last school year, 4 DCPS schools piloted a program that engages students in analytical writing across the curriculum. DCPS was the first school district in the nation to adopt the program on a trial basis, and it plans to expand the pilot to an additional 6 to 8 schools this fall.

The program, developed by Dr. Judith C. Hochman, starts with exercises at the sentence level and gradually leads students through learning to outline what they'll write and then composing paragraphs and essays. One high school in New York City has had great success with the Hochman Method.

We asked some of the DCPS educators who used the program last year to write about their experiences. This is the third of a 3-part series. For the first and second parts, click here and here. (Disclosure: The editor of Greater Greater Education, Natalie Wexler, is a board member of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the Hochman Method into underserved schools.)]

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In the past, DCPS teachers were left to their own devices to figure out how to teach writing and critical thinking. But last year our high-poverty school helped pilot a comprehensive approach to those all-important skills with our 6th-to-8th graders. It produced dramatic results.

Daniel, a student we've taught at Truesdell Education Campus for the past two years, is a good example. In the past he refused to write most of the time, and when he did, his thoughts were incomprehensible.

English is Daniel's second language, and he receives special education support. He scored in the basic category on his 7th-grade reading exam and below basic on his writing assessment. He started his 8th-grade year reading at a 4th-grade level.

Like many students, Daniel (a pseudonym) had slipped, and at times screamed and kicked, his way through the system with major and persistent language deficiencies. Different teachers had tried different instructional methods, with varying results.

But the Hochman program provided Daniel's teachers a common set of tools and language to evaluate his progress on a daily basis and then modify their instruction to meet his needs.

Daniel and his classmates soon had opportunities to practice good thinking and writing in each of their classes. For example, Daniel might outline and draft an argumentative essay on extending the school day in English class. In science class, he might revise a poorly written paragraph about frog dissection by combining short, choppy sentences and adding in transition words.

Next, in social studies, Daniel would write complex sentences using subordinating conjunctions. Finally, in his reading intervention, Daniel would write a single-sentence summary of a passage using a Hochman strategy designed to help students locate and rephrase the main ideas of a text. In each class, practice was constant.

By June, Daniel was independently writing well-structured two and three paragraph essays. As impressively, he made over two and a half years of growth in reading.

While Daniel still faces significant challenges, he no longer suffers from the lack of foundational language skills that once crippled him. Most important, he possesses the confidence and the motivation to build the skills he'll need to attend college.

What great teachers have always done

The gains at Truesdell have been impressive, but they shouldn't be surprising. The Hochman Method is consistent with what great teachers have always done and what new teachers seek to emulate.

The program gives teachers the tools they need to guide their students through everything from constructing simple sentences to expressing sophisticated concepts. Once students become comfortable with the mechanics of writing, they feel free to take risks and experiment with their ideas and creativity.

But for the Hochman Method to work, schools need to implement it consistently across a range of classes. The students who showed the greatest gains from the programin reading, writing, and thinkingwere the ones who got the most opportunities to practice these skills in a variety of subjects.

So Hochman requires real, not token, collaboration among and between grade levels and content areas. That's a formidable challenge.

At Truesdell, we have embraced that challenge, and we're grateful that DCPS is an early adopter of the Hochman Method. Next year, we plan to expand our implementation to include pre-K through 5th grade while continuing to use the method with our 6th-to-8th grade classes.

DCPS and charters need to cooperate in planning

The DCPS Chancellor and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) have recently called for joint planning by DCPS and the charter sector. We received a letter on that subject from 3 DCPS parents: Caryn Ernst and Valerie Jablow (Capitol Hill Cluster School), and Suzanne Wells (Tyler Elementary).

The new proposal for school boundaries and feeder patterns put forward by the DME reflects the widespread support for high-quality, by-right neighborhood schools in DC. But all the time and thought that went into crafting the proposal will come to nothing if we do not immediately deal with the elephant in the room: the lack of coordination and planning between DCPS and charter schools.

Because of closures, or misguided reforms to create K-8 educational campuses, some parts of the city have no neighborhood elementary schools; others have no middle schools. And 44% of our public school students attend charters funded with DC taxpayer dollars.

The current lack of coordination between charters and DCPS has had huge ramifications for public policy. Without a substantially growing student population, the creation of new schools, both charter and DCPS, has resulted in existing schools losing enrollmentand therefore resources. And those losses lead to failing schools and school closures.

This tremendous waste, in the name of competition, is not some logical by-product of educational checks and balances. It is a cost borne by all DC taxpayers and, worst of all, every one of DC's public school kids.

Our city needs to use the DME's new boundaries plan as the first step in collaborative public education planning with charters. Now is the time for our city to dedicate resources to strategically reopen neighborhood schools and to ensure all neighborhood schools get the resources they need. And it is time for charters to coordinate with existing schools, both charter and DCPS, to ensure that their innovations are brought to the kids who can most benefit.

DC parents want a system of high-quality neighborhood schools, not school competition where our children's educations are put at risk when any school lacks what it needs. A collaborative approach to running our public school system can create an environment in which every school, and therefore every child, has a fair chance to succeed.

Doing otherwise is just a luxury our city cannot afford.

Morning bell: Transparency, ethics, and a space crunch in the charter sector

Charter management scrutiny: Some charters have contracts with outside management companies that aren't transparent enough to ensure the schools are operating appropriately, according to the Public Charter School Board (PCSB). (Post)

Ethics question: The PCSB has asked for an opinion on whether it's okay for one of its members to work as a consultant for one of the charters the board oversees. (Post)

Charter space race: Shining Stars Montessori suddenly found itself without a home after a landlord signed a more lucrative lease with another charter school for a Petworth location. (Post)

School closure lawsuit: A federal judge has definitively rejected a lawsuit alleging that DCPS had discriminatory reasons for closing 15 schools. (WUSA)

Tests that boost learning: Unlike the once-a-year standardized tests that are accorded so much importance, frequent low-stakes testing actually helps students retain information. (NYT)

Choice leads to sorting: In Chicago, a choice system for high school has led to high-achieving students going to one set of schools and low-achieving students going to another. (WBEZ)

Increasing brainpower: A program that tells kids their intelligence isn't fixed can lead to higher GPAs for struggling students. (KQED)

More like Finland?: More states are raising barriers to entering the teaching profession, a trend that will result in a better educational system and more respect for teachers. (Slate)

At one DCPS high school, teachers work together to improve student's writing

[Editor's note: During the last school year, 4 DCPS schools piloted a program that engages students in analytical writing across the curriculum. DCPS was the first school district in the nation to adopt the program on a trial basis, and it plans to expand the pilot to an additional 6 to 8 schools this fall.

The program, developed by Dr. Judith C. Hochman, starts with exercises at the sentence level and gradually leads students through learning to outline what they'll write and then composing paragraphs and essays. One high school in New York City has had great success with the Hochman Method.

We asked some of the DCPS educators who used the program last year to write about their experiences. This is the second of a 3-part series. You can find the first part of the series here. Disclosure: The editor of Greater Greater Education, Natalie Wexler, is a board member of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the Hochman Method into underserved schools.]

Photo of students writing from Shutterstock.

High schools often struggle to implement effective writing initiatives. But when the staff at Eastern Senior High School used the Hochman Method to focus intensely on student writing last year, the choice proved phenomenally successful.

The Hochman Method aims to develop writing that expresses complex thinking with clarity, coherence, and unity. For Eastern's students, who struggle with capitalization and correct punctuation, this seemed like a lofty goal.

We started by looking at our students' work to identify their strengths and weaknesses. While students were good at generating ideas to write about, they often used sentence fragments instead of complete sentences, and their writing suffered from a lack of structure.

Relying on these findings, we were able to develop strategies we could implement in all classes and nearly all content areasno easy task for a high school with 60-plus teachers and dozens of courses.

From the first week of professional development last August, Eastern's staff rigorously integrated the Hochman Method into the school's everyday life. During meetings and professional development seminars, teachers received guidelines and participated in exercises to help them implement the Hochman writing strategies. We even coined a new verb for infusing the strategies into a lesson: Hochmanizing.

Soon we realized that learning these writing skills enabled students to truly comprehend the content of their classes and led to more meaningful classroom discussions. When students learn to craft complex sentences that exhibit the ability to understand and analyze content, they become more critical thinkers, capable of advancing thoughtful argumentsa key Common Core State Standard.

As an instructional coach at Eastern, I frequently exchanged calls with Dr. Hochman throughout the year. We regularly discussed student work and came up with course corrections to support Eastern's implementation of the program. In addition, Dr. Hochman took the time to visit and walk the halls of Eastern, touching base with teachers and students to help measure progress and inspire students to improve their writing.

By the end of the year, I had witnessed a wonderful transformation at the school. Our stellar teachers had managed to grasp the components of the program and adapt their instruction to make complex writing a priority.

And we have the evidence to prove the program's success. In writing samples taken over the course of the year, students' sentence construction grew significantly more complex, with a marked increase in the use of transitional and appositive phrases, subordinating conjunctions, and emphasis and sequence words.

Additionally, it was amazing to watch how students began to instinctively use Hochman-style outlines to organize their writing in different classes.

Looking ahead, I'm excited to continue implementing the Hochman Method and confident that it will help create even stronger and more assured writers at Eastern in the years to come.

Morning Bell: Improving outcomes for African-American boys

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A new DCPS position: A professor of urban education is joining the school system to spearhead innovation and research, with a focus on raising the performance of African-American male students. (Post)

Teacher pay in DC: At an average of $70,000, it's the third highest in the nation. New York and Massachusetts come in first and second, according to this state-by-state map and chart. (Post)

Budget surplus in Fairfax: The county, whose current budget calls for laying off 700 staff, ended the past fiscal year with an extra $38 million. Some of that will go to addressing a projected shortfall in the future. (Post)

Curbing summer reading loss: At a Prince George's County elementary school, teachers are staffing the library for several hours a week in an effort to maintain student reading skills. (Gazette)

Teacher churn and low-income students: When one in 5 teachers leaves the profession annually, the turnover takes a special toll on high-poverty schools. But there are ways to encourage new teachers to remain on the job. (Alliance for Excellent Education)

One charter pleads for the right to give neighborhood kids a preference in admissions, with Henderson's apparent support

Should some charter schools be able to decide for themselves whether to give a preference to applicants who live in their neighborhood? The leaders of at least one DC charter think so, and the DCPS Chancellor seems to agree.

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At a DC Council hearing last month on proposed new boundaries and feeder patterns, two top officials at a highly ranked charter school in Ward 8 pleaded for a change in the law that would allow them to give an admissions preference to families who live nearby.

Later at the same hearing, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson expressed surprise at the charter school's stance, given the general lack of enthusiasm for such a change in the charter sector, and seemed supportive of its plea. She also connected the issue to the charter community's recent opposition to joint DCPS-charter planning. Charters have said such planning would infringe on their autonomy.

"If that's not autonomya school saying I would like to be able to serve neighborhood kids," Henderson said in exasperation, "then what is autonomy?"

Under current law, charter schools must admit any child who applies and must hold a lottery if there are more applicants than seats. A task force that considered the neighborhood preference issue two years ago recommended against it, saying it might exclude low-income children in Wards 7 and 8 from high-performing charters elsewhere in the District.

For example, if highly sought-after charter schools in gentrifying areas, such as the vastly oversubscribed Two Rivers, exercised a neighborhood preference, low-income applicants from other areas would be shut out.

The task force did consider allowing individual charters the option of adopting a neighborhood preference, as Eagle Academy wants to do, provided that it would be "educationally advantageous to the city as a whole" and would not harm "disadvantaged populations." But no charter leaders indicated strong support for that idea, and the task force didn't recommend it.

In fact, Eagle Academy's founder, Cassandra Pinkney, was one of two charter leaders who spoke against neighborhood preference when the task force held a public hearing. But she says her understanding was that the task force was only considering a mandatory neighborhood preference rather than an optional one.

"You cannot require charters to be neighborhood schools, because some are specialized," said Joe Smith, Eagle Academy's chief operating and chief financial officer, in an interview. "We are a community school, so for our own school it would be very important to set aside a number of seats for kids in the neighborhood."

But it's not clear how many other charters feel the same way. When Smith testified at the DC Council hearing, he acknowledged that the school's position was "a little heretical."

Eagle Academy isn't typical

Eagle Academy, which serves 3-year-olds through 3rd-graders, is in an anomalous position. Most charters in low-income locations already draw largely from their neighborhoods, so a neighborhood preference might not make much difference. In 2012, the neighborhood preference task force found that over half the charter students attending schools in Wards 7 and 8 go to schools within their own wards.

But recently, according to Smith, some parents from affluent Ward 3 have begun enrolling their children at Eagle Academy's Ward 8 campus, drawn by its innovative technology program and award-winning new building. Meanwhile, the school has to turn many neighborhood applicants away.

While the number from Ward 3 is smallfewer than 20 children out of over 700 enrolledthe school wants to ensure that it primarily serves students from the surrounding low-income community.

Still, some charters in predominantly low-income neighborhoods oppose the idea of allowing charters a neighborhood preference option. That's the view of Diane Cottman, executive director of Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB), a school near Military Road and 13th Streets NW that is popular with middle-class parents from around the District.

She acknowledged that LAMB staff members find it difficult to turn away parents from the neighborhood who come in hoping to enroll their children, not realizing there were application deadlines and a lottery that they missed.

"In my heart of hearts," Cottman said, "I'd say yes, we might want to reserve 10 or 15% of our slots" for neighborhood kids.

But, she continued, "the devil is in the details." She questioned how a neighborhood would be defined, and what would happen with a "hardship case" a block outside the boundary. She also said that some bilingual schools, like hers, might prefer the option of a preference for children who speak languages other than English, and that other charters might lobby for other kinds of preferences.

"Once you inject preference," she said, "it opens a wide array of what people would like to include."

Those kinds of questions appear to have kept change at bay. Councilmember David Grosso introduced a bill last year that would have allowed new charters to give a preference to neighborhood children, but it hasn't gone anywhere.

And a spokesman for Councilmember David Catania, chair of the education committee, echoed Cottman's concern that the neighborhood preference issue was complex.

"We would need just as thorough an analysis of it as any other issue, like boundaries and feeder patterns," said Brendan Williams-Kief, adding that Catania has been talking to "lots of different folks" about the idea and is "willing to have conversations about it."

DCPS's position

You might expect DCPS to oppose allowing a neighborhood preference for charters. After all, a charter that draws primarily from its neighborhood could lure away students from a DCPS school in the same area, leaving the DCPS school underenrolled.

But Henderson's impassioned statement at last month's Council hearing indicated that she supports the idea, at least in some cases. (To watch that part of her testimony, click here. It appears about 5 hours and 35 minutes into the hearing.)

A DCPS spokesperson said that a neighborhood preference for charters would "require lots of planning and lots of conversation." But Henderson is particularly interested in a certain kind of preference: she wants a charter that takes over a building vacated by a closed DCPS school to be able to guarantee admission to the DCPS school's former students.

That's not allowed under current law, a problem that has derailed Henderson's plan to have a high-performing charter in Ward 8 take over a struggling DCPS elementary school, Malcolm X. Still, that proposal appears to have a better chance of becoming a reality than the kind of preference Eagle Academy would like to exercise.

True, guaranteeing slots for students from a closed DCPS school is a more pressing need than a general neighborhood preference. And it would encourage the kind of DCPS-charter collaboration that could lead to better outcomes for many students.

But, as Henderson said in her DC Council testimony, it's hard to see why Eagle Academy shouldn't be allowed to give priority to low-income kids in its neighborhood, even ifor perhaps especially ifit's the only charter that wants to do so.

Morning bell: Summertime brings sleepy elections and losses in learning

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A new face on the DC State Board of Education: Only 3% of eligible voters turned out for Tuesday's special election for the vacant Ward 8 seat. But that was enough for Tierra Jolly, who won with 704 votes. (Post)

Time to do away with summer vacation?: Low-income kids fall farther behind their wealthier peers every summer. Now that schools have air conditioning, can we justify closing them? (Politico)

School choice in Sweden: A voucher program seems to have led to grade inflation and a decline in student achievement. (Slate)

Beefing up preschool: One year of pre-K isn't enough for at-risk kids, according to a report. And preschools should have well trained teachers, along with funding and hours comparable to elementary school. (Post)

Repeating 3rd grade: Under policies in place in Florida and other states, 3rd graders who flunk reading tests are held back. But it's not clear they're learning to read, and some have been in 3rd grade for as many as 3 years. (Politico)

Philanthropists take note: Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million didn't end up helping Newark schools, and other funders should ensure their contributions go to changing a system's educational trajectory rather than sustaining administrative bloat. (Ed Week)

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