Greater Greater Education

DCPS wants to focus on boys of color, but some say that's unfair and illegal

DC Public Schools is launching a new initiative that will focus on males of color, but some critics say the plan is unfair to black and Latino girls, and possibly illegal.

As part of its Empowering Males of Color initiative, DCPS plans to recruit 500 volunteer tutors for black and Latino males. It will also award grants to schools that devise their own programs to help those students. And, in its flashiest move, in the fall of 2016 it will open a new boys-only high school east of the Anacostia River.

After DCPS unveiled its plans with great fanfare a few weeks ago, Councilmember Mary Cheh sent a letter to DC Attorney General Karl Racine, asking for an opinion on whether the planned $20 million initiative would violate DC or federal anti-discrimination laws. And this week the ACLU of the National Capital Area wrote to Mayor Muriel Bowser raising the same question.

Three other councilmembers are defending EMOC, citing statistics showing that black and Latino boys lag behind white students on many academic measures. Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson have chimed in to defend the initiative as well.

Cheh doesn't dispute that boys of color have it worse than white students. But she and the ACLU-NCA say that black and Latino girls face problems just as serious as their male counterparts.

The DCPS initiative is part of a broader movement focusing on black and Latino males. Last year, President Obama announced a program called My Brother's Keeper designed to improve the lives of minority boys. Sixty urban school districts have joined the effort.

Critics say girls of color have it just as bad

But, like Cheh and the ACLU, some observers have questioned why the initiative targets only males. They argue that minority girls also live in poverty, come from single-parent homes, drop out of school in large numbers, and get arrested. Not only that, they say, girls of color face high rates of sexual assault and are at risk for teen pregnancy.

And a recent study suggests that school discipline affects black girls more disproportionately than their male counterparts. Across the country, black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls, according to the study. Black boys are only three times more likely to be suspended than white boys.

Still, it's clear that in some ways black and Latino males fare worse than their female counterparts. Within DCPS, test scores and attendance rates are lower, particularly for black boys. More broadly, incarceration rates are higher for black and Latino men, and fewer of them enroll in college.

Perhaps, as a matter of policy, those statistics do warrant a special focus on males of color. But do they justify a boys-only high school?

"Studies show that separating boys and girls does not improve academic performance," wrote the ACLU-NCA's executive director, Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, in the letter to Bowser. "It simply increases gender stereotyping."

Single-sex schools raise special legal issues

Still, some maintain that single-sex environments actually help break down gender stereotypes, and you could argue that DC should be able to experiment even in the absence of hard data. But there may be legal obstacles to doing that.

In defending the initiative, Councilmember David Grosso argued that lots of government programs target funds to populations with particular needs, such as low-income students and those with learning disabilities. "The EMOC initiative, in my opinion, is no different," he said.

But in the eyes of the law, the EMOC initiative actually is different. That's because the Constitution, and the federal law referred to as Title IX, impose special restrictions on the government when it discriminates on the basis of gender.

Federal regulations interpreting Title IX say that school districts offering single-sex schools have to provide a substantially equal school to the excluded gender. That doesn't mean DCPS would have to set up an all-girls school, but it's not clear that it could even offer a coed equivalent to the urban prep school it's planning.

And the Title IX regulations aren't the last word. There's also the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has relied on that provision to require an all-female nursing school to admit men and an all-male military school to admit women. But it hasn't ruled on the question in 20 years, and it's far from clear how it would come out on a school like the one DC is planning.

In fact, these days there are many single-sex public schools—particularly charter schools—operating across the country. DC has an all-girls charter school, and until recently it had one that was all-boys.

But, says the ACLU's Hopkins-Maxwell, the fact that single-sex public schools exist doesn't mean they're legal. It just means no one has challenged them yet. The ACLU has challenged a number of single-sex programs around the country, but it doesn't have the resources to challenge them all.

Single-sex classes could be a problem too

In addition to single-sex schools, the ACLU has focused nationally on single-sex classes within coed public schools, which are actually regulated more closely than single-sex schools.

Under Title IX, a school must provide a rationale for the single-sex class, ensure that enrollment is voluntary, offer a coed class in the same subject, and avoid gender stereotyping. Every two years, the school must conduct a review to ensure that the rationale is still valid.

There are a number of public schools with single-sex classes in the DC area. While they don't necessarily reinforce stereotypes, I happened to visit one DCPS elementary school that had such classes, and I noticed that schedules for boys appeared in blue and those for girls in pink.

A spokesperson for DCPS failed to respond to questions about how many other single-sex classes the system offers and whether the district is complying with the federal regulations that govern them.

The EMOC initiative has attracted a lot of attention, and whatever its merits it makes sense to get an opinion on its legality before investing millions of dollars in it. But perhaps someone should look into whether DCPS is already in danger of violating Title IX because of its single-sex classes.

For one group of kids from Anacostia, a dream deferred is turning into reality

In 1988, a DC philanthropist promised a group of low-income 7th-graders in the Anacostia neighborhood that he would pay for their college educations. What's happened to the kids since then shows that the presence of a caring adult can alter a child's life trajectory.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post.

A thought-provoking new documentary called Southeast 67 will be screened at the DC Independent Film Festival this Friday. It traces the lives of some of the 67 kids "adopted" by Stewart W. Bainum, Sr., as part of the national I Have a Dream program. While it's not a simple success story, the film suggests Bainum's initiative ultimately helped many escape the multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Bainum, a hotel and nursing home magnate who died last year, randomly selected one half of a class at Kramer Jr. High School (now Kramer Middle School) in Anacostia to be his beneficiaries.

He hired two people to mentor and help the kids with their schoolwork through high school, and pledged to pay their college tuition if they graduated by 2000.

By 1994, 72% of the "Dreamers" had graduated from high school. That was significant. The graduation rate for the half of the class not chosen for the program was only 27%.

But the idea behind the program was that students would go on to college right away, and few did. Only six of the 67 earned a BA on time, according to an article in the New York Times, and 36 never used any of the tuition money that was available to them.

Growing up amid a crack epidemic

It's clear that designers of the program vastly underestimated the challenges facing kids in Anacostia at the time. It was the height of the District's crack cocaine epidemic, and violence pervaded the Dreamers' lives.

One of the two adults hired to mentor the Dreamers, Steve Bumbaugh, estimates that only 15 to 20 of the kids were abused at home or had parents who were crack addicts. But, he says in an oral history on the film website, "Every single Dreamer witnessed somebody being murdered. They were living in something I would describe as a low-grade civil war."

Obviously, tutoring alone wasn't going to be enough to ensure the success of kids living in such an environment. But Bumbaugh and his colleague, Phyllis Rumbarger, went way beyond tutoring—and even way beyond providing food, organizing basketball games, and rousing tardy students from bed, all of which they did.

Essentially, they gave many of the Dreamers the encouraging, reliable adult presence that was otherwise lacking in their lives. In some cases, they forced that presence on the kids. And as writer Paul Tough and others have detailed, research has shown that the presence of a caring adult in a child's life can counteract the effects of toxic stress caused by growing up in poverty.

Still, it wasn't enough to get many on the path to college immediately. One Dreamer in the film, Martece Gooden Yates, seemed to have it all together in high school. What no one knew—not even Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—was that her mother had become addicted to crack.

She couldn't go away to college, she says, because she was afraid her mother would OD. She did enroll at the University of the District of Columbia, but she was already pregnant by then and soon dropped out.

Tenille Warren, who I've written about before, was a talented artist and seemed to have a promising future. But she wanted to make money to get away from an abusive mother, so she took a job at Safeway.

And Antwan Green was one of ten Dreamers who went off to the conservative all-white boarding school in Ohio that was Bainum's alma mater. Green had no trouble making straight As there, but quit when an uproar broke out after a white girl invited him to a dance. He ended up dropping out of high school and dealing drugs.

Success can come later in life and extend to the next generation

You might judge these three, now in their late 30s, to be failures. But as the film makes clear, they're anything but. Yates is still married to the father of the child she gave birth to after starting UDC, and she's pursuing a nursing degree at Trinity University.

After Herculean efforts, Warren is now a student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

And Antwan Green, after narrowly escaping a long-term prison sentence, has a GED, his own trash-hauling business, and a stable marriage. And it's clear from both the film and his remarks at an invitation-only screening a couple of weeks ago that he's at least as thoughtful and articulate as many college graduates.

So while a college degree is clearly important these days, it shouldn't be the only measure of success. Even if it is, maybe you shouldn't impose a time limit on it. In addition to Yates and Warren, two other Dreamers are currently in college, and a total of nine have graduated, according to the Times article.

More significant, perhaps, is what is happening in the next generation. Nineteen children of Dreamers are in college, three hold BAs, and two are in graduate school. The film shows Antwan Green's college student son hunched over his books. Green predicts he'll get a Ph.D.

In an oral history on the film's website, Bumbaugh provides more texture for these statistics. In the past 10 years, he says, the Dreamers have been getting married, keeping the same phone numbers, staying at the same jobs—in short, building the kinds of stable lives their parents didn't have, and passing the benefits on to their kids.

It's impossible to know how the Dreamers' lives would have unfolded if they hadn't been chosen for the program. But, as Bumbaugh says, "All of these outcomes cannot be coincidental. They're so radically different, unfortunately, from the kids who were not in the program." For many of the Dreamers, he suggests, the program was able to help break a cycle of poverty going back many generations.

No doubt things would have gone even better for them if their environment had been safer and they'd had more access to things like "a goddamn doctor if they got sick," as Bumbaugh says. They needed, he argues, more than "a cheerleader telling them to be the best they can be."

But, as the life trajectories of many of the Dreamers show, cheerleaders—or at least, cheerleaders with the ability and dedication displayed by Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—can make a huge difference. Ideally, parents serve as those cheerleaders. But many parents are too stressed by poverty themselves to perform that role.

The question is: how do we find thousands more people like Bumbaugh and Rumbarger, and provide them with the resources to help the many kids who need them?

High-poverty schools need better teachers, but getting them there won't be easy

DC needs to increase the number of highly qualified teachers who work in high-poverty schools. But doing that could require a fundamental change in the way DC Public Schools evaluates and supports teachers.

Photo of teacher from Shutterstock.

DCPS teachers who get high ratings are more likely to work in schools serving relatively affluent students. That's typical of school districts across the country, and the US Department of Education has given all state education agenciesincluding the District's—until June to come up with a plan to correct the imbalance.

Under DCPS's teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT, teachers in affluent Ward 3 get ratings that are significantly above those in lower-income Wards 7 and 8, according to a study based on data from 2010 to 2013. Another study shows that 41% of teachers in Ward 3 received IMPACT's top rating of "highly effective" in 2011-12, as compared to only 9% in Ward 8.

DCPS bases IMPACT scores on a number of factors, including classroom observations and growth in students' test scores for teachers of tested grades and subjects. Charter schools have their own methods of evaluating teachers.

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education is currently trying to come up with a plan to bring more highly qualified teachers to high-poverty schools, in both the charter and DCPS sectors. It's not clear how OSSE will define "highly qualified," but when it comes to DCPS teachers, IMPACT scores are likely to be a factor.

More money isn't enough

The simplest approach would be to offer teachers with high IMPACT scores more money to teach in high-poverty schools. But DCPS already does that. Highly effective teachers in those schools can get bonuses of up to $20,000, as compared to $2,000 in other schools, and their base pay is higher as well. Obviously, it hasn't worked.

One reason for that may be that teachers generally care more about their working conditions than about how much money they make, according to a report from The Education Trust. And the report says students aren't the most important factor. Instead, good teachers want a school with a strong leader and a collaborative environment. That's especially true for those in high-poverty schools.

Another problem with DCPS's approach is that to get the additional compensation, teachers have to continue to get a highly effective rating after they switch from an affluent school to a high-poverty one. And some teachers say it's a lot harder to get that rating at a high-poverty school.

That not only explains why teachers who are highly rated at affluent schools are reluctant to move to high-poverty ones. It also may explain why there are so many fewer highly rated teachers at high-poverty schools in the first place.

For one thing, part of the IMPACT score for some teachers depends on how much the teacher has increased her students' test scores in a given year. But the tests are geared to a student's grade level, and many students at high-needs schools are several grade levels behind.

If a 10th-grader comes into a teacher's class at a 5th-grade level and the teacher succeeds in bringing the student's skills up to a 6th- or 7th-grade level, the test isn't geared to capture that improvement. Neither the teacher nor the school gets credit. And there's virtually no way to bring a student up five grade levels in a single year.

"No teacher wants to go into a school where you can only be told you've failed," says David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School.

Teachers at high-needs schools, where behavior problems are more common, are also more likely to get low ratings on the classroom observation component of their IMPACT scores. Tansey recalls getting a low rating from one observer because a student cursed in class.

Tansey pointed out that the student had corrected himself, something that reflected Tansey's efforts and was a vast improvement over the student's behavior at the beginning of the year. But, he says, that made no difference to the observer.

Teachers need to motivate disengaged students

More fundamentally, Tansey says, the IMPACT approach assumes that students are intrinsically motivated to learn. That may be the case at more affluent schools, or at selective DCPS or charter schools where students or their parents have made an affirmative decision to attend. It's usually not the case at a neighborhood high-poverty school like Dunbar.

Tansey's students often have traumatic home lives and don't see the point of school. So he tries to explain how any mathematical concept he teaches will be useful in the real world. One project has kids planning out their lives, from choosing a college and a job to figuring out what kind of house they can afford. The kids love it, he says, and along the way they're using math to make calculations.

But projects like that won't do anything for Tansey's IMPACT score. "I do a project like that despite the requirements, not because of them," he says. Rather than having to hide techniques that work with disengaged students, he argues, teachers at high-poverty schools should be encouraged to share them with colleagues.

Tansey actually is rated highly effective—one of five teachers with that rating at Dunbar, he says. And he concedes that teachers who are rated highly effective are "genuinely effective." But he says there are also many genuinely effective teachers in high-needs schools who don't get the "highly effective" rating.

And, he says, there are "highly effective" teachers at affluent schools who would no longer get that rating at a high-needs school. It takes a different set of skills.

All this suggests that it doesn't make sense to simply try to lure highly rated teachers from Ward 3 to Ward 7 or 8. A better approach might be to recruit new teachers who have been specifically trained to deal with high-poverty populations, preferably through a residency program that includes a one-year apprenticeship in a high-needs school. (Disclosure: I'm chair of the DC Leadership Council of one such program, Urban Teacher Center.)

But even that won't be enough to ensure they stay. If DC wants to retain excellent teachers in its most challenging schools, administrators will need to make them feel their efforts are valued as much as those of their counterparts at more affluent schools.

Mystery callers try to ensure that DC charters admit special needs students

Nationally, public charter schools serve fewer students with special needs than traditional public schools do, and some charge that charters are screening such students out. But for the past three years, DC's Public Charter School Board has been deploying a "mystery caller" program to prevent that from happening here.

Photo of mystery caller from Shutterstock.

Over the past couple of months, DC parents and guardians have been calling around to charter schools to get information about applying for this fall. But they're not the only ones. Staff members of DC's PCSB, which oversees the District's charter schools, have been calling schools as well.

Equipped with a suggested script and a cell phone, PCSB staff pretend they're calling about a child in their care who has an unspecified learning disability and isn't being well served by the school she's currently attending. They ask what they need to do to apply to the school they're calling and whether they need to submit any information about the child's disability.

The answers to those questions should be: apply through the My School DC website, and don't submit any information relating to the disability or even indicate that the child has one. Nor should school personnel say anything discouraging, such as that the school across the street might be a better fit.

If school staff give inaccurate answers, they get a second call a few weeks later. If they still answer incorrectly, and if the answer seems to result from discrimination rather than ignorance, the PCSB may set in motion a process that could ultimately lead to the school losing its charter.

That hasn't happened yet, according to Rashida Young, the PCSB's Senior Equity and Fidelity Manager. Usually, school staff just need training or coaching to understand what the law requires. And the situation seems to be improving: out of about 100 schools called annually, the number that failed the second round of calls was ten two years ago, eight the next year, and only two last year.

"After doing this for three years," Young said, "I think people are getting the message."

Aside from being effective, the PCSB's "mystery caller" program is inexpensive and easy to implement. It's attracted attention from charter authorizers around the country, and at least one state—Massachusetts—has copied the idea.

DC has an advantage over many other areas because nearly all charter schools now participate in a common application process. That means the PCSB doesn't have to scrutinize each school's application form to make sure they're not asking prohibited questions.

Charters may still discriminate after enrollment

That's not to say DC has solved the problem of ensuring that charters are serving students with special needs. Although schools aren't allowed to ask any questions about disabilities at the application stage, they can ask those questions when it comes time for the student to enroll. And some charge that charters "counsel out" students with disabilities after enrollment.

Federal law requires that all public schools, whether charter or traditional, provide every student with a free appropriate public education. Schools must place the child in the least restrictive environment possible.

If the school can't serve a student well, it needs to arrange for another placement, possibly in a private school where the tuition would be paid by the District rather than by the charter itself.

The PCSB also checks for discrimination after enrollment, for example by monitoring suspensions and seeing whether disabled students are disproportionately represented. But the primary responsibility for enforcing federal law on special education rests with DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Last school year, 12% of DC's charter students had disabilities, as compared to 14% of students in DCPS. Nationally, the special education population in charter schools is 8 to 10%, versus 13% in traditional public schools.

But it's not hard to find disparities between certain charters and certain DCPS schools. At BASIS DC, part of a charter network known for its academic rigor, only 5.9% of students are classified as having disabilities. At Hart Middle School in Ward 8, which serves roughly the same grades, that figure is 26.7%.

Disparities may not be the result of discrimination

Does that mean schools like BASIS are discriminating? Not necessarily. True, BASIS itself has been the subject of government investigations after parents complained it wasn't providing required special education services, and the PCSB continues to monitor it.

And it's undeniable that charters have strong incentives to limit their numbers of special ed students. Test scores for that subgroup are generally lower, and they count as part of the school's overall performance—even if students have been placed in a private school because the school can't serve them.

On the other hand, it can be tricky to compare numbers of students with special needs across schools, because some schools are more likely than others to identify students as being in that category. Plus, while all schools need to make reasonable accommodations, students with disabilities and their parents may simply prefer not to attend a school that demands a lot in terms of academic rigor or discipline.

And it may be unrealistic to expect every charter school, however small, to deal with every kind of disability, which can include anything from mild dyslexia to serious autism to uncontrolled seizures. Even DCPS, with its economies of scale, has received a low rating from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for its special education services.

But the law requires that charter schools admit all comers, regardless of disability, and the PCSB has been inventive in coming up with a program to help ensure schools comply. Still, it doesn't make sense to expect all charters to end up serving the same proportion of special needs students, or even to expect parity between the charter sector and DCPS.

What's important is to ensure that children with disabilities get the best education possible, in whatever setting works for them.

Some needy DCPS students are getting a lot less funding than others

Last year, the DC Council passed legislation designed to ensure that additional funds would be distributed equally among the District's neediest students. A new interactive graphic shows that instead, some of those students are getting a lot less money than others.

Image from DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC.

The DC Council decided that schools should spend an additional $2,000 dollars per year on each "at-risk" student in traditional public or public charter schools. The at-risk category includes students who are in foster care, homeless, receiving welfare or food stamps, or at least a year behind in high school.

The Council didn't specify what kinds of programs the money should fund. Charter schools are free to spend it however they want, and the DC Public Schools administration is supposed to delegate the decision about how to spend the money to individual schools.

But DC Public Schools said it didn't have enough time to allocate the additional funding on a per-pupil basis this year, as the law required. Instead, it used the money to fund initiatives it had already planned, saying they lined up with the needs of at-risk students.

The result is that some DCPS schools are spending much less on each at-risk student than others, according to a data tool developed by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Code for DC, a volunteer group of data enthusiasts.

Mann Elementary in Ward 3, for example, spent over $15,000 on each of its at-risk students. That's partly because there are only two such students there, making up just 1% of the school's total enrollment, according to the data tool.

By contrast, Ballou High School in Ward 8 spent only about $5,000 on each of its 470 at-risk students, which represent 72% of the school population. And Beers Elementary in Ward 7 spent a mere $168 on each of its 259 at-risk students, 60% of its enrollment.

At-risk money is benefiting a broader range of students

Of course, as the data tool also reveals, that doesn't mean each at-risk student is getting exactly that amount of extra help. In line with DCPS's priorities, much of the additional money is going to efforts that benefit a broader range of students: expanding curriculum, enrichment activities, and mental health support for middle-grade students; extending the school day at schools that chose to do so; and focusing on literacy at low-performing schools.

At Ballou, for example, over $100,000 went to hiring an assistant principal for literacy. Middle schools got additional staff and money for field trips and extracurricular activities.

At many schools, though, it's not clear where the money is really going. Many DCPS schools received grants designed to increase student satisfaction, which count as part of their at-risk funding. Each school can use that money for things it determines will help students enjoy school more, such as extracurricular activities or technology.

But the data tool doesn't detail what exactly the schools did with those grants, called Proving What's Possible for Student Satisfaction Awards. Mann and Beers each got all of their at-risk funding in the form of one of those grants, so it's unclear what they're doing with any of the money.

The data tool also doesn't include charter schools, so it's also unclear what they are doing with their at-risk funds.

How will DCPS allocate at-risk money in the future?

It remains to be seen what DCPS will do with the at-risk money next year, when there's enough time to allocate it on a per-pupil basis and let individual schools decide how to spend it. Will administrators at the central office be tempted to continue using the money to fund priorities they have already set, like improving high schools?

Aside from the temptation to follow through on existing plans, DCPS may find it hard to come up with initiatives focused exclusively on at-risk students. If a school hires an additional reading specialist, adopts an extended day, or plans a field trip, can it—and should it—try to limit those services to kids who are homeless or on welfare?

A better approach might be to fund "high-dosage" tutors for kids in the at-risk category. When it's done intensively and integrated into the life of the school, tutoring can have a dramatic impact on achievement. A side benefit might be the kind of mentoring that at-risk students are likely to need.

Even with that kind of targeted program, there will inevitably be funding disparities. A school with only two at-risk students will probably have to pay more per pupil for on-site tutoring than a school that has several hundred. But it's unlikely to cost 89 times as much per student, which is the difference between what Mann and Beers are supposedly spending on at-risk students now.

It's great that DCPS wants to increase field trips, beef up the middle school curriculum, and do other things that will benefit a larger group of students. But the system should be funding those initiatives with its general operating money. The fact is, the law requires DCPS to funnel its at-risk money to students facing the greatest challenges. And that may be what's needed to give them a real chance to succeed.

DCPS spotlights the needs of African-American and Latino males

DC Public Schools has announced a new initiative that will train a "laser-like focus" on African-American and Latino males, two groups that fare worst on many measures of academic achievement. But the effort, which includes a new all-boys high school, will inevitably leave some students in relative darkness.

Photo of student from Shutterstock.

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently unveiled a three-pronged program targeted at the 43% of DCPS students who are males of color. Spending $20 million over the next three years, DCPS plans to recruit 500 tutor-mentors, fund school-level programs aimed at engaging and supporting black and Hispanic boys, and—most ambitiously—bring in a successful Chicago charter network to replicate its prep school model in DC.

Many details are still unclear. DCPS is already recruiting volunteer tutors for the four well-regarded tutoring programs it is partnering with, but at least one of them uses only paid tutors. More fundamentally, it's not clear exactly where the $20 million will come from, although DCPS hopes to raise at least $7.4 million of it from private donors.

Another question is whether Urban Prep Academies, the organization that will run DCPS's prep school beginning in the fall of 2016, will enjoy the same degree of autonomy here that it's had running three charter schools in Chicago. Henderson promised that Urban Prep will have "as many autonomies as they need to make it work," but she added that the DC Council may need to change the law to make that possible.

Urban Prep has made headlines for getting 100% of its alumni into four-year colleges since it began graduating students five years ago. Its school uniform, which includes red ties and navy blazers adorned with the school crest and motto—"Credimus," Latin for "We believe"—calls to mind an elite boys' school like St. Alban's.

But, unlike most of those at St. Albans, Urban Prep's students are black, and many are from low-income families.

Joining Henderson at last week's kick-off event, the school's founder, Tim King, told an inspiring story about a homeless student who "would actually sit on the cold floor in the shelter bathroom doing his homework, because it was the only place there that had the lights on past 10 pm." That student, King added, became class valedictorian and is now a student at Georgetown University.

Snaring Urban Prep was a coup for DC, according to Henderson. "Let me be clear," she said. "Everybody in the country wants Urban Prep Academies to open a school in their city."

One reason DC won out might be that Henderson and King have known each other since their undergraduate days at Georgetown, where King was assigned to be Henderson's mentor.

Critics say school has high attrition and low scores

As with almost any successful charter school, Urban Prep has its critics. Some say the attrition rate is high, with the size of a class sometimes shrinking from 150 to 50 students between 9th and 12 grades. (Urban Prep did not respond to questions about this and other topics.)

Another complaint about charters like Urban Prep is that its students are a self-selected group, with more motivated families and a lower poverty rate than students in neighborhood public schools. Although the DC version of Urban Prep will be a traditional public school rather than a charter, the same criticism could apply, since parents will presumably need to take affirmative steps to enroll their sons.

One response to these critiques is that even if Urban Prep doesn't work for all kids, at least it works for the ones who get there and stick with it. But some question even that.

At one of the school's three campuses last year, only 9% of students were deemed ready for college-level work, defined as scoring at least 21 on the ACT. At the other campuses, the figures were 28% and 20%. The average for Chicago public schools is 27%.

Even if one assumes that Urban Prep does change the life trajectory of the young African-American men it serves in Chicago, will it do the same for the young Latino men that are also supposed to be part of DCPS's "laser-like focus"? (Speakers used that metaphor no less than six times during the announcement of the initiative.)

While the DC school presumably won't exclude anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity, the Urban Prep model is clearly geared to black students. And its planned location at some unspecified site east of the Anacostia River, an area that is almost entirely African-American, may make it difficult for Latino boys to attend in any event.

Black and Latino girls need help too

And what about black and Latino girls? While the legality of single-sex education used to be in dispute, the federal government loosened its rules in 2006, and since then single-sex schools and classes have proliferated.

Research has been equivocal on whether single-sex education produces better results. But some data indicate that it's most likely to benefit poor and minority students, although it's not clear why.

Single-sex charter schools like the Chicago version of Urban Prep are free to operate with no restrictions. But when a single-sex school is part of a traditional school district, federal policy requires the district to make another school of "substantially equal" quality available to the excluded gender. That other school can be either coed or single-sex.

Will black and Latino girls have a "substantially equal" option? That could become a matter for debate, and possibly even litigation.

Aside from legality, the plan for Urban Prep and indeed the whole "Empowering Males of Color" initiative raise questions of equity. On DC's standardized tests last year, the proficiency rate for black girls was about 45%, and for Latinas about 57%. That's better than the rates for black and Hispanic boys—about 35% and 49%, respectively. But it's way below the 90% proficiency rates for white students.

Of course, efforts that elevate the needs of one group almost always have an adverse effect on others. And in the case of young men of color, you can make a case that it's justified.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that Urban Prep, in combination with DC's many charter schools and its several application-only DCPS high schools, will further drain off the more motivated male students from neighborhood schools, leaving behind a higher concentration of those who are hardest to educate.

A book-of-the-month club for infants and toddlers aims to narrow the achievement gap

A new proposal to send a book a month to every DC child under five could help narrow the yawning literacy gap between poor and higher-income kids, which has its roots well before kindergarten. But ultimately, disadvantaged kids will need a lot more assistance than a book a month to catch up to their more affluent peers.

Photo of family reading from Shutterstock.

Spurred by low achievement among DC's low-income and minority students, Ward 6 DC Councilmember Charles Allen has introduced a bill modeled on similar programs in Tennessee and elsewhere.

Fewer than half of all third-graders scored proficient or advanced on the District's standardized reading test last year, and literacy scores in general have remained stubbornly flat since 2008. Allen and others say that exposing young children to books and language from the beginning of their lives is the key to solving that problem.

In some low-income households, Allen says, "the only book may be a phone book."

Allen got the idea about six months ago, while visiting his brother in Tennessee. Allen's two-year-old niece was "completely thrilled with this book that came in the mail," with her name on the address label.

It was part of a program called Imagination Library, based in Tennessee and founded by singer Dolly Parton. Imagination Library, which began in 1995, now sends monthly books to almost 770,000 children across the country.

DC would have its own local program

DC could have signed up to become part of Imagination Library, but Allen decided it made more sense to start an independent local program, which he's calling Books from Birth. One reason was that he wanted the books to reflect the diversity of DC's population.

Another reason was to involve the DC Public Library, which already has a program designed to get parents to verbally interact more with their children, called Sing, Talk, Read.

The legislation calls for DCPL to appoint a committee to recommend books. DCPL will then choose from the recommendations and send the books out along with information about library programs in each child's neighborhood, including literacy programs targeted at parents.

Allen hopes that pediatricians serving low-income families will reinforce the message that it's important to read to kids, and also help keep track of families as they move around the District.

Allen estimates that the cost will be $30 per child per year. With 41,000 eligible children, that comes to about $1.2 million annually. But the $30 figure is based on Imagination Library's costs. As Allen acknowledges, DC wouldn't be buying books in such large quantities, and it might not get the same volume discounts.

But even if the program ends up costing more, Allen says, "I think it's a sound investment."

Do the program's benefits justify the costs?

Sending free books to children certainly couldn't hurt, and even a couple million dollars a year isn't a huge amount in the scheme of things. But the question is whether that money might be better spent elsewhere.

One way to reduce costs would be to limit the program to low-income families, or at least to families who opt in. But Allen is adamant that the program should be universal and enrollment automatic.

Using a means test would create a stigma, he says. And parents who need the program the most might be the very ones deterred from filling out a form to enroll, in part because of their low literacy skills. (Allen is, however, anticipating that the program will be phased in beginning with younger ages, making the cost of the program $1.5 million over the first five years.)

A larger question is whether programs such as Books from Birth actually work. One study found that entering kindergarteners in the Memphis area who had been enrolled in the local Books from Birth program scored eight points higher on a reading readiness test that had an 86-point scale.

There's other data indicating that the programs have a positive impact on things like how much parents read to their children, but much of it is self-reported or anecdotal. On the other hand, as Allen points out, it may take many years before we know whether a program like this really works.

The 30-million-word gap

Allen ties the impetus for his bill to research published 20 years ago, which has come to be known as the "30-million-word gap" study. "Research shows," Allen said at a recent event, "that preschoolers who have access to books and adults who read to them will have heard 30 million more words at home by the age of four than children who do not."

But the study actually focused on income levels, not books or reading. It estimated that children in families on welfare heard 30 million fewer words than those in high-income families.

True, high-income families are more likely to have both books and parents who read to their children. But the study was looking at verbal interactions rather than reading, and not even just at the number of words children heard. Higher-income families spoke to their children differently, according to the researchers, giving them more praise and encouragement and asking more open-ended questions.

Some cities, most notably Providence, have tried to address the 30-million-word gap through programs that send home visitors to work with low-income parents so that they'll speak more, and more encouragingly, to their kids. Children in Providence are even fitted with devices that record the number of words they hear, and the kind of interactions they're engaged in.

While it's too soon to say whether that kind of home-visiting program will help close the achievement gap, it's clearly a more intensive approach than just sending out books—even if those books are accompanied by information about library programs.

Allen is aware of the Providence program and describes himself as "a huge fan" of literacy-focused home visiting. He sees the Books from Birth program as a first step in the direction of a comprehensive approach to early literacy that would include home visits.

He may be right to start relatively small. Home visiting programs are not only expensive, they're complicated to design and administer. And sending out books may well begin to prompt the kind of parent-child interactions that home visits could further develop.

With all ten of his colleagues on the DC Council having signed on to co-introduce Allen's Books from Birth bill, it has a good chance of passage. That's fine, and undoubtedly some children will benefit. But no one should be lulled into thinking that this program alone will solve the massive problem it's targeting.

High test scores at many charter schools may actually be "false positives"

For years, many elementary schools serving low-income kids—particularly charter schools—have focused on teaching basic skills in reading and math. But now one nationally recognized charter leader says that to close the achievement gap, schools need a different approach. Will DC charters follow suit?

Photo of classroom from Shutterstock.

Last month, a leader of Achievement First, a well-respected charter network based in New York, candidly admitted that her schools had erred in cutting out subjects like history and science to spend more time on the so-called basics.

"One of the bigger mistakes I made as a practitioner when we first started," said Dacia Toll, co-CEO and president of the network, "is we thought, well, the kids are struggling in reading. So what do you do? You have more reading. And I realized that was exactly the wrong thing to have done, that in fact really rich hands-on science and sophisticated history, and reading in both history and science, is profoundly impactful in terms of equipping our kids to be successful."

The problem, Toll said at a panel on education convened by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in DC, is that reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge and vocabulary.

The staff at Achievement First, as at other schools, had assumed that if you use a simple reading passage on any given subject to teach a student a skill such as "finding the main idea," the student will then be able to apply that skill to more challenging text on some other subject.

But—as you know if you're technologically challenged and have ever tried to understand the user manual for some newly acquired device—reading comprehension doesn't actually work that way. If you don't have enough vocabulary and pre-existing knowledge to make sense of a text, it will remain impenetrable.

In one study, researchers divided students into groups according to general reading ability and prior knowledge about baseball. They then gave all the students a passage to read about baseball. The result? Weak readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed strong readers who didn't.

Low-income students generally start school with significantly less vocabulary and general background knowledge than their middle-class peers. As they move up from one grade to the next, that gap widens.

And when schools focus on free-floating reading comprehension "skills," unmoored from any substantive or coherent curriculum, they do little to close it. By the time disadvantaged students get to the more demanding work of middle and high school, they may be hopelessly behind.

Common Core test results were a wake-up call

The idea that reading comprehension depends on background knowledge isn't new. Some commentators—most notably E.D. Hirschhave been urging that argument for decades. But until recently, most education reformers either dismissed or ignored it.

Toll's admission nearly dumbfounded another panelist at the forum. "I'm just giddy sitting here," said Robert Pondiscio, a Hirsch disciple and a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute. "What you're saying is what I've been waiting for somebody to say for about 10 years now."

Toll said the "wake-up call" for Achievement First was the new Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests, which are more rigorous than the standardized tests New York and other states have given in the past. When New York switched to Common Core-aligned tests two years ago, the results showed "the achievement gap is even wider than we thought it was," Toll said.

"Our schools, which were high-achieving under the old regime, are no longer," she added. She referred to those previously high scores on easier tests as a "false positive."

But a few schools in New York with low-income populations continued to get high scores even after the new tests came in. Those schools, which are part of the Icahn and Success Academy charter networks, placed more emphasis on curriculum, Toll said. The Icahn schools use the Core Knowledge curriculum developed by a foundation started by E.D. Hirsch. (In the video of the forum, Toll's comments appear at about 43 minutes in, and then again at about 58 minutes in.)

New York's experience may be replicated in DC

Because New York adopted more rigorous tests two years ahead of most other states, their school system may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Schools in DC and elsewhere will begin giving Common Core tests this year, and their experience is likely to be similar.

One high-performing DC charter network, which preferred to remain anonymous, is already focusing on bringing more substance and coherence to its curriculum, beginning with the early elementary grades. Others may follow suit.

But deciding to shift the focus from skills to a content-based curriculum, while important, is only the beginning. The next question is what the curriculum should include and how it should build from one grade to the next. Once you've decided on answers to those tricky questions, you have to figure out how to teach that content in a way that engages disadvantaged kids and ensures they're actually absorbing it.

And even then, you may still have students who enter in later grades and lack the background knowledge others have acquired. Some of them may not even know English.

Beyond that, any improvement in test scores is unlikely to show up immediately, if at all. Because the United States has no national curriculum, the Common Core tests—designed to be given across multiple states—aren't tied to any particular content. Like the standardized tests they replace, they too will focus not on testing specific knowledge but on reading "skills," albeit more sophisticated skills.

So if your students have become experts in, say, ancient Egypt, and they're confronted on a standardized test with a passage about Amelia Earhart, will they still ace the comprehension questions?

Some educators say yes, arguing that habits of reading developed in the context of a meaningful curriculum will carry over to unfamiliar subjects. And it's encouraging that the curriculum-focused charter schools in New York scored well on that state's Common Core-aligned tests.

Even so, it's still not clear that a curriculum-focused approach can actually close the achievement gap. The Success Academy network may have had high scores on New York's Common Core-aligned tests, but last year none of the graduating 8th-graders at its flagship school scored high enough on city tests to be admitted to any of the city's elite public high schools.

But focusing on curriculum isn't just about improving test scores, important as they may be in today's world. As Toll noted, students deprived of knowledge aren't equipped to understand the kind of texts required for success in college and in everyday adult life, or even many newspaper articles.

"We've been at this now for two years," Toll said of her school's new focus on curriculum, "and I think it's the only thing that's moving the needle. And it moves really slowly. But I think it's really worth it."

Update: In another sign that charter schools are beginning to recognize the importance of curriculum, nearly half the schools in the KIPP network are using a math curriculum developed by an organization called Great Minds. That organization is now developing an English curriculum that will be available to KIPP and any other school that wants to use it.

The new chair of the DC Council's education committee promises a change in style and substance

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso plans to adopt a less aggressive style than David Catania, his predecessor as education committee chair. Grosso says his main focus will be getting disadvantaged kids the services they need to do well in school.

Photo from David Grosso website.

Back in December of 2012, David Catania was chomping at the bit to become chair of the education committee. "I'm so excited," he told the Post, "I can't stand it."

What followed was a two-year whirlwind of activity, during which Catania introduced myriad pieces of legislation, visited some 150 schools, and grilled DC education officials about their perceived lapses.

When the Council reconvenes in January, Catania's successor, David Grosso, will take the reins. He's also eager to take on the challenge of addressing DC's seemingly intractable education problems—most fundamentally, the gap in achievement between affluent white students and other groups. But he says his style will be different.

"I'm not going to introduce eight bills during my first few months," Grosso said in a recent interview.

He says he'll have his own priorities, but will work collaboratively with others, engaging them in conversation before holding hearings or introducing legislation.

"When I put something forward," he says, "I'm not sure I have the answer. I'm going to want to work closely to make sure everyone buys in."

A shift in focus

Catania's legislative legacy includes an overhaul of the District's special education system, the end of social promotion, and additional funds for students who are most at-risk.

His hearings and roundtables also provided forums for parents, teachers, and the general public to air their views on subjects like DCPS's controversial teacher evaluation system.

Grosso says that under his chairmanship, the education committee will continue to address legitimate questions about teacher evaluations, testing, and "what goes on in the classroom." He also says the committee will remain "a place where the community has a voice" in education matters.

But his main focus, he says, will be on ways to ensure that kids—especially poor kids—have access to services that will put them in a position to learn. Education, he says, is an area that is connected to many others and can't be siloed.

As an example, he mentions a story he heard about a high school freshman who was "acting out." When a counselor sat down with the student to find out what was behind her behavior, the counselor discovered she hadn't had running water in her house for four months.

It's unrealistic, Grosso says, to expect students living in such circumstances to be fully engaged in schoolwork. And research backs him up: studies have shown that the stress of living in poverty causes physiological conditions that make it difficult for kids to focus and control their impulses.

"People might say, how is this relevant to the work of the education committee?" Grosso says. "But in reality, it's imperative to education that we give kids like that an opportunity to heal."

Seeing the bigger picture

Addressing problems related to poverty and race is beyond the capacity of any school system, he says, and requires a concerted effort. That's one reason he's glad he'll also be sitting on the Council's new committee on health and human services.

"I don't expect my staff or I to become experts in what should be taught or how," he says. That's the job of the DC Public Schools Chancellor and other school leaders, he explained. But, Grosso added, "we can see the bigger picture."

One area where he sees a need is mental health. Last summer he visited a number of mental health providers and was particularly impressed with a program called Resilient Scholars, which provides counseling in 21 DCPS and charter schools. Grosso would like to expand that kind of in-school program.

Grosso says he's learned a lot in his two years as a member of the education committee, and his sister is a Montessori educator. But other than that he has no particular expertise in education.

However, his deputy chief of staff, Christina Henderson, has a master's in public affairs from Princeton, with a particular emphasis on education. She's also held several education-related jobs, including one at DCPS and another at the New York City Department of Education. Henderson has been Grosso's main adviser on education and will continue to play that role.

Which style will produce results?

It's too soon to know if Grosso's more collaborative and focused approach will produce better results than Catania's aggressive, let's-do-it-all-at-once style. But it sounds promising. Although Catania certainly kept education issues in the spotlight, it's not clear his efforts will result in any meaningful reduction in the achievement gap.

A case in point is Grosso's chosen issue, in-school mental health services. Back in 2012, the DC Council passed legislation setting a goal of having a mental health program in 50% of all DC schools by this school year, and in every school by 2016-17. The prime mover behind that legislation was David Catania, who introduced it in response to a shooting that left four teenagers dead.

But according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, only 36% of schools currently have such programs. The DCFPI estimates that it will cost $11 million to fully fund the legislation, and it's not clear that money will be forthcoming.

Would there be more mental health programs in schools by now if Catania had taken more pains to bring everyone on board before passing a bill, as Grosso promises to do? Perhaps. But even though the legislation is a fait accompli, maybe it's not too late for Grosso to use his influence to meet its goals.

Five things you should know about what happened this year in DC education

It's been an eventful year for education in DC. Here's a look back at some of the major developments.

1. Much talk but little substance in the race to be DC's Education Mayor

Education emerged as a pivotal issue in the 2014 mayoral contest.

Muriel Bowser began her campaign with a slogan of Alice Deal for All, promising to replicate the success of Ward 3's lone middle school across the District. Her rival, David Catania, touted his extensive record as chair of the DC Council's education committee and scoffed at Bowser's "empty platitudes."

After critics pointed out that the success of Deal Middle School had a lot to do with its unusually affluent student body, Bowser shifted her education strategy to a more general one of staying the course, promising to retain DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

While Bowser's victory was an endorsement of the status quo, none of the three major candidates, including third-place candidate Carol Schwartz, promised a significant shift from previous policies.

None, for example, seriously questioned the system of mayoral control of DC's schools that has been in place since 2007, and none called for any significant changes in DC's robust charter sector. Still, the prominence of education as a campaign issue helped keep the subject on DC's front burner.

2. Overhauling DC's school boundaries and feeder patterns

The DCPS boundaries currently in effect date from the 1960's, and they've become a lopsided mish-mash because of demographic changes and school closures. Some schools are overcrowded while others are underenrolled, and many students have the right to attend more than one school. An advisory committee charged with rationalizing the system began meeting in the fall of 2013, and its labors ultimately bore fruit, and produced controversy, in 2014.

The committee's original proposals, released in April, would have largely replaced the system of neighborhood schools with student assignments through some form of lottery. That idea proved wildly unpopular, and in June the committee released a revised proposal that preserved residents' rights to attend schools in their neighborhoods. Outgoing Mayor Vincent Gray adopted that proposal in August.

Even that didn't satisfy everyone because it excised some residents from school zones they preferred. But a poll in September showed that over half of DC residents supported the plan.

Still, neither Catania nor Bowser endorsed the overhaul. Bowser, whose DC Council district includes one of the neighborhoods most disgruntled by the plan, originally said she intended to start the whole boundary review process over. Later, she began to tone down her rhetoric, eventually saying she wanted only some "tweaks."

Bowser hasn't said much on the issue since her election. Nor did she introduce legislation to halt DC's common school lottery, which opened December 15 and is premised on applying the new boundaries to students who are new to DCPS in the fall of 2015. Families can use the common lottery to apply to charter schools and DCPS schools that are selective or are not their assigned neighborhood school. It seems unlikely Bowser will end up making any significant changes to the boundary plan.

3. Tensions between DCPS and charter schools

There were signs of greater coordination between DCPS and charters, including the launch of a common lottery that allowed parents to apply to schools in both sectors simultaneously. But for the most part, relations between DCPS and the District's burgeoning charter sector, which now enrolls 45% of DC students, grew more tense.

The debate about the school boundary overhaul unearthed some of that tension. The boundary committee originally saw its mission as limited to DCPS, but parents at community meetings called for more coordination with the charter sector. They argued it made no sense to draw up plans for DCPS schools that could easily be upended by unchecked charter growth.

That point was underscored in July, when a new charter school announced it would open directly across the street from a DCPS school with a similar focus. DCPS Chancellor Henderson, who said she found out about this development from Twitter, offered some sharp words about "cannibalization" and a lack of communication and joint planning.

Generally, proponents of neighborhood schools—which, in DC, means DCPS schoolssay that charters are draining students and resources from DCPS. Charter advocates respond that competition from charters should spur DCPS to improve. Moreover, they say, it's hard to plan where schools will locate when space is in such short supply—partly because DC has failed to release some mothballed DCPS buildings.

These tensions have now erupted in court: a coalition of charter schools has sued DC, alleging the District is violating federal law by funding DCPS more generously than charters.

During the mayoral campaign, some called for the candidates to impose limits on charter growth. Bowser has indicated her willingness to do that if necessary, but she clearly would prefer to find a way to get charters to engage in joint planning voluntarily.

That task will almost certainly fall to her deputy mayor for education, Jennie Niles, who—as a former leader of a prominent charter schoolshould be well positioned to accomplish it.

4. Charter school growth and quality

Despite talk of limiting growth, the Public Charter School Board has continued to expand the number of slots at charter schools. At the same time, it's trying to ensure that as many of those slots as possible are high-quality.

Four new charter schools opened this fall, and the PCSB has approved charters for three new schools that will open in 2015. But it also turned down five applications that it deemed unworthy. And it voted to close one charter that engaged in financial fraud and self-dealing, while almost shutting down another.

As for charters that are struggling academically, the PCSB is increasingly trying to find ways to turn them around rather than close them. This year successful charter networks took over two charter schools that had been at risk of closure, and a third such charter will merge with DCPS next year. The PCSB recently gave a last-minute reprieve to another charter slated for closure, provided it can meet certain conditions.

The PCSB's efforts to improve school quality appear to be paying off. This year, over 12,000 students are enrolled in charters meeting the agency's highest standards, an increase of 9% over last year. And only five schools are in the PCSB's lowest category, down from eight last year.

5. The continuing debate over whether schools are improving

Standardized test scores continued to inch up. Even so, only about half of DC students are proficient in reading and math. More troubling, the achievement gap between affluent white students and others remains stubbornly wide.

Test scores have generally been on a slow upward trajectory for the past seven years, but critics have charged the reason for the increase is an influx of affluent students rather than any actual improvements in education. In July, a group of education advocates called for DC to release more information about testing data, claiming it would show that achievement gaps are actually growing.

However, a recent study examining the raw test scores seemed to indicate the opposite, concluding that there has been progress for all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

No doubt that conclusion will be challenged by others. And with the advent of a new, more difficult test this year, scores will almost certainly plummet.

Will 2015 be an equally eventful a year for DC education? Stay tuned as it unfolds.

Update: A spokesperson for the PCSB has pointed out that charter growth in 2014 was the slowest in DC's history, as the PCSB opted to prioritize quality over growth.

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