Greater Greater Education

School quality is the issue, says Catania. But his platform may not improve it.

Mayoral candidate David Catania has laid out his vision for a key issue in the race, education. Building on the education-related legislation he has introduced as a DC Councilmember, Catania calls for strong measures to improve school quality, reduce the achievement gap between black and white students, and strengthen special education services.


Photo from office of David Catania.

Catania identifies the basic issue in DC education as school quality. The unevenness of that quality, he says, results in what he has called a "morning diaspora," with some 60,000 DC students choosing to commute to schools other than the ones they're assigned to.

Catania proposes attacking the quality problem through both vertical and horizontal measures. He calls for "vertical alignment" between the elementary, middle, and high schools in the same feeder pattern, so that programming and expectations are consistent throughout a student's school career.

On the horizontal front, Catania wants to standardize offerings across the District. One middle school, he points out, might have "expansive language and enrichment programs while a middle school across town has far fewer of both."

And when elementary schools with different levels of "quality and preparedness" feed into the same middle school, he says, the entire middle school suffers.

Catania also has other prescriptions, such as directing more funding to at-risk students, something that he's already effected through legislation he introduced. He also wants to guarantee college aid to students who graduate from DC high schools, expand career and technical education, and change the way school improvement is measured to introduce factors other than test scores.

And he discusses, in general terms, the legislation he's introduced that would overhaul many aspects of DC's system for delivering special education services.

Catania has made himself into something of an expert on DC's education system since becoming chair of the Council's education committee at the beginning of last year. He's personally visited almost 150 traditional public and charter schools, and he's introduced a raft of education-related legislation. His energy and ability to retain information are awe-inspiring and have won him ardent supporters among parents and others involved in education.

A variation on "Deal for All"?

But his basic plan for improving school qualityvertical alignment and horizontal standardizationis unlikely to get to the root of the problem. At bottom, it's a more sophisticated version of his opponent Muriel Bowser's simplistic mantra of "Alice Deal for All," a promise to bring the features of Ward 3's highly sought-after Deal Middle School to every sector of the District.

In arguing for the benefits of vertical alignment, Catania points out that "DCPS's highest achieving feeder pattern"the one that includes both Deal and Wilson High School"already employs this practice of vertical integration with great success." But while vertical integration may be a good idea, it's not the reason Deal, Wilson, and the elementary schools that feed into them are high-achieving. That has far more to do with the relative affluence of their student bodies.

Similarly, Catania's plan to standardize programs and offerings throughout the District will only take us so far in improving quality. You can offer the same "expansive language and enrichment programs" that Deal boasts at other middle schools. But if the students at those schools aren't prepared to take advantage of them, they'll be no more than empty promises.

As Catania is no doubt aware, low-income students generally start school far less prepared than their middle-class counterparts, and the gap between the two groups only widens as the grades progress. If you want to truly improve the quality of neighborhood schools beyond the few that are now seen as desirableand which, not coincidentally, have a high proportion of affluent studentsyou need to figure out a way to improve the performance of low-income students.

Prescriptions for closing the achievement gap

Catania does have some prescriptions for doing that, but they're either vague or somewhat mechanical. For example, it's great that, largely thanks to his efforts, more money will be directed to at-risk students, but there's still the question of what that money will be used for.

He mentions that directing funds to at-risk students recognizes "the fact that students from more challenged backgrounds often require additional resources for academic and social-emotional interventions." But he doesn't specify what those interventions should consist of, or how the government can ensure that poor children get the services they need to counteract the effects of poverty that often interfere with their ability to learn.

Catania also points to legislation he authored that essentially ends the practice of social promotion. True, promoting students who haven't mastered material year after year is a recipe for disaster.

But merely requiring those students to repeat a grade doesn't ensure they'll learn what they didn't absorb the first time around, especially if teachers use the same methods. And the stigma of being held back can have lasting effects.

School quality and school boundaries

The question of improving school quality has taken on added urgency because of the recent controversy over school boundaries. Catania has said he's opposed to any plan that would switch students to lower-performing schools.

He's also said that he would delay implementation of the current plan for at least a year, but the measures he outlinesor any measures, for that matterare unlikely to improve school quality anywhere near that fast.

Catania doesn't mention school boundaries anywhere in the 15 pages his platform devotes to education. Nor does he mention another hot-button issue: whether to place limits on the growth and location of charter schools.

And yet both of these issues have major implications for school quality. When more middle-class families attend a school, its quality generally goes up, benefiting the school's low-income students as well. If boundaries are redrawn so that a group of middle-class parents know their children will be attending a particular lower-performing school in, say, five years, they can strengthen each other's resolve to send their kids there and improve it.

On the other hand, if charter schools that attract middle-class families continue their current rapid growth, they could undermine that possibility by draining those families out of the traditional system. Catania's failure to address this controversial question is understandable, but it's nonetheless disappointing.

For all its flaws, Catania's education platform is far more detailed and has many more solid ideas than anything that his rival Bowser has put forward so far. There are still many uncertainties, not least of which who Catania would install to replace DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is likely to depart if he wins. But right now, he's the only candidate who has both articulated a vision for improving education in DC and who stands at least a chance of winning.

Shifting DC school boundaries promises real change

With education set to be a pivotal issue in the D.C. mayor's race, both of the leading candidates have rejected a plan to redraw school boundaries and feeder patterns. They argue that changing boundaries before improving school quality will drive middle-class families out of the system. But it may be that the best way to improve quality and retain middle-class families is to reassign students first.


Photo of change sign from Shutterstock.

There's only one neighborhood middle- and high-school feeder pattern that middle-class parents want: the Deal Middle School-Wilson High School one in Ward 3. Both schools are too crowded; other D.C. Public Schools are under-enrolled. The Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, which spent 10 months formulating its recommendations, has tried to correct that imbalance by shrinking the Deal and Wilson boundaries.

Not surprisingly, many families who have been cut out of those boundaries are up in arms. It was easy for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to endorse the reassignment plan after he lost his bid for reelection. It's not as easy for those running for his seat.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in The Washington Post.

Carol Schwartz bids to become the education mayor

Carol Schwartz has produced a detailed, thoughtful platform on a key issue in the DC mayoral race, education. It's unlikely to be enough to propel her long-shot campaign to victory, but right now her position is the one most likely to ensure stability in DC Public Schools.


Photo by David on Flickr.

Schwartz, a former at-large DC Councilmember, has some good ideas about things like lessening the focus on standardized tests and retaining veteran teachers. Her 15-page white paper is a far more comprehensive document than anything produced by either of the other candidates, and her positions align better with those of DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Schwartz also has more education experience than her rivals, Councilmembers Muriel Bowser and David Catania. She first came to DC to teach special education, inspired by the experience of caring for her intellectually disabled brother. She went on to serve two terms on the now-defunct Board of Education, which governed DC's public schools (not to be confused with the current State Board of Education, which does not). And her three children all attended DCPS.

Schwartz's stances on hot-button issues like school boundaries and charter school growth suggest that a Mayor Schwartz would have a better chance of retaining the current DCPS Chancellor than either a Mayor Catania or a Mayor Bowser.

How important is that? It's true that the pace of progress under Henderson has been slow. And some DCPS policies, like the system for evaluating teachers, could certainly be improved. But it will be unfortunate if the mayoral election results in Henderson's departure.

Henderson is a smart and competent administrator who has demonstrated an admirable willingness to try new initiatives, some of which may be on the verge of bearing fruit. It would be a shame if those processes were disrupted and the pace of change slowed further, or possibly even reversed.

With those considerations in mind, some DC education activists have thrown their support to Bowser rather than Catania, despite Catania's greater expertise on education. As chair of the DC Council's education committee, Catania has acquired a detailed knowledge of the public school landscape, and he's brimming with ideas about how to improve it. Bowser's strategy on education, on the other hand, has basically been to say as little about it as possible.

But Catania and Henderson have had a testy relationship, and he hasn't said whether he would keep her on. It's not clear she would stay under a Mayor Catania even if he wanted her to.

Bowser, on the other hand, has said she'd like Henderson to stay, and she's been generally complimentary about the Chancellor's performance.

Bowser's opposition to new boundaries

But Bowser's recent statements on the controversial boundary plan adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray may have soured that cordial relationship. Henderson supports the plan, and Bowser, like Catania, recently came out in opposition to it.

What's more, for some reason Bowser added that she didn't anticipate involving the DCPS chancellor in formulating a substitute proposal.

As Gray observed, that doesn't seem like a wise move. Henderson wasn't in charge of the recent boundary process, but she was certainly involved. And that seems only appropriate for a process involving the boundaries and feeder patterns of the system she heads.

Not only is the move unwise substantively, but Bowser's remark seems bound to alienate Henderson. While the Chancellor hasn't said anything publicly about these developments, it's possible she'll decide that Bowser isn't someone she actually wants to work under.

Schwartz, for her part, seems to have struck all the right notes for retaining Henderson. Schwartz commits to allowing her to stay on for "the time she has stated she wants, which is one or so more years." (Henderson has said she'd like to stay until 2017.) And in one of a series of veiled digs at Catania, Schwartz says she would not "micromanage" a chancellor but rather would "partner with" her "in setting policy and goals."

Schwartz on school boundaries and charters

On the crucial issue of school boundaries, Schwartz suggests a few tweaks, such as increasing the percentage of set-asides for out-of-boundary students to maintain diversity. But she says she accepts the need for change.

She also sides with Henderson on some issues that have emerged recently in the relationship between DCPS and the charter sector, such as joint planning between the sectors. While charter advocates are amenable to joint planning that is voluntary on their part, it's clear that Schwartz believes it would make sense to impose limits on such things as where new charter schools can open.

Charter advocates have resisted that as an infringement on their autonomy. But Henderson and others have argued, with some justification, that without those kinds of limits, charter expansion could easily undermine plans to improve DCPS schools.

Will any of this convince DC education reformers who want Henderson to stay on to switch their support from Bowser to Schwartz? Probably not, given the overwhelming odds against Schwartz. But perhaps they can urge Bowser to do whatever she can to mend the damage she may have done to her relationship with Henderson.

Beyond that, Bowser might want to flesh out her own skimpy education platform with some of the ideas that abound in Schwartz's white paper. Schwartz may never get a chance to implement those ideas herself, but it would be nice if someone did.

Three maps that illustrate the connection between poverty and low test scores

These 3 maps show where poor kids live in DC, and how students in each neighborhood score on standardized tests in reading and math. They're a vivid illustration of the connection between poverty and low test scores.

DC Action for Children, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, recently worked with a team of volunteers to create the DC Kids Count data tool, an interactive visualization of child well-being in the District.


Percentage of children in poverty.

One part of the data tool is the map above, which shows child poverty rates in various DC neighborhoods. The rate is based on the estimated number of children under 17 who live below the federal poverty line in a given neighborhood, divided by the total number of children in that age group who live there. The greater the rate of child poverty in a neighborhood, the darker the shading on the map.

On all 3 maps, the dots represent locations of public schools. Blue dots are traditional DC public schools, while red dots are public charter schools.

The two maps below show student proficiency rates on DC's standardized tests, the DC-CAS. Students who score above a certain percentage on the tests are labeled proficient or advanced. Those who score below that percentage are categorized as basic or below basic.

Usually, proficiency rates are tied to individual schools, but the maps below link them to where students live. That can make a significant difference in DC, where only 25% of students attend their neighborhood school.

DC Action for Children decided to use neighborhood-level proficiency rates because we wanted to make a connection between the resources available to children in their neighborhoods and their performance on tests.

The maps show math and reading proficiency rates based on the 2013 DC-CAS results. They reflect aggregated scores for all students in a given neighborhood, including all tested grade levels and those who attend charter schools as well as DC Public Schools. The higher the rate of proficiency, the darker the neighborhood is shaded.

For math:


Percentage of students proficient in math.

For reading:


Percentage of students proficient in reading.

Taken together, the maps show that on average, the higher the child poverty rate in a neighborhood, the lower the percentage of students who are proficient in math and reading. Notably, the median poverty rate was 52% for the 10 neighborhoods with the lowest percentage of students who are proficient in reading.

Pictures like these require DC residents to ask tough questions about how we allocate our resources and how we can ensure that all children have access to high-quality education.

Five lessons one woman's story teaches us about poverty and education in DC

Over two decades ago, Tenille Warren was a student at a high-poverty junior high school in Southeast DC. Last week, at the age of 37, she started college. What happened in between holds lessons for anyone trying to improve educational outcomes for low-income students.


Photo of graduation caps from Shutterstock.

According to a story in Sunday's New York Times, when Warren was a student at Kramer Junior Highnow Kramer Middle Schoola local philanthropist "adopted" her and many of her classmates through the I Have a Dream Foundation. At the time, Kramer was DC's second-lowest-performing junior high.

At the beginning of 7th grade, half of Warren's class was randomly selected to participate in the I Have a Dream program. These "Dreamers" got a heavy dose of extra support through high school, including tutoring, summer school, and help with basic necessities like food. They also got a promise of free college tuition if they graduated.

Warren, one of those selected, seemed to be on track. After Kramer, she got into the selective Duke Ellington School of the Arts and graduated on time. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. But instead of taking up the offer of free college tuition, she took a job at Safeway, cleaning bathrooms and stocking shelves.

Eventually, Warren worked her way up to a better job. But she never entirely forgot her dream. 6 years ago, she returned to it in earnest, eventually moving to New York for an unpaid internship in the fashion industry and taking night school classes in the basics of fashion design.

This fall, 14 years after the offer of free tuition expired, Warren enrolled as a full-time student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. While she's gotten some scholarship money, she's also taken out $57,000 in student loans.

While Warren's story is in many ways an inspirational tale with an apparently happy ending, it also points up the difficulty of engineering a successful trajectory for students living in multi-generational poverty.

Free college tuition isn't enough, and extra help in school may not be enough either.

Despite the tutoring and mentoring, many of the students in the I Have a Dream program were far from prepared to do college-level work after graduation.

"We realized pretty quickly that we were never going to be able to catch our kids up academically," the Kramer Dream Class co-director and mentor, Steve Bumbaugh, told the Times. "This was triage. We were trying to keep these kids alive. We were trying to keep them in school."

And even Warren, who did well at Ellington, found the prospect of college daunting. She had grown up with a single mother who had trouble holding on to a job, and at one point they were evicted. She told the Times she couldn't imagine leaving DC for college because she was worried about what might happen to her mom, and about her own basic survival.

Aiming high might not always be the best advice.

Bumbaugh said he now regrets urging Warren to head to Parsons School of Design or Pratt Institute, both top fashion design schools in New York, when she was in high school. Perhaps, he says, if he had suggested small steps instead, she would have her BFA by now.

Grit actually is important.

For a while, it was fashionable to talk about the importance of grit, meaning qualities like perseverance and resilience. Now it's fashionable to dismiss grit as overrated. But Warren's story is a testament to the power of grit.

Her efforts to get herself on track for a career in fashion have been heroic. Setting her sights on a job with the clothing company founded by the rapper Jay Z, she did everything but stand on her head to get his attention. After FIT rejected her for the second time, she called the admissions office to ask, "What exactly do I need to do to make no a yes?" When she finally got in, she was living in a homeless shelter while working multiple jobs and taking sewing classes.

It's clear that Warren has grit, but what's less clear is how she got it and how to instill it in others. It's possible that the years of mentoring and support she got in her teens helped develop her remarkable resilience. But then again, that didn't necessarily happen for the other Dreamers in her cohort.

Don't judge the success or failure of a program too soon, or by only one measure.

By the standards of the I Have a Dream program, Warren would probably be considered a failure, since she didn't graduate from college within the time allotted by the program. But that would be a vast oversimplification.

The story is also complicated, to some extent, for her Dreamer cohort as a whole: Only 6 of the 67 students in the group earned a bachelor's degree on time. Even now, only 9 have their degrees. But 4 students from her class are now in college. And 72% graduated from high school or earned a GED, compared to only 27% of the non-Dreamers in their class at Kramer.

The program also may be having positive effects on the next generation. Currently, 18 children of the Dreamers are in college, 3 hold bachelor's degrees, and two are in graduate school.

Try not to leave a whole school behind.

While Warren's fortunes have risen recently, the same is not true for Kramer. It's still one of the lowest-performing middle schools in DC, with proficiency rates of 24% for math and 22% for reading.

To the extent that the I Have a Dream program was able to help Warren and some of her fellow Dreamers, that's terrific. But if we're going to change outcomes for students like them on a broader scale, we need a strategy that transforms entire schoolsand, as much as possible, their surrounding communitiesrather than the lives of a few members of a subgroup.

The story of Kramer's Dreamers may hold more lessons for those interested in poverty and education: the author of the Times article, Diana Kapp, is working on a book that will trace the lives of several students from the group. I, for one, am eager to read it.

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

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


Photo of arguing fingers from Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

Priority for at-risk students

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

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

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

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

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

PCSB's authority to bind charters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DCPS-charter relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo of chalkboard from Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

The limits of improvement plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of a critical mass

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo of chewed pencils from Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does education reform have to be impersonal?

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


Photo of teacher and student from Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of caring

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caring may not be enough

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Rhee takes a break from education reform

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


Photo by Commonwealth Club on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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