Greater Greater Education

Posts by Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler is a board member at DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer tutor in a DC Public School. She also serves on the board of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the teaching of analytical writing to underserved schools. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

The common school lottery website is better than ever, but you may not want to rush to use it

This year the common school lottery, My School DC, will provide families with a centralized waiting list and an interactive map to help them locate schools. The lottery opens December 15th, but families new to the school system may want to hold off entering it until the future of the new boundary plan is settled.


Photo from My School DC.

DC launched the common lottery last year. Families only need to enter the lottery if they want to attend a DC Public School they're not zoned for, a selective DCPS school, a DCPS preschool program, or a participating charter school. They submit an application ranking up to 12 choices, and an algorithm matches them with one of their choices, waitlisting them at any school they ranked higher.

After surveying and speaking with parents across the District this summer, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education decided to incorporate several new features into this year's lottery.

One of those is a tool that helps families find schools that meet their needs. A user can enter her address and see a map of schools that can be filtered by distance, grade level, or type of program. If, for example, you want a dual-language school for a 6th-grader within a mile of your home, you can search for that.

Once you have a list of schools that meet your criteria, you can follow links to find more information, including open house dates, school profiles, and school equity reports

Right now, you can search for your zoned neighborhood schools. But the map will show results based on the new school boundaries adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray in August, and Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser has said she will not adopt that plan in its entirety. That could affect who enters the lottery, because some families may decide they're not happy with their new zoned school and enter the lottery as a result.

Bowser's plans aren't clear

It's not clear how extensive Bowser's changes to the school zoning plan will be. Before the election earlier this month, she called for restarting the entire boundary overhaul process, which went on for many months. More recently she said she only plans some tweaks, but didn't provide details.

As Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith pointed out in a recent interview, the boundary changes won't affect the majority of DCPS students anytime soon. Most changes will arrive in phases, and in the 2015-16 school year the new boundaries will affect only those students who are new to the system.

But if Bowser changes the boundaries after the lottery starts, those people will have submitted applications on the basis of information that is no longer valid. To ensure the lottery assigns people where they really want to go, most likely Bowser will need to restart itwhich could require everyone who has already entered it to resubmit an application.

Smith said she hasn't spoken with Bowser about her intentions. She added that, based on last year's data, "by the time the new administration comes in, we expect that several thousand students will have applied." But she acknowledged that figure could be lower this year because of uncertainty about the future of the boundary plan.

Still, if Bowser plans to change the boundaries, the only way to avoid restarting the lottery would be for her or another DC councilmember to introduce emergency legislation before the lottery opens on December 15, since there's no longer enough time to enact legislation in the usual way. And there is only one opportunity left to do that: at the DC Council's legislative meeting on December 2.

If that happens, and if the emergency legislation gets the nine votes it needs to pass, the lottery would presumably go forward using the old boundaries.

Families trying to choose among the many school options available in DC may want to attend a District-wide school fair called Edfest, to be held at the DC Armory this Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm. More than 180 DCPS and charter schools will be there, and activities will include health screenings, a story time for kids, and an introduction to the My School DC school finder tool.

A central waiting list and more charter participation

Another new feature of the lottery this year will be a centralized waiting list. Rather than having to call individual schools repeatedly to find out where they stand, parents will simply be able to log into the My School DC website or call the lottery hotline at 202-888-6336.

The lottery will also include more charter schools this year. Last year, a dozen or so charters opted to continue to accept applications and run a lottery as individual schools rather than participate in the common lottery.

This year, Smith said, the only charters that have chosen not to participate in the common lottery are those that serve adults; two residential programs; and Ideal Academy, Roots, Tree of Life, and Latin-American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB). Washington Yu Ying, a highly sought-after Mandarin-immersion school, sat out the common lottery last year but has decided to participate this year.

No reason to enter lottery early

There is no advantage to entering the lottery early, according to Sujata Bhat, executive director of My School DC. And once a family applies, they can make changes and resubmit the application anytime before the deadline without any penalty.

The deadline for the high school application lottery, which includes applications to selective DCPS high schools, is February 2. For preschool through 8th grade, the deadline is March 2.

"We do tell people they should probably avoid applying on day one, because the site tends to be slow," Smith said. "After that it's really up to families to decide when they want to apply. They can start the process, then come back and finish it."

And given the uncertainty about DCPS boundaries and whether a new lottery will be necessary, families might want to wait and see exactly what Mayor-elect Bowser has in mind before entering the lottery at all.

DC test scores have improved for both low-income and more affluent students

Standardized test scores in DC have risen significantly in the seven years since schools came under mayoral control, according to a recent study, and it's not just because of an increase in affluent students. But while math scores have gone up steadily, literacy scores have largely stalled after an early jump.


Photo of standardized test from Shutterstock.

While DC officials have touted increases in test scores as a sign that education reforms are working, critics have argued that DC's changing demographics are behind the improvements. They say an influx of more affluent students has driven up the scores while the gap between those students and lower-income minority students has remained as wide as ever.

But a recent independent study concludes that low-income and minority students have improved their scores as well. Controlling for factors like race and income, it concludes that less than 10% of the increase in overall scores is due to DC's changing demographics.

A division of the American Institutes for Research called CALDER did the report, which is one of a series evaluating the effects of DC's education reform efforts since the school system came under mayoral control in 2007. The statute that abolished DC's local school board and handed control to the mayor also required independent assessments of how the new regime was working.

The report on student achievement concluded that more affluent DC students had larger test score gains than low-income ones, which were defined as students receiving reduced-price lunch. And more affluent black students improved more than low-income ones.

On the other hand, improvements among black and Hispanic students were larger than those for white students, probably because they had more room to grow.

But when researchers controlled for the effects of differences like race and income, they found increases across all categories, especially in math.

Proficiency rates are different from actual test scores

How can that conclusion be squared with claims that scores for poor and minority students have remained stagnant or gotten worse? It depends on whether you look at proficiency rates or actual test scores.

After students take DC's standardized test, the DC CAS, their scores put them in one of four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. Usually what's reported is the "proficiency rate," which is the percentage of students who have scored in the proficient or advanced categories.

The proficiency rate can be useful in highlighting disparities between schools. But it overlooks students who have moved up from below basic to basic, or who have improved their scores but not enough to move up from one category to the next.

The CALDER report was able to capture those changes because researchers looked at actual scores rather than categories. According to Umut Ozek, the report's lead author, that approach provides a more accurate picture of student growth.

A portion of DC students also take another test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), every year. That test found no significant reduction in DC's achievement gap in 2013, but Ozek says the NAEP's samples of racial and economic subgroups are very small, which makes its findings questionable.

Ozek's team also concluded that both DCPS and the charter sector saw roughly similar gains in test scores. Those results remained the same when the team focused just on low-income students in each sector, Ozek said.

There are caveats to reading scores, as well as other research limitations

The report included a number of caveats, including one about gains in literacy scores. About 50% of the increase in reading scores occurred in the first three years the study covered, from the 2006-07 school year to the 2008-09 school year.

Those years were not only the first years the schools were under mayoral control, they were also the first years that students took the DC CAS. And, Ozek says, it's possible the reason for the jump was that teachers and students were adjusting to the new test. When the study team excluded the first year of results from their analysis, the rate of growth became flatter, providing some evidence for the "adjustment hypothesis."

In other words, once teachers figured out what the test was looking for, they were able to better prepare students to take it. But the lack of improvement in later years suggests that teachers and students have hit a wall. The report also cautions that there have been allegations of cheating on the DC CAS.

On the other hand, Ozek says the report's findings are bolstered by similar results on the NAEP tests. The NAEP is widely regarded as cheat-proof and difficult to prepare for.

Other caveats in the report include the fact that test scores provide only an approximation of actual student learning. And to the extent that the scores do show that reform has been working, the study can't tell us which of the various changes since 2007 are responsible for the improvement.

We need a new approach to literacy

One academic connected with the study has argued that the results indicate that DC has generally been heading in the right direction. While that may be true for math, the stagnation in reading scores in both the charter and DCPS sectors is a cause for concern, especially among low-income and minority students.

Generally, it's harder to close the achievement gap in literacy for those students, probably because literacy skills largely rest on the kind of vocabulary and background knowledge that affluent students are more likely to acquire outside of school.

And while math skills are important, students who lack literacy skills are at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to learning almost all subjects. Poor reading comprehension can even interfere with students' ability to do math word problems.

It's good to know that scores for low-income and minority students have gone up, even if that increase isn't enough to show up in proficiency rates. But the stagnation in literacy scores is particularly troubling because DCPS has made literacy one of its key areas of focus.

Maybe it's time for both DCPS and the charter sector to try something new when it comes to helping low-income students acquire the reading and writing skills that form the foundation of a meaningful education.

Residents feel mayoral control has muffled the public's voice in education

Mayoral control of DC's schools may have speeded reform, but many residents feel they have less input into education decisions than they used to, according to a new report. The report also found that people are worried charter school growth is threatening the stability of DC Public Schools.


Photo of man with bullhorn from Shutterstock.

Community members interviewed for the report complained that it was often hard to know who to approach for help in DC's confusing education landscape. They also said communication from education officials is often a one-way process that doesn't allow the public meaningful influence.

"These are things that make it difficult for stakeholders to access the system," said Heather Harding, a lead author of the report, which focused on community and family engagement in education. "I think it would be a shame to squander goodwill on the part of citizens who really want to be involved in education around the city."

In addition, many of those interviewed said they wanted to see greater coordination between the charter sector and DCPS, with charters filling in educational gaps in the overall system rather than competing with traditional public schools.

The report is the product of a research consortium called EdCORE, headed by the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. Harding is EdCORE's executive director.

The 2007 statute that abolished DC's local school board and introduced the era of mayoral controlthe Public Education Reform Amendment Act, or PERAAalso required regular independent reports on how well the new system was working. The report on community engagement is the fifth in a series of reports in response to that mandate, all of which can be viewed on the website of the DC Auditor.

Harding and her team interviewed 14 officials representing all of DC's education agencies as well as staff of the DC Council. They also interviewed 14 stakeholders drawn from community parent groups and other education-focused organizations.

Some say mayoral control reduced public engagement

PERAA abolished the local school board and gave the mayor direct power to appoint the chancellor and control DC Public Schools. The rationale was that the board's political nature made it hard to introduce school reforms. But many of those quoted in the report say that without it, it's hard for parents and others to be engaged in decisions affecting education.

While the officials interviewed said they do want to engage the community, the report says few could point to specifics about how they would do that. And some were ambivalent about how much engagement they want.

One official said that stakeholders "should have a spot at the 'proverbial table.'" But the official then added, "Do I mean that while someone is creating a curriculum or a new school that's opening that a parent should be right at the table while you are writing? No, of course not."

Concerns about charter growth and integration

One thing the report made clear is that those interviewed were wary of the growth of the charter sector. The stakeholders interviewed saw mayoral control as applying only to DC Public Schools and were frustrated that charter schools weren't integrated into an overall system.

One stakeholder, echoing DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, complained that the rapid growth of the charter sector is "cannibalizing" DCPS.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the Public Charter School Board, challenged the report's even-handedness. "We found it surprisingly biased for what we had expected would be a careful and ideologically neutral process," he said.

Harding responded that the samples used in the report, while small, were representative. She said researchers interviewed and considered the views of PCSB officials along with those of officials at DCPS, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the State Board of Education, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the newly revived Office of the School Ombudsman.

Of the 14 stakeholders interviewed, two identified as charter advocates and two represented DCPS parent groups, Harding said. The remainder were affiliated with ward-level education councils or District-wide groups.

Harding did acknowledge that DCPS stakeholders were probably more heavily represented among those interviewed than those from the charter community, estimating that the split was about 70% to 30%. In the District as a whole, about 45% of public school students attend charters.

One reason for the over-representation of DCPS stakeholders may be that charter school parents are more likely to be active at the school level than in ward or District-level organizations because charter schools operate with more independence than DCPS.

But Harding said that even if members of the parent groups contacted by her team were more focused on DCPS, they also represented the concerns of charter parents. "They would focus on DCPS as an entity," she said, "because it was the thing you could grab on to. But if you asked about charters, they would tell you similar things."

Bright spots include parent home visits and the boundary review process

The report did point to a few bright spots in a generally bleak picture. The model of parent engagement promoted by the Flamboyan Foundation, which includes teacher visits to students' homes, "has been warmly received throughout the city," the report said.

Interviewees also praised the school boundary overhaul process led by Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith. They saw it as an unusual instance of genuine two-way communication between a government agency and the public.

Some also saw the revivals of the DC Council's Committee on Education and the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education as possible pathways for public input. Others, however, warned that neither of these outlets would be enough.

The report refrained from making any recommendations, but it did conclude that the next mayor "would be well advised to articulate a vision that improves transparency on important decisions" and "assures collaboration."

The National Research Council will issue a more comprehensive report on the effects of mayoral control in DC in April of next year, Harding said. The NRC will draw on the EdCORE reports in formulating its own evaluation.

Will Mayor Bowser pull the plug on a newly detailed school boundary plan?

The DC Public School system has released a detailed plan for implemen­ting the new boundaries and feeder patterns adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray. While the plan answers a lot of questions, one big one is still open: Will Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser scrap the whole thing and start over again as she has promised?


Photo by Chris Phan on Flickr.

The boundary overhaul involved months of public meetings and feedback sessions, where parents and other community members got a chance to ask questions. But when the plan was released, some questions were still unanswered.

The main one, of course, was whether the new mayor would keep the plan in place. Both of the leading candidates vowed to at least delay implementing the plan, and Muriel Bowser said she wanted to start the entire boundary discussion over again. She reiterated that position after her victory.

"I'm not of the belief that [if] anything happens in the next 58 days, it can't be undone or tweaked in the first 100 days," she told the Washington Post.

It may be difficult, though, for the new mayor to completely undo the roll-out. DC's common school lottery, My School DC, will open on December 15th, before Bowser takes office, and it will be premised on the new boundaries. Students who want to attend their zoned school don't have to participate in the lottery, but those who want to attend out-of-boundary or selective DC public schools do.

Last week, DCPS released a series of documents providing some details about how things would change under the plan. Some of those changes would take effect as soon as next fall if the plan remains in place.

Some families may decide to enter the My School DC lottery in December on the assumption the new plan will stay in place, and the program's DC website will soon include a tool to help families find their assigned school under the plan. If Bowser rescinds the plan when she takes office in January, she'll have to decide whether to re-start the lottery.

Exceptions include students who will be grandfathered in and those with older siblings in the system

The new boundaries won't require students who are currently enrolled in their zoned DCPS school to switch schools, so they're unlikely to enter the lottery. Students in 3rd grade or above will also be able to continue in their current feeder patterns if they want, as will younger students with older siblings attending their old zoned school as long as both siblings will overlap there for at least one year.

But under the new plan, students entering the DCPS system for the first time next fall will need to abide by the new boundaries, as will students switching to DCPS from the charter sector.

Details of the new boundary plan

Another aspect of the plan that could have affected the lottery requires that all DCPS schools set aside a certain percentage of their slots for out-of-boundary students. Elementary schools will need to set aside 10% of their seats, middle schools 15%, and high schools 20%. Those out-of-boundary seats are to be filled through the lottery.

It turns out that only one DCPS school is out of compliance with the new policy: Janney Elementary School in Ward 3, where only 7% of students are out-of-boundary. And even at Janney, changes won't go into effect next fall. Because Janney is full to capacity, DCPS says it will work with the school to bump up the out-of-boundary percentage by the required three points in time for the fall of 2016.

The plan also sets up new feeder patterns that will allow students to continue in special programs, such as dual-language or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), when they move from one school to the next. The only change scheduled for next fall is that students at McKinley Middle School will have the right to continue their STEM education at H.D. Woodson High School.

Another change effective next fall applies to students who live over half a mile walking distance from their zoned elementary school. If there's another elementary school that's less than half a mile away from them, those students will get a lottery preference there.

Preschool rights for low-income families

One of the plan's more popular aspects, which Bowser might want to preserve, calls for giving families zoned for high-poverty schools the right to send their children there for preschool. Under the current system, all families must enter the lottery for preschool seats.

Under the new plan, families who live within the boundary for a Title 1 schooldefined under federal law as a school where at least 40% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunchwill get a guaranteed preschool slot. The idea is to give those families more predictability and to allow schools to capture their in-boundary families early, before they attend other preschools where they can find slots.

That part of the plan will begin to take effect next fall, but only as a pilot program in five Title 1 schools. DCPS says that it can't open more preschool classrooms right away because of various requirements about things like preschool staffing and space.

Even though parents at those five Title 1 schools will have a right to preschool seats, they'll still need to enter the My School DC lottery in order to claim them.

Four of the schools DCPS chose for the pilot program are clearly high-poverty, but the fifth, Van Ness Elementary, is not currently open. The school, located near the Navy Yard and Nationals Park, is in an area that used to be home to public housing projects. After those projects were torn down a decade ago, the elementary school that served them closed as well.

But the neighborhood, now known as Capitol Riverfront, has been revitalized as a mixed-income community. A group of parents, most of them middle-income, has successfully prodded DCPS to reopen the school next fall.

While there are a number of low-income families within Van Ness's boundaries, there's no guarantee the student body will meet the 40% low-income threshold and qualify for the guaranteed-preschool program. At the same time, there are numerous other low-income elementary schools in DC that DCPS chose not to include in the pilot.

A DCPS spokesperson did not respond to a question about why Van Ness had been chosen for the program.

While students have been preparing for one thing, Bowser might send them in a new direction

Bowser is probably right that none of the changes to DC's school boundaries will be undoable once she takes office. But another question is whether, after a long process during which many residents made their views heard, it will actually make sense to undo it. A poll taken in September found that 56% of DC residents supported the new boundaries. And according to DCPS, only about 27% of the 23,000 students who currently attend their zoned DCPS will end up in a different attendance zone next fall if the plan goes into effect.

In theory, the details DCPS released last week should help students and their families plan for the future. But if Muriel Bowser takes the school boundary issue back to the drawing board, those affected by the proposed changes will remain in limbo for a while longer.

DC isn't a state, so why does it have a State Board of Education?

District voters in some wards will be voting tomorrow for members of the DC State Board of Education (SBOE). But this isn't a school board that oversees the DC Public Schools. So what is this board, and is there a point to it? As it happens, many people inside the education world ask and debate those same questions.


Blackboard image from Shutterstock.

At recent forums, candidates for the SBOE have talked about hot issues like school boundaries and feeder patterns, coordination between charter schools and DCPS, and whether there's too much standardized testing.

But unlike a local school board, a state board of education doesn't exercise control over those day-to-day issues. Instead, state boards are responsible for setting broad policy in areas like graduation requirements, curriculum academic standards, and teacher qualifications. DC's state board has that kind of responsibility, but there's still a problem: it doesn't have enough power to ensure its policy decisions get translated into reality.

DC's state board is responsible for advising the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the District's state education agency.

The state superintendent is appointed by the mayor, who can hire and fire him at will. The agency the superintendent heads, OSSE, oversees education throughout the District, including both DCPS and charter schools and ranging from preschool through adult education.

Among other things, OSSE is responsible for standardized testing, compliance with federal law in areas like special education, and administering the federal education grants DC receives. The SBOE is supposed to advise the superintendent in the policies he applies.

By statute, the SBOE is also responsible for approving education policies. It's supposed to do things like set academic standards and decide on teacher qualifications. Like other state boards, DC's SBOE doesn't have the authority to enforce or implement the high-level policies it adopts. Traditionally, that's not a state board's role.

Members say the SBOE does serve an important function in holding hearings and bringing education stakeholders together. According to SBOE Vice President Mary Lord, the policies it adopts affect "what every student in every grade in every classroom is expected to know and be able to do."

Limits on the SBOE's effectiveness

But Lord and three other SBOE members I interviewed also say the structure of DC's government has limited the SBOE's effectiveness.

One problem is that, although the SBOE sometimes has input into policy decisions, it doesn't have the power to suggest new policy initiatives. Instead, members have to wait for OSSE to bring them up. And once that happens, SBOE members can only approve or disapprove them. They can't modify them. That set-up limits their power to shape policy.

Some SBOE members also say OSSE and the SBOE can't effectively exercise state-level functions because in the District, there's no independent state education authority. All of DC's many education officialsexcept for the elected state boardreport to the mayor.

In the case of the state superintendent, that situation creates a conflict of interest: the superintendent is supposed to act as a watchdog over the mayor's handling of education, but he's accountable to the very person he's ostensibly overseeing.

The SBOE is elected rather than appointed by the mayor, so theoretically it could act as a check on the mayor's overarching authority. But that hasn't happened because in many respects the SBOE has to rely on the superintendent to be effective.

How we got a state board

To understand how we ended up with a state board that lacks the kind of authority exercised by other state boards, it helps to know how and why the SBOE came to be.

Like other school districts, DC used to have an elected local school board that oversaw DCPS. But many felt its political nature and control over details impeded educational progress.

In 2007, the DC Council passed legislation handing control of the school system to the mayor and abolishing the local board. The Council also created OSSE, partly because the District needed a state education agency to apply for and administer federal education grants.

Though there was no federal requirement that the Council establish a state board, Councilmembers did so because they wanted to give the public some direct voice in education. The now-defunct local school board carried special emotional weight in DC because for a long time, it was the only elected body in the District.

The SBOE consists of elected representatives from all eight wards and one at-large member. It holds public meetings twice a month, and each member receives an annual stipend of $15,000. Members serve four-year terms, and elections are staggered, with candidates running this year in Wards 1, 3, 5, and 6.

The relationship between the board and OSSE

The first problem is the relationship between the SBOE and OSSE, both structurally and, at times, personally. Board members have complained that OSSE bristles at any suggestion that the SBOE's role is more than advisory. And when the SBOE and OSSE don't see eye-to-eye on priorities, OSSE has the upper hand.

When it passed the legislation setting up the SBOE in 2007, the DC Council said it wanted the SBOE's role to be more than advisory, which is why it gave it the power to approve policies. But in practice, the SBOE's reliance on OSSE has made policy-making difficult when the two agencies disagree.

One example of how this friction affects students is the issue of graduation requirements, which the SBOE is responsible for approving. The SBOE has been working on revising those requirements for years, holding hearings and gathering input from stakeholders. It submitted a draft proposal to OSSE earlier this year but now has to wait until that agency takes action. Some SBOE members say OSSE is dragging its feet.

According to Jack Jacobson, the Ward 2 SBOE member, a previous superintendent asked for the board's help in revising the requirements. But the two subsequent superintendents haven't been as interested. DC's current superintendent, Jacobson says, "has had concerns with the draft proposal, so he hasn't been as willing to work with the board on a final product."

A spokesperson for OSSE responded in an email that the process of revising graduation requirements is one that "should not be rushed."

The state superintendent's subordinate role

The more fundamental problem, SBOE members and others say, is that DC's superintendent is accountable only to the mayor's office. In some states, the superintendent reports to the governor. In others, the state board hires and fires the superintendent.

Board members also point out that DC's governmental structure ranks the superintendent lower than the DCPS chancellor. The chancellor reports directly to the mayor, while the superintendent reports to the deputy mayor for education. That makes it difficult for the superintendent to challenge the DCPS chancellor on issues such as whether schools are making enough progress.

Lord and Jacobson advocate making the superintendent accountable to the SBOE instead of the mayor to give the position real independence. The DC Council considered that option in 2007, but decided it was "unacceptable" to have the SBOE and the superintendent essentially overseeing the mayor.

Perhaps the SBOE doesn't need the power to hire and fire the superintendent, says Monica Warren-Jones, an outgoing member from Ward 6, but it should at least have input into those decisions. She points to the fact that OSSE has been criticized for its administration of federal education grants and says more checks and balances are needed.

Some may worry that giving more power to the SBOE would bring us back to the bad old days when a local school board was micromanaging decisions that should have been left to school officials.

But a state board doesn't get into matters that should be left to school officials, like which textbooks schools should use or what kind of contract a teachers union should have. And it doesn't control school budgets, so it can't decide how many teachers to hire or fire.

Instead, it can promote fundamental change, as the SBOE has tried to do in its now-stalled draft graduation requirements. The most innovative aspect of that proposal would allow DC schools to give students credit for mastery of subject matter rather than time spent sitting in a classroom.

DC's complicated education scene would benefit from an overarching, elected body with real authority over policy-level issues that apply to both the charter and DCPS sectors. While that's what the DC Council had in mind when it set up the SBOE in 2007, we have yet to achieve it.

DC students flock to afterschool programs, but many low-income students are still left out

A new nationwide survey of parents shows the District has the highest afterschool participation rate in the United States. On the other hand, DC is 49th in the percentage of low-income children enrolled.


Photo of student from Shutterstock.

The survey, conducted by a nonprofit called the Afterschool Alliance, ranked DC second only to California on overall measures of afterschool, including both participation and quality. But DC achieved that rank partly because so many children here participate in an afterschool programs: 35%, the highest proportion in the nation. DC also ranked fourth in average time spent in afterschool, almost nine hours a week.

The percentage of low-income children participating in afterschool, however, is only 20%, putting DC near the bottom of the list in that category.

DC's low-income participation was lower than any of the other jurisdictions that made it into the survey's top ten. In California, which ranked number one overall in the survey, 47% of low-income students participate. In Florida, which ranked third overall, 52% do.

DC also does poorly in the percentage of children left unsupervised after school: 26%, the second-highest percentage in the nation.

In addition, the survey noted that DC has the highest unmet demand for afterschool programs. Two out of three children who are not enrolled in an afterschool program would participate if one were available to them.

Of course, as with many comparisons between the District and the 50 states, the survey's results are skewed by the fact that DC is an entirely urban area with a much higher concentration of low-income residents than most states have. Demand for afterschool programs is higher among low-income and minority families, which probably explains why there's so much unmet demand here.

The survey didn't break down the participants in DC's afterschool programs by racial or demographic category. So it's possible that DC's afterschool participation rate is so high because middle-class and affluent kids are disproportionately enrolled. But it's also possible that most participants are low-income, and DC has so many low-income children that the programs can still only serve 20% of them.

Mixed results on quality

DC also got mixed results on measures of afterschool quality. On the positive side, DC was fifth in the nation when it came to parents satisfied with their program's quality of care, with 95% putting themselves in that category. And while only 53% agreed that their program provided a "high quality of care," that was enough for DC to rank eighth in that category.

But the District ranked dead last in the nation in terms of parents who were satisfied with their program's variety of activities (55%) and its cost (45%). And it did almost as badly when it came to parents who were "extremely satisfied with their afterschool program overall," a category DC ranked 50th in after only 34% responded yes.

The Afterschool Alliance began doing the survey in 2004, but this is the first year that DC has been included. A research firm screened over 30,000 households across the country, with at least 200 interviews conducted in every state and DC. The interviews were done primarily online, with some conducted by phone.

The report on the survey gave credit to two nonprofits for raising awareness of the importance of afterschool programs: the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates and the Youth Investment Trust Corporation.

Afterschool funding may be on the rise after a troubled past

The Youth Investment Trust has had its problems in the past. Last year, former DC Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling $350,000 from the organization.

According to the Washington Post, even before that incident there was a general perception that the public-private organization, designed to leverage private contributions for youth services, served as a slush fund for DC politicians.

More recently, the Trust has been putting reforms in place in an effort to regain public confidence. This week, in fact, the Trust is unveiling a new name and a new logo.

That reinvention effort may be paying off. According to the survey, investments in afterschool programs for DC Public Schools decreased from over $11 million in 2011 to about $7 million in 2013. But in 2015, that number will go up to $8 million.

Another factor in declining private funds for afterschool programs may be the availability of other options and a sense that the classroom experience is more fundamental to improving outcomes for children. Many philanthropists and foundations contribute to DC charter schools, as well as to a fund that DCPS has set up to funnel private donations to its programs.

But afterschool programs remain important, especially for low-income and minority students, who generally have less access to enrichment opportunities outside of school than their middle class peers. Some advocates for an extended school day have called for schools to partner with community organizations to provide those additional hours.

Some DC afterschool programs, such as Higher Achievement, have begun to move into that role and already have an impressive record of success with low-income and minority students.

It's fine to celebrate DC's overall ranking as second in the nation for afterschool programs, as Mayor Vincent Gray recently did. But that shouldn't distract us from the fact that many of the kids who need afterschool the most are still left wanting.

Should DC limit charter growth? David Catania says no, while Bowser and Schwartz say maybe

Some DC residents see the continued growth of charter schools as a threat to the DC Public School system. Others believe that competition between the sectors will spur DCPS to improve. At a recent mayoral forum, it became clear that Muriel Bowser and Carol Schwartz basically fall on one side of this divide while David Catania is on the other.


Photo of Muriel Bowser and Natalie Hopkinson at last week's forum by the author.

The forum was sponsored by a coalition of organizations that have called for strengthening neighborhood schools and requiring coordinated planning between DCPS and the charter sector, which now serves 44% of DC students.

Charter advocates have argued that the market should determine the school landscape. If parents are voting for charters with their feet, they say, why stop them? Their view is that competition with charters will spur DCPS to improve.

Those who want to limit charter growth respond that charter expansion is undermining DCPS's ability to compete. They say charters attract the more motivated lower-income families, increasingly leaving DCPS with the students who are hardest to educate.

And they point out that in some areas, middle-class families start bailing out of DCPS after 4th grade, scrambling for spots in the subset of charter schools that appeal to a more affluent population. If charter growth is restricted, the argument goes, many of those families will remain in the system and help improve neighborhood schools.

In one recent instance, a science-themed charter school opened across the street from a similarly-focused DCPS school. In addition to competition for students, some argue that this kind of growth results in a wasteful duplication of resources.

Close questioning at the forum

At last week's mayoral forum, which can now be viewed online, moderator Natalie Hopkinson hit hard on these issues when questioning the three candidates in a series of one-on-one conversations.

With each candidate, Hopkinson described her own frustrating experience as a DC parent: her neighborhood elementary school closed twice, there was no middle school that her child could attend by right, and she spent five years on the waiting list for the charter school of her choice.

She also presented the candidates with statistics suggesting that DC now has far more schools than it needs. In 1965, she said, the District had 147,000 students and 196 schools. Today, there are 85,000 students and 213 DCPS and charter school buildings.

Is this growth sustainable, Hopkinson asked? She presented the competition between DCPS and the charter sector as a "death match" for enrollment and resources that is "getting nastier" as charters increase their share of the student population.

Both candidates agreed with Hopkinson that competition from charters was sometimes harmful to DCPS schools, and they all initially responded that they would be able to get the charter sector to coordinate with DCPS voluntarily.

But when Hopkinson pressed them on what they would do if voluntary measures failed, Bowser and Schwartz said they would seek changes in the law to limit charter growth.

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to best leverage our public school dollar," Bowser said.

And Schwartz said that she would ask Congress to "tweak" the DC School Reform Act it passed in 1996, which brought charter schools to the District.

Catania, on the other hand, took issue with Hopkinson's premise that the two sectors were engaged in a "death match." Enrollment is growing overall, he said, and there are plenty of schools to go around.

He acknowledged that in some situations it may be unfair to locate a charter next to a DCPS schoolfor example, when the charter is in a newly renovated building and the DCPS school is dilapidated.

But, he added, "I don't believe in putting an artificial hold on charter schools while DCPS struggles to improve itself. I think we need to put DCPS on an equal footing, and DCPS needs to compete."

Catania said that DCPS has missed opportunities to make its schools more attractive, citing its failure to fund a promised STEM program at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7 and the lack of a bilingual school east of the Anacostia River.

The limits of a competitive model

Competition with charters has in fact spurred improvements in DCPS, and perhaps Catania is right that DCPS will only continue to improve with competition. But many parents are likely to opt for a charter with an established reputation rather than take a chance on a DCPS school with a troubled history, no matter how many shiny new classrooms and programs it gets.

The candidates' different responses on charter growth reflect a fundamental divergence in DC's education debate over what should be prioritized: individual choice, or what some perceive to be the common good.

Charter schools have provided many students with a better education than they would have gotten otherwise. And charter advocates have a good point when they say it's unfair to limit parents' ability to choose the best possible public education for their children.

But if the charter sector gets much larger, the challenges DCPS faces may become truly crippling. And that's a problem not just for DCPS, but for the students who remain there and the communities they live in.

Some argue that people are responsible for their own choices, including the choice of a worse school. But a choice-based school system can end up penalizing children whose parents or guardians make ill-advised choices or no choice at all. It doesn't seem fair to hold those children responsible for choices they can't make for themselves.

Who can change the law?

Even if we decide we want to limit charter growth, it's not clear how we would do that. Would Congress need to change the law, as Schwartz assumed? Or could the DC Council amend the law itself?

That question could be resolved by a lawsuit currently pending before a DC federal court, another topic raised at the forum. Charter advocates have sued the District over unequal funding, arguing that the Council has no authority to deviate from the Act's central provisions.

If the charter advocates prevail in court, those who want to limit charter growth will be at the mercy of a Congress that may well be unresponsive.

Some area schools spend a lot less on poor kids than others

Schools in the Washington region spend wildly different amounts on students per pupil, and districts vary a lot in how much extra they spend on low-income students. While more spending doesn't guarantee better quality, the discrepancies raise basic questions of fairness.


Screenshot from Metro DC School Spending Explorer. Click for interactive version.

An interactive map from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank based in DC, allows you to find the per-pupil spending amount for any school inside the Beltway. This is the first time spending data for the area has been presented on a school-by-school basis, according to Michael Petrilli, president of the institute.

That's because individual schools within districts don't have their own budgets, Petrilli said on the Kojo Nnamdi Show Thursday. Districts allocate staff and resources to schools depending on factors like the number of students at each school and their needs.

The data is based on expenditures during the 2011-12 fiscal year. It includes both public and private funds, but not spending on capital projects like buildings.

A data summary that accompanies the map shows that average per pupil expenditures in the area range from about $10,000 in Prince George's County to close to $16,000 in DC Public Schools and Alexandria. DC public charter schools spend an average of just over $18,000 per student, the highest in the region.

Spending on low-income students

In a blog post analyzing the data, Petrilli and Matt Richmond focused on which District-area school systems spend the most on low-income students. Arlington County leads the pack, and Prince George's brings up the rear, they found.

Arlington spends over 80% extra on its low-income students, or about $21,000 compared to the $12,000 it spends on its more affluent ones. But Prince George's, which has many more low-income students, spends only about 2% more on them, or a little over $10,000.

DCPS falls somewhere in the middle for the region, spending about 21% extra on low-income students, although its spending floor is the highest of any school district in the region. (The "extra spending" figures are for elementary school students only.)

In the blog post, Petrilli and Richmond single out Montgomery County for particular scorn. Despite Superintendent Joshua Starr's claim to be a warrior for social justice, they say, Montgomery ranks third in the region for extra spending on low-income students. At about 32%, it's below both Arlington County and Fairfax County, which spends about 34% extra.

Low spending in Prince George's County

But, as Petrilli and Richmond point out, the big story here is Prince George's County's low level of spending on its low-income population. They point out that at one Prince George's elementary school, the amount spent per student is about half what DCPS spends at a school less than seven miles away.

Given the relatively low property tax base in Prince George's, Petrilli and Richmond argue that the state of Maryland should be doing more to fund schools there.

Of course, it's not clear what any of this means for educational quality. As the Fordham authors acknowledge, it's hard to establish a direct relationship between spending and educational outcomes. More money doesn't make much difference unless schools know what to do with it.

But it's also true that programs designed to close the achievement gap cost money. So while money may not be sufficient to accomplish that goal, it's almost certainly necessary.

And, as a recent report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute details, low-income students need a host of services outside the classroom in order to succeed inside it. All of those cost money, too.

It would be useful to put school districts' differing rates of expenditure next to a comparison of student achievement. Are low-income students in Prince George's actually learning less than low-income students in DC or Arlington, for example?

That's hard to say right now, because each state gives its own standardized tests, and they're not really comparable. And the nationwide standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, basically gives results at the state-wide level rather than by school district.

Perhaps after this year we'll at least be able to compare DC and Prince George's County, because both Maryland and DC will be giving the same Common Core-aligned test, known as PARCC. (Virginia will continue giving its own test.)

But whatever the test results show, one thing is clear: It's not fair for a low-income student in Arlington to get the benefit of $21,000 a year in school spending, while one across the river in Prince George's gets half that or less.

Does Ward 3 need a charter middle school, or can Hardy transform itself?

Hardy Middle School, long shunned by families in its Ward 3 neighborhood, is beginning to change, say at least two candidates for the Ward 3 seat on the State Board of Education (SBOE). But another candidate says it's time to start a new charter middle school in the area.


Photo of Hardy Middle School from DCPS website.

Almost 90% of the students at Hardy, in Georgetown, come from outside the school's boundaries. Some of its feeder elementary schools send only 10% of their students to the school, according to Tricia Braun.

Braun has been co-president of the PTA at one of those feeders, Key Elementary, and is currently running for the SBOE from Ward 3. Neighborhood students often leave the DC Public School system after elementary school for charter schools like BASIS and Washington Latin, she said.

But Braun said that, largely thanks to her efforts in convening PTA leaders from Hardy's feeders, the school is beginning to attract more in-boundary students. The key, she said, was to make specific suggestions to bring the school up to the level of Alice Deal, Ward 3's other middle school, which is highly sought after and overcrowded. One suggestion was to offer geometry to 8th graders, as Deal does.

Last year, Braun said, one feeder, Mann Elementary, sent six students to Hardy, a marked increase over previous years when it had only sent one.

Braun's remarks came at a forum for Ward 3 SBOE candidates Tuesday evening moderated by Washington Post education reporter Michael Alison Chandler. All four Ward 3 candidates attended.

One, Ruth Wattenberg, said that based on her experience as a former Deal parent, she thinks Hardy can change. When her older child started at Deal, she said, it wasn't the coveted school it is now. Wattenberg said she helped spark improvements when she chaired Deal's Local School Restructuring Team in 2009-10.

"Deal transformed itself in five years," she said, "and Hardy can too."

She suggested that Hardy adopt the International Baccalaureate Middle Years curriculum, as Deal has done. That school-wide approach, she said, provides a vision for the school. She also recommended dividing the school into teams, which enables teachers to get to know their students better.

But a third candidate, Stephanie Lilley, argued that Ward 3 needs an entirely new middle school. She said she has begun the search for a building where a charter school could open. Ward 3 currently has no charter schools.

After the forum, Lilley revealed that the building she has in mind is the Fillmore Arts Center in Upper Georgetown, which she says is now owned by George Washington University.

Graduation requirements, testing, and qualifications

The candidates, who include Phil Thomas, also debated new graduation requirements that the SBOE is currently considering. And both Wattenberg and Braun called for less emphasis on testing and basic skills in reading and math. "A lot of reading is also about what you know," Wattenberg said. "You can't just drill on skills."

Each candidate argued that he or she would bring a unique perspective to the Board. Braun said she is the only candidate with children currently enrolled in DCPS, and argued that her skills as a parent activist and former prosecutor would serve her well.

Thomas, an elementary school PE teacher, said the Board needs another teacher voice. Only one of its current nine members is a teacher.

Lilley, who has served on the boards of two charter schools, presented herself as someone with expertise in school turnarounds and a focus on the gap in achievement between affluent Ward 3 and other areas of the District.

And Wattenberg argued that she had a combination of grassroots experience through parent activism and expertise in education policy, having worked in that field at the national level for 30 years.

Another forum for SBOE candidates, this time for the two candidates running in Ward 6, will take place from 6:30 to 8 pm on Tuesday, October 14, at Eastern High School. I will be the moderator, and a panel of Eastern students will be asking questions.

Correction: The original version of this article listed Hardy as a Ward 3 school. Hardy is actually in Ward 2, all but one of its feeder elementary schools are in Ward 3.

Innovations at Dunbar High School have sparked progress, but there's still a lot of student churn

Last week, Dunbar High School celebrated a dramatic rise in test scores with a pep rally featuring some of its alumni, including Mayor Vincent Gray. Other troubled DC high schools could learn something from Dunbar's experience, but student churn is still a problem.


Mayor Gray at Dunbar. Photo by the author.

Dunbar, located in Truxton Circle near Union Station, was an elite black high school in the era of segregation. More recently it's fallen on hard times, with some alumni proposing earlier this year that it recapture its glory days by becoming a selective school.

But Principal Stephen Jackson seems to be turning the school around. Last year, Dunbar's gains on DC's standardized tests were the largest of any high school in the DC Public School system. Dunbar's proficiency rate on the reading section of the test went up by a whopping 23%, to 41%. That put it third in reading scores for neighborhood high schools, still 30 percentage points below Wilson, but just one point below Eastern.

Dunbar's math proficiency rate also went up, by seven points, to 24%. While that increase may look modest compared to the gain in reading, it's still significant.

Innovations that boosted scores

What's behind the rise in scores? According to a press release, Dunbar has introduced a number of innovations, including weekly "inter-visitations among teachers on best practices." Two recent best-selling books on education have argued that that kind of teacher-to-teacher observation and collaboration is crucial.

Dunbar administrators have also been visiting classrooms "on a daily basis," according to the release. The DCPS teacher evaluation system requires five observations a year, with only some by a school administrator. But more frequent and regular observations by someone who knows the teacher well may be less threatening and more helpful.

Dunbar has also extended the school day for 9th and 10th graders, and students at risk of failing have been attending school on Saturdays.

In addition, the school has divided itself into five "academies," each with a different theme. That, according to Dunbar math teacher David Tansey, has helped create "interconnectedness" between students and teachers.

Ninth Grade Academy

But one innovation has been trumpeted above the rest: Dunbar's Ninth Grade Academy. Ninth grade is a bottleneck year in many DC high schools, because students have to pass algebra and English to advance to 10th grade. Generally, only about 60% make it.

That has led to 9th grade classes that include many older students repeating for the second or third time. Four years ago, Principal Jackson started separating the repeaters from the first-time 9th-graders, putting the repeaters into a "twilight academy" that met after school.

The Dunbar experiment looked promising enough that last year, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson expanded it to eight other high schools. In addition to isolating the newbie 9th-graders from the sometimes jaundiced repeaters, the Ninth Grade Academy at Dunbar gives them a double dose of math and English. It also requires students to participate in extra-curricular activities and sports.

While it's hard to say how much of Dunbar's rise in scores is attributable to its Ninth Grade Academy, the school is trumpeting another statistic. It says that 98% of its first Ninth Grade Academy cohort, now in 12th grade, is on track to graduate. Considering that DCPS's overall graduation rate is more like 60%, that's an astounding figure.

But according to the Washington Post, almost half of the original 75 students in the cohort36 of themhave left the school. It's not clear how many of them are now on track to graduate. It's also not clear how many other students have joined the class since 9th grade, and where those students stand academically. I put that question and others to school officials but didn't get a response.

Student mobility

Student mobility is a major problem in DC, and Dunbar isn't the only school that suffers from it. At Anacostia High School, for example, students entering midyear were at least 29% of the student body by May of last year, with 22% having exited. At Dunbar, the figures were 18% for midyear entries and 14% for withdrawals.

A report released last year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education revealed that thousands of students were moving in and out of schools midyear, and a recent report on graduation rates found that 30% of DC students begin and end their high school careers at different schools.

Each switch results in a 10% decrease in the chances of a student graduating on time, according to the report. It's also hugely disruptive for schools to get a constant influx of new students.

Perhaps attrition rates at Dunbar for more recent 9th-grade cohorts have been lower. Tansey, who started teaching in Dunbar's Ninth Grade Academy during its second year of operation, says the first year was a little rocky, and that the number of entering freshmen has grown since then. Last year, he says, it was 120.

Tansey says the Academy helps the school keep track of its entering freshmen. "We can say, these are Dunbar kids," he says. "We've made a commitment to them."

He also says the creation of the Academy has reduced teacher turnover at that level. Before, he says, there was a new team of 9th grade teachers every year. And it's helped with "backward-mapping," enabling teachers to ensure students are prepared for the demands of 10th grade.

While Dunbar clearly still has a long way to go, there was justifiable pride in the cheers of "We Are Dunbar!" that resounded at last week's pep rally. But for those 36 former 9th-graders who have moved elsewhere, and for many other DC students like them, it's not yet clear that cheers are in order.