What does Muriel Bowser's primary victory mean for education in DC?

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser has displayed her strengths as a campaigner, but her education platform is pretty thin. Before the general election 7 months from now, she has the opportunity to flesh it out.

Photo from Muriel for Mayor website.

Bowser's main campaign promise on education has been that she would replicate the success of Ward 3's Deal Middle School in other parts of the city. While the middle grades in other schools need attention, it's far from clear that replicating Deal district-wide is a workable strategy.

Only 23% of Deal's students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At other middle schools in DC, that proportion is far higher. While it goes without saying that all kids deserve an excellent education, delivering that education to low-income kids requires a different set of skills and methods.

Simply recreating Deal's amenities in high-poverty schools or moving its excellent teachers there (assuming they would be willing to go) won't automatically transform those schools. To succeed there, teachers will need expert classroom management skills in addition to all the other qualities that make teachers great. And given the high proportion of special education students in high-poverty schools, it would help if they also had training in that area.

There are a host of other things that will be necessary before high-poverty middle schools, or high-poverty schools at any grade level, can reach Deal's level. You need strong principals who can inspire their staffs to work together and to persevere in the face of discouraging setbacks. You need support services for kids who have been traumatized by the effects of poverty.

Most fundamentally, you need to develop a positive school "culture" that motivates kids to adopt behavior that will lead to their success. At the same time you need to teach them to reject behavior that is destructive to themselves and disruptive to the education of others.

Other issues

Bowser has also said that she would focus on schools that are "on the brink" of excellence. But she hasn't defined what that means, or how she would get them over the brink. And what about the schools that are far from that brink? There are thousands of DC kids in schools fitting that description. Shouldn't we be focusing on them at least as much?

Bowser has also given contradictory signals on whether she would retain Chancellor Kaya Henderson. While DCPS is still in many ways a work in progress, Henderson has launched some promising initiatives that may be close to bearing fruit, and it would be worth keeping her in place for that reason if for nothing else. A commitment to do that sooner rather than later would help ensure that progress doesn't stall while the Chancellor's status is in limbo.

Nor has Bowser indicated how she would coordinate the DCPS and charter school sectors, aside from saying that she would try to prevent new charters from locating near existing DCPS schools. With 44% of DC public school students in charter schools, we can no longer view charters simply as competition against DCPS that needs to be held in check. It's time to figure out how to connect the two sectors into something that resembles one coherent system.

Education and the general election

Bowser may not feel much urgency to develop her positions on education at this point, given that she won a resounding victory over Mayor Vincent Gray with the little information she's divulged so far. But things may change.

The issue of corruption dominated much of the primary. But in the November general election Bowser will face Councilmember David Catania, chair of the DC Council's Committee on Education. Catania has turned himself into a genuine expert on DC public education in very little time, and there's no doubt he'll have detailed, well thought-out stands on education issues.

Right now Bowser may have a 30-point lead over Catania in the polls, but that could disappear once attention turns to the vital issue of education. If Bowser is going to win the general election, she'll need to be able to hold her own against Catania on that issue in a debate. And he will no doubt be a formidable debater.

Bowser needs to start researching and thinking seriously about education in DC now, and not just because she'll need ammunition against Catania. The pace of progress in public education in the District has been distressingly slow, and for the sake of DC's children, anyone who is elected mayor this fall will need to be able to hit the ground running.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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"Alice Deal for all" is good enough for me.


by Luke on Apr 3, 2014 11:04 am • linkreport

I would be interested in reading an article on GGE about the relative merits of the new mayor keeping or firing Kaya Henderson. When I read in this article that she has "launched some promising initiatives that may be close to bearing fruit, and it would be worth keeping her in place for that reason if for nothing else," that is extremely unpersuasive. That sounds like setting the bar preposterously low, especially in the context of some of the hare-brained ideas that we have heard from her such as putting all the AP classes for high schools in the same building, or giving up responsibility for middle schools to charters (I know there was a GGE article explaining that's not what she said, but looking back I am not really convinced). My impression, as someone that follows education issues regularly but not extremely closely, is that she is not really qualified for her job, is in way over her head, and was just kept on by Gray to please the Rhee loyalists and because he didn't have any better ideas. I would be thrilled to read a thoughtful, analytical look at her tenure that really lays out the pros and cons.

This seems even more important since my impression, given their stormy relationship, is that Catania may be inclined to let her go.

by Joe on Apr 3, 2014 12:06 pm • linkreport

The fact that Kaya Henderson may be on the chopping block scares me. She's doing good things, one of which is re-hiring a bunch of librarian positions that were eliminated two years ago. I feel like she's a non-combative, effective version of Michelle Rhee. She's what Rhee somehow convinced people she was.

by Laney on Apr 3, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

If Bowser and Catania are smart, they won't try to hold up the boundary and feeder pattern process. They should just let Gray deal with it and take the blame for it so they don't have to. Something has to be done--why not let the lame duck do it?

by sbc on Apr 3, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

Joe - Thanks for the suggestion -- we'll consider it. My own personal, more or less off the cuff take on the subject is this: I think Kaya Henderson is an extremely capable person and highly qualified for the job of chancellor. She also has some very smart people working for her.

Among the "worthwhile initiatives" I'm thinking of is the implementation of an analytical writing program on a pilot basis -- DCPS was the first school district in the country to show interest in that program (the Hochman method), and others are now scrambling to adopt it. DCPS is now planning to incorporate the approach more widely into its curriculum, and I think it will be crucial in sparking some real improvement in what actually goes on in DCPS classrooms.

If I sounded lukewarm about Henderson, it's largely because I think there are structural challenges inherent in a large bureaucracy like DCPS. It's possible that someone else could do a better job with it, but to me, that's far from clear.

by Natalie Wexler on Apr 3, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

Thanks Natalie, that's very helpful even as a beginning frame of reference. As I said, I don't have a vested interest in disliking her but just sharing my impressions from various sources I've read. The analytical writing program does sound very promising, and I certainly share your thoughts about the difficulties of working with the DCPS existing structure. Thanks!

by Joe on Apr 3, 2014 4:46 pm • linkreport

Both Ms. Bowser and Mr. Catania have served on the City Council during a time of extraordinary efforts at improving public education. What a difference it would make for children's outcomes and education program effectiveness if the next Mayor's education program were built on a solid foundation!

During the past few years, there has been an evidence-based approach to create the civic infrastructure to unite stakeholders around shared goals, measures and results in education

The five goals are: 1. Every child is prepared for school, 2. Every child succeeds in school, 3. Every youth who is not in school reconnects with education, training or employment opportunities, 4. Every youth attains a post-secondary credential and 5. Every youth is prepared for a career.

This initiative, which is called Raise DC involves many of the key education officials, business and non-profit leaders involved in what's working.

The key to changing from a program rich and system poor environment to "holding hands and owning education as a community" envisioned by Raise DC depends on a Mayor and Council that values and implements Raise DC's discussions, research and recommendations.

This is an objective, grassroots, data-driven method of providing continuity for scaling "what works" from the current administration to the next, while keeping important stakeholders engaged in the change process.

It makes sense to me to find a way to engage the next mayor in Raise DC.

by Jack McCarthy on Apr 3, 2014 6:05 pm • linkreport

As Catania is quick to note, the entire affordable housing crisis sits under the umbrella of Bowsers economic development committee and she's put forth zero initiatives to mitigate the disaster. That's either a lack of imagination or concern. She still has time to grow into the role of Mayor, but her ability to tackle difficult issues and lead with a message that brings people together toward common solutions is yet to be proven.

She got the vote to replace a scandal plagued Mayor. And THANKFULLY she won beating out those contenders who even embraced the Mayor before supporting her. The person would extricated the Nation's Capitol from a dark Gray cloud of embarrassing behavior and inspired the majority of voters to pick her deserves some credit. (Evans and Wells had a vast number of disengaged voters and democrats to inspire, but even they couldn't reach those people.) But now the work begins.

by @ShawingtonTimes on Apr 4, 2014 8:13 am • linkreport

All the education philosophy in the world is blunted by the abject blunders the current administration has made and is proposing to make in updating the physical facilities for the schools. Just this week, the NW Current detailed how these allocation of capital dollars have been based solely on politics - Gray wanted more east of the park to offset all the building Fenty did on the west side.

And just yesterday, Gray dropped a budget that would continue to throw money at schools with dwindling enrollment. Per today's Post story:

"Catania said he was particularly dismayed that Gray would set aside $62 million to renovate the former Spingarn High School as a career and technical education center when a similar school, Phelps, is nearby. The money, he said, would be better spent to rehabilitate the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and establish an application-only middle school in Ward 7."

And don't even get me started on how much money was thrown at other under-enrolled high schools east of the park that will never show return on their investments.

All the policies in the world end up getting sidetracked when politicians get involved. As bad as Gray has been, I am confident that Bowser will make similar political decisions to show what she perceives as her voting base they are getting theirs. This stuff needs to stop.

by fongfong on Apr 4, 2014 9:01 am • linkreport

I totally agree that we need to let the boundary process go forward. I worry a lot about the current reactions, but having a child at Deal through the OOB process, I know it is needed.

I personally think we have to consider more tracking. Many schools have a sizable minority of kids capapble doing the work if given more challenges and possibley mentoring. The issue for many years was that this would lead to white minorities dominating the elite classes but so many schools are essentially segregated that we could pull up more kids.

by DC Parent on Apr 4, 2014 3:10 pm • linkreport

As a DCPS parent I have not been greatly impressed with Henderson, under her watch Hardy Middle School went from a school with the lowest achievement gap in the city to a "troubled school." She is also pushing this drive to expand School Without Walls to a dual campus where students would have 3/4 of a mile between the campus'. I do not understand this trend to take schools that aren't broken and fix them. I agree to replicate one must have the talent and you only need to look at what Principal Pope has done since Henderson took him out of the mothballs. I am not necessarily advocating for Henderson to leave but we do need someone at the top with a clear long-term vision vision, without relying so much on Principal based successes. (such as Pope and the Dunbar principal) One model would be the departed head of the Montgomery County school system.

by Denise W on Apr 4, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

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