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Some are questioning whether all students should be on a college prep track

A former professor who spent two years teaching in a high-poverty DC Public Schools high school advocates separating students into a college prep track and other tracks that would lead directly to jobs. But to really know who belongs in which track we need to revamp an elementary school system that has left almost all poor students woefully unprepared for a college prep curriculum.


Photo from Bigstock.

The old practice of separating students into academic and vocational tracks has fallen into disfavor. That's because traditionally, school systems often funneled white and affluent students into college prep classes while relegating poor black ones into classes intended to prepare them for jobs in fields like auto repair and cosmetology.

Education reformers have generally insisted that all students follow a college prep curriculum. But some are beginning to recognize the value of what is now called career and technical education in engaging disaffected students and providing them with practical skills.

Some school districts, including DCPS, are beefing up their formerly anemic vocational offerings with new Career Academies embedded within neighborhood high schools. Two new ones, focusing on engineering and information technology, are opening this year at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7.

But these academies—and much of the vocational training finding favor among reformers—are an addition to, not a substitute for, college prep classes. The DCPS website explicitly says the expectation is that "all Academy graduates continue on to college before pursuing a career."

A former teacher and others question whether "college for all" makes sense

Caleb Stewart Rossiter, a former professor at American University who spent two years teaching math at H.D. Woodson, proposes a different approach in his book Ain't Nobody Be Learnin' Nothin': The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools..

Rossiter says only about 20% of students at schools like Woodson are "within striking distance of high school standards." And he argues that under the current system, those students will never be college-ready because they're being held back by students who are disruptive or hopelessly behind.

In some ways Rossiter's version of tracking differs from the paternalistic model that prevailed in the old days, when the school system decided which track a student should be on. Students and their parents or guardians themselves would choose either a college-prep or vocational track at 7th grade, with an option to reevaluate at 9th. Rossiter wouldn't exclude any students who are highly motivated from college prep.

But, as under the old system, Rossiter wants vocational tracks to lead students directly to jobs rather than to college. And he wants schools to require students who are years behind to undertake intensive remediation before embarking on either track, although they might need less remediation for the vocational one.

Rossiter's book details extreme dysfunction at Woodson (which he refers to as "Johnson" in his book), characterizing the "unspoken bargain of calm high-poverty classes" as "don't push me to work and I won't disrupt the class much." In addition to tracking, Rossiter wants extremely disruptive students and those far behind grade level removed from regular classes and getting counseling and non-credit remediation.

Rossiter isn't the only one questioning the assumption that all students should go to college. When students are in 11th or 12th grade and still reading and doing math at an elementary level, subjecting them to a grade-level college prep curriculum appears to be a waste of everyone's time.

And, as Rossiter argues, the supposed college-prep curriculum isn't even doing a good job with the low-income students who manage to make it to college: 64.5% of low-income students who enroll in a two-year college need remedial classes, as do 31.9% of those who enroll in a four-year college. Only 9% of the poorest students complete a college degree—less than a third of those who enroll. Those who drop out are often left with huge debt and no degree.

True, poor and minority individuals who make it through college do far better than those who don't. But college doesn't seem to be the great equalizer that some had hoped for. A new study has found that black and Hispanic college graduates have far less wealth than their white counterparts.

So offering students the option of a track that leads to a job rather than to college makes sense. And there should be no shame in vocational education. Society needs beauticians and auto mechanics as much as it needs college professors and lawyers.

Vocational classes may solve some of the disciplinary problems afflicting high-poverty schools as well. As Rossiter saw when some of his most disruptive students eagerly embraced a challenging masonry task and excelled at it, some students are far more responsive and persevering when learning is part of a hands-on task.

Lately, some reformers—including the Obama administrationhave modified the "college for all" mantra, saying instead that "all Americans need some form of postsecondary education," if not college then at least a training or certification program after high school. But if we could embed that training or certification within a high school curriculum, and make it meaningful, we could save everyone time and money.

Before we embrace a version of tracking that allows some students to opt out of college prep, however, we should be aware of a couple of major caveats. One is that most decent jobs that don't require a college degree still require a high level of accomplishment. Some people who skip college and complete an occupational concentration in high school manage to out-earn college graduates, but only if they did well in Algebra II and advanced biology.

Inadequate elementary school education may be masking students' potential

More fundamentally, we may be overlooking a lot of undeveloped academic potential in low-income kids because of the education they get before they reach high school. Elementary education is currently so inadequate that we simply don't know how many kids would be capable of handling a college prep curriculum if they were given the right kind of foundation.

Even before standardized tests became important—but even more so afterwards—elementary schools have been focusing almost exclusively on basic skills in reading and math. In reading, that means hours every day practicing comprehension strategies like "finding the main idea" and making predictions.

Elementary schools have spent little or no time building students' knowledge of subjects like history and science. That's particularly harmful for poor kids, who are less likely to acquire that kind of knowledge at home.

When those kids get to high school, they suddenly encounter a curriculum that assumes a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don't have. As a result, they can't understand much of what they're supposed to be learning. No wonder they become disaffected.

Of course, some teenagers will be disaffected even if we inject actual content into the elementary school curriculum—a slow and difficult process that DCPS is now beginning to undertake. And some students who are engaged in school still won't be interested in going to college. But right now, we can't know for sure which kids fall into which category.

In the short-term, the only way we might be able to tell is to offer motivated students intensive tutoring in the subjects they're supposed to be learning—not, as Rossiter proposes, tutoring in "basic skills," which will do them no more good than a skill-based curriculum did in elementary school. That would require a huge and most likely expensive effort, but it's worth trying.

For the longer term, we need to revamp the elementary school curriculum so that poor kids are acquiring the tools that will allow them to access high school level work. Only then will students and their families be able to make a genuine choice between a path that leads to college and one that leads in a different, but equally fulfilling and possibly even lucrative, direction.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

A NoMa cooperative hopes to redevelop mixed-income housing more successfully than DC's past attempts

A 1968 experiment in cooperative low-income housing near DC's NoMa neighborhood will soon be the site of a large redevelopment project. The owners plan to add new apartments and retail while preserving places to live for current residents of the community.


Images from the zoning filing.

Sursum Corda (Latin for "lift up your hearts") lies along First Street NW between L and M streets. It was built by religious organizations using a federal Housing and Urban Development loan to provide homeownership opportunities for low-income residents. A series of townhouses surrounded a U-shaped road.

This inward focus, the designers hoped, would create a sense of community, but as urban disinvestment set in and crime rates rose amid the crack epidemic in the 1980s, the layout attracted drugs and gangs. A high-profile shooting in 2004 in the nearby Temple Courts apartments jump-started discussions about redeveloping the complex.


Sursum Corda in 2014. Photo by David on Flickr.

The current buildings contain 199 housing units; when complete, both phases of the proposed new project will have 1,142 units. There will still be 199 units set aside for lower-income residents, 143 of whom are current residents.

What's in the project

The 6.7-acre project will happen in two phases, the first on the L Street side and then a second phase to the north. The land is about 25 feet lower on the south side, and the buildings will also be shorter to match the existing church and smaller apartment buildings on that side.

The new buildings will include ground-floor retail on M Street and some small spaces that might become retail on L. The project will also renovate public park at the corner of First and L. The zoning filings do not yet specify how many bedrooms there will be in the various units.

Pierce Street to the west of this block will extend through the new project dividing the complex east-west, and a pedestrian walkway in the middle will run north-south. First Place, which is currently one leg of the U-shaped interior road, will extend all the way to L, while the other two legs of the U will disappear.

The architecture (such as we can see so far from the very rough early renderings) is modern, with a variety of angles, but otherwise adapts the fairly traditional style of U-shaped or donut-shaped apartment buildings surrounding courtyards.

Plans call for 848 parking spaces, 341 in the first phase and 507 in the second, which is probably an unnecessary amount of parking for apartments so close to downtown and the Metro. The zoning only requires 286 spaces. The proposal includes 453 bicycle parking spaces versus the required 382.

You can see all of the zoning filings by going here and searching for case 15-20.

DC's track record for redeveloping low-income housing is spotty

This project will be the latest in a string of redevelopments of public housing. The US approach to low-income housing in much of the mid-twentieth century was through large-scale "projects" that concentrated low-income residents in complexes, usually not mixed-use, often fenced in a way that cut the complex off from the general public space of the city. Local housing authorities often also did not maintain this housing very well, and with decades having passed, a lot of it is in bad shape.

Lower-density complexes like Sursum Corda now represent an opportunity, as the market could support many more units of housing in the same space. Therefore, at least in theory, one could redevelop the site to replace decaying housing with new housing. New market-rate housing could fund the project but still keep all of the low-income units and let current residents move back.

In practice, sometimes it hasn't gone so well. At Temple Courts, a DC Housing Authority project on North Capitol between K and L streets NW, the city tore down the old apartments, displacing current residents, but then ran into mismanagement-related delays and federal obstacles that left the site a parking lot instead of the new apartments that were promised.

Many residents did eventually get new apartments in the nearby 2 M Street NE apartment building, but groundwater problems delayed 2 M's construction. Elsewhere, most residents have never been able to return, or had to move far away long enough that returning didn't make sense.


View looking south at the large parking lot which replaced Temple Courts Apartments. Sursum Corda is in the foreground.

This is far from the only case where the reality hasn't lived up to promises. Will Sursum Corda, just one block north of Temple Courts, be different?

There's reason for hope. Sursum Corda is a cooperative, not publicly-owned housing rental housing which the city then purchased, like Temple Courts. The owners at Sursum Corda negotiated with the developer, Winn Development Company. The co-op association and Winn are co-proposers of the plan before the zoning board. We don't know all the details of the co-op's negotiations, but they should have been able to ensure a good plan for what residents will do during construction.

The co-op model seems to be a good one for situations like this. It gives owners some control over what happens. At the same time, since the association can decide to pursue redevelopment with a 2/3 majority, it also makes change possible, unlike in a condominium. At the Frontiers condos at 14th and S, any redevelopment required unanimous consent from every owner, a few of whom turned down $681,000-810,000 per house to hold out for an even bigger jackpot and ended up with no project at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, Temple Courts residents unsuccessfully fought Fenty administration plans to displace them before construction was ready to begin. Residents of Barry Farm, near the Anacostia Metro, are now worried about a similar fate as talks progress for redeveloping their community.

What's next?

This is a "first stage Planned Unit Development," which means DC's Zoning Commission will review it and hold public hearings. A further second stage will get into more details on the buildings' architecture, like the materials they will use.

The site is currently zoned R-4, which is the zoning for 2- and 3-story townhouses. The cooperative is asking for it to be rezoned to C-3-C, a high-density commercial zone.

Area residents and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners will also have an opportunity to discuss what amenities the developer should provide; a PUD allows flexibility in zoning in exchange for some amenities; redeveloping the park is one of those in this proposal. Other common amenities for similar projects include Capital Bikeshare stations.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly stated that Temple Courts was a DC Housing Authority property. For most of its existence it was a privately-owned complex under a contract with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The District government provided funding to DCHA affiliate Temple Courts Redevelopment to purchase the complex when the owner, Bush Companies, wanted to convert it to market-rate housing. DCHA and subsidiaries then carried out the actual work of demolition and relocation.

The WMATA Board blames employees for the derailed train instead of looking at its own leadership failures

Following stunning revelations that some people at WMATA knew the tracks were out of alignment near Smithsonian Metro a month before a train derailed at the same spot, the WMATA Board released a statement of outrage. But the board only focused on blaming the people immediately responsible and not the culture and leadership that led to the situation.


Covering eyes image from Shutterstock.

The statement says,

The Board is outraged and dismayed that anyone working at Metro would have critical safety information and not act on it immediately. It is totally unacceptable that the wide gauge track problem reported yesterday by the General Manager could go unaddressed and unrepaired for four weeks. ...

However, Jack Requa's transparent release of information, as well as his actions to order immediate track inspections and gather information to hold people accountable at every level, is what the Board expects and what the circumstances demand. ...

The Board looks forward to learning how the chain of command broke down and where the responsibility lies. This is an unforgivable breach of safety that needs to be dealt with firmly and swiftly.

This statement implies that there is some problem deep within the chain of command, some bad apples or a process failure that must be rooted out and dealt with, but little more than that. That's not the case.

The problems at Metro are endemic and far-reaching. They don't stop at any one person at the agency. WMATA's deficiencies stem from its management structure, organizational culture, funding woes, deferred maintenance, and its own Board of Directors, which squabbled for months in a way that stopped the agency from hiring a new general manager.

Yes, not acting on information that tracks were dangerously out of alignment for four weeks is an egregious failure of the "safety culture" the agency seems to think it has. And that particular instance might fall on the shoulders of one or two people.

But the larger set of lapses, from poorly installed insulation on electric cables, to not hiring and training workers in the rail control center, to nonfunctioning radios and track gauge problems, proves that the problems are more widespread than that. These aren't personal failings. They're institutional failures.

Even if the agency identifies a few employees who were negligent and fires them, it doesn't solve the underlying problem: WMATA is reactionary, not proactive.

Yes, this incident was a derailment that should have been prevented. But what other safety lapses are lurking under the surface just waiting to erupt?

If this were the only safety lapse at WMATA in a decade, maybe we wouldn't worry. But this is just the latest (and probably not the last) event in a chain stretching back beyond the fatal 2009 crash at Fort Totten.

Where does the responsibility lie? It lies squarely at the feet of those who've sat on the board for years now, many of whom came in after the Fort Totten crash to turn things around, who hired Rich Sarles, and who've left the agency arguably even worse off than they found it.

But rather than step up to that responsibility, the board's statement did not even include an apology and shows no understanding that they haven't done their jobs or that the agency needs deeper change.

Rebuilding WMATA isn't just about welding rail and replacing ties. It's also about fixing the problems with the institutional culture. That's a far harder task.

The region needs a board that will fight for change at WMATA. Not just because we need a functioning transit system. But because lives literally depend on it.

WMATA has many hard-working and dedicated staff members. Many of them want the agency to do better. But they can't do it without leadership from the top. The board has a role to play in fixing the agency. Sadly, this message instead conveys that the board doesn't recognize the problem and isn't ready to take responsibility.

Metro detected track problems but did nothing until a train derailed. This has become a sadly familiar pattern.

That Metro train that derailed near Smithsonian Station last week? WMATA employees detected the track problems that caused it... a month ago. And Metro didn't fix it. This is outrageous. Even more outrageous is the way such surprises keep cropping up yet top brass insist everything is fine.


Covering ears image from Shutterstock.

Interim general manager Jack Requa revealed at a press conference that the Track Geometry Vehicle detected a problem with the tracks on July 9, but nothing was done.

Requa said, "I don't want to mince words, but this was totally unacceptable. ... We found this and should have addressed it earlier. It's Metro's responsibility totally."

This has happened before. Many times.

The problem is indeed Metro's responsibility. More than that, riders and area leaders also need to know why this same scenario keeps happening. Over and over, something goes wrong with Metro that causes enormous headaches for riders or even death, and then it turns out Metro officials had ample warning. Yet all the while, those leaders were insisting Metro was "on the right track."

  • In the 2009 Fort Totten crash, the signal system was sending alerts about losing the connection with a train, but doing it so often that officials ignored the constant alerts.
  • Before the Federal Transit Administration started withholding funding from Metro, the Inspector General was warning about accounting irregularities.
  • For the January smoke incident, WMATA and DC firefighters were aware that radios weren't working properly in the tunnels and they couldn't communicate properly in the event of an emergency.
  • And now, this news about the derailment.
At a July hearing before the Montgomery County Council, multiple witnesses including state delegate Marc Korman, state assistant transportation secretary Kevin Reigrut, and I all talked about how riders have lost confidence in WMATA. Yet Requa's testimony was all about how they reduced escalator outages by such and such percent and so on.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who was chairing the hearing, asked Requa to address the big gulf between his testimony suggesting things are improving and all of the criticism. Requa declined to admit any problems in his agency, and just continued to cite gradual progress.

That progress is welcome, for sure, but something is undoubtedly wrong in an organization where warnings of problems go either unheeded or unaddressed. It's good for Requa to admit this was "Metro's responsibility, totally"; what's he going to do to stop this chain of surprises?

How did this happen, and how can it stop happening over and over?

Is there an internal communication problem where reports of problems just don't go up the chain? Could Metro have fixed these problems if its leaders had just been more aware? If so, Requa needs to tell the public why this is so endemic in the organization and what he'll do to fix it.

Or is Metro coping with such an enormous list of things being broken, where it's simply not possible to fix them all? For each one failure that turns into a crisis, are there ten that don't, and is Metro just triaging? If so, Requa needs to admit how precarious the situation is and say what he needs to get out of that hole.

Or is Metro's bureaucracy so ossified that problems don't get solved? Or are there a lot of incompetent people in the way? Or something else? If so, Requa might have to reveal problems at other levels of his own organization, but the public deserves to know this and hear some reason to believe it's changing.

We've been hearing for years now that Metro has things under control, is fixing everything that's broken, and will get back to a "state of good repair" in a few years, and then it'll all be okay. That's just not consistent with the reality riders are seeing, where disaster strikes and every time it turns out someone ignored warning signs.

What is Requa going to do to stop the surprises?

The WMATA Board also must address this. Its members choose the general manager (and are trying to hire a permanent one now). They set policies. Often, they quietly tell staff not to present certain options or information to the public.

They need to insist that Metro executives fess up to what's going on and state a plan to fix it. So should the chief executives of DC, Maryland, and Virginia who appoint many board members, and the elected officials in Virginia and DC who sit directly on the board.

The building is on fire and those in charge keep telling us it's just a hot day. Who will step up with explanations and a plan, not just about this one crisis, or the last one, or the one before, but one that's about what's systemtically wrong with an organization where this keeps happening?

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