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Education


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

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


Photo of arguing fingers from Shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

Priority for at-risk students

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

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

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

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

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

PCSB's authority to bind charters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DCPS-charter relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transit


How do you get people excited about Bus Rapid Transit? Bring a bus to the county fair

Bus Rapid Transit has become an increasingly popular concept for communities in the DC area, but to see it in action, you'd have to travel to Cleveland or Los Angeles. This week, you can get a glimpse of our possible future at the Montgomery County fair in Gaithersburg.


Photo by betterDCregion on Flickr.

Communities for Transit, a local nonprofit that promotes Montgomery County's Bus Rapid Transit plan, set up a brand-new bus to display outside the gates of the fair, which began last Saturday and runs through this Saturday, August 16. Visitors can learn about the county's concept for an 80-mile system of bus lanes on major streets like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, and Columbia Pike, and tour the bus, which will eventually make its way to Denver.

At a press conference yesterday, county councilmembers and County Executive Ike Leggett said they hope to ride BRT here within four years. Getting there will require more detailed studies, which are currently underway, and securing a funding source.


Fairgoers check out the bus while CFT's Scott Williamson explains how it works. Photo by the author.

While the BRT plan faced intense opposition from wealthier neighborhoods like Chevy Chase West and Woodmoor, those at the fair were more receptive, asking Communities for Transit staff and volunteers when it was going to happen. Parents searched a route map to find the closest stop to their jobs, while their kids hopped into the bus driver's seat and pretended to drive.

Most people don't participate in traditional community meetings, meaning a vocal minority can dominate the conversation. That's why there's a bus parked outside the county fair: it brings people into the conversation who otherwise wouldn't get engaged, revealing that public support is actually greater than we thought. And the display vehicle, with its big windows, cushioned seats, and overpowering new smell, may have changed any negative impressions some visitors may have had about riding the bus.

Hopefully, Montgomery County officials will encourage people to ride the Metroway BRT line that will open in Arlington and Alexandria in two weeks. It'll be the region's first chance to actually ride BRT in person, and a prime opportunity to build support and allay some residents' concerns.

Until then, you can see the Bus Rapid Transit vehicle for yourself from 12 pm to 8 pm every day this week through this Saturday at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fairgrounds, located at 16 Chestnut Street in Gaithersburg.

Education


Test scores are not improving for at-risk student groups

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the system's 2014 test scores yesterday, saying "we're continuing on an upward trajectory." However, a closer look at the scores reveals a stagnant or downward trajectory for black, Hispanic, low-income, English language learner, and special education students in the last five years.


Reading scores have declined among at-risk groups since 2009. Graph from DCPS with emphasis by the author.

It's true that reading test scores overall have increased since 2009, and slightly overall since last year. However, it's a different story for many demographic subgroups, including every at-risk subgroup: students receiving free or reduced price lunch (FARMS), black students, Latino students, special education students, and students whose first language is not English (called "English Language Learners"). For those students, scores have declined since 2009 and further since last year.

Math scores are mixed among at-risk subgroups since 2009

While reading scores have declined since 2009 among all at-risk subgroups, math scores look better.

Black and Hispanic students have gained on average since 2009, though white students have gained even more. Lower-income (FARMS) students and special education students gained slightly, while English language learners lost considerable ground.

The achievement gap is widening

The decline among at-risk subgroups, along with gains among white and Asian students, has widened the achievement gap in DC. The every-other-year federal test, NAEP, reports the gap between students eligible and not eligible for free and reduced price lunch.


2013 Department of Education report of 8th grade NAEP test scores with emphasis by the author.

However, this gap is nowhere in the 2014 CAS score reports by the Office for the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) or by DCPS. The Department said the following about this achievement gap in its most recent report on DC NAEP scores.

In 2013, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average score that was 31 points lower than students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 1998 (25 points).
What does this mean for reform policies?

Can we draw any conclusions about DCPS's reform efforts from this data?

Scores did increase substantially in reading as well as math from 2007 to 2009, and are still above 2007 levels in all categories. DC Public Schools (DCPS) officials argue that 2007 should be the baseline (and therefore we should consider their reforms a success) because mayoral control of DCPS began in 2007.

However, the IMPACT teacher evaluation system went into effect in 2009. The first round of DCPS school closures was announced in the spring of 2008, and implemented over the next two years, well after students had taken the 2008 CAS test.

Most students taking the CAS tests in the spring of 2007, 2008 or 2009 were still unaffected by the IMPACT system or by school closures.

On the other hand, it may still be too early to judge the effects of any particular reform. Still, we must ask, how long will it take to know for sure?

Is DCPS really "on an upward trajectory"? If DC's education system is slowly growing but not for those groups where public education is most likely to make or break success in life, it is not doing its job.

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