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Here's how standardized tests are impeding learning in DC

Standardized tests, which have proliferated in classrooms in DC and elsewhere in recent years, have led teachers to concentrate on reading and math at the expense of subjects like social studies and science. And while the tests have value, they generally don't improve instruction or boost learning.


Photo of student from Shutterstock.

Testing not only takes significant amounts of time away from instruction, it also influences what gets taught. Standardized tests, which factor into the evaluation of schools and teachers, focus primarily on reading and math skills. Partly as a result, that's what most elementary schools now focus on as well, to the near exclusion of other subjects.

According to a national survey, in 2012 elementary school teachers spent only about 18 minutes a day on social studies and 21 minutes a day on science. Testing isn't the only reason for that: in 2000, before the passage of the federal law that spurred much of the testing done today, the corresponding figure was a mere 27 minutes for each subject. But high-stakes standardized tests have exacerbated the problem.

DC is no exception to that trend. Ruth Wattenberg, a member of the DC State Board of Education from Ward 3 who was elected last fall, made testing and the narrowing of the curriculum her main campaign issues. Since taking office in January, she's visited almost 30 elementary classes in a variety of DC schools.

"My overwhelming impression is that most of our kids around the city are getting a very, very narrow curriculum," she says. She fears students aren't acquiring the knowledge about science and social studies that will allow them to succeed in middle school, high school, and beyond.

The SBOE recently called on DC's State Superintendent of Education to investigate how much time schools are devoting to subjects that aren't tested or tested less than reading and math.

Educators say many elementary schools teach only reading and math

In March, the SBOE heard from a panel of award-winning teachers who echoed Wattenberg's observations. A DCPS middle school science teacher, Sarah Riggen, said it's difficult to instruct students at the middle school level when they've never encountered science in elementary school.

"We're asking our students to do these very complex tasks," she said, "but it's a little bit unrealistic if we continue to put science on the back burner in the lower grades."

"Testing is the curriculum" now in many schools, says former DCPS principal Patrick Pope, now principal at Friendship Technology Prep Middle School, a DC charter. Pope, who spent 35 years in the DCPS system, says the curriculum was much broader years ago, before the advent of high-stakes testing.

"You have teachers and administrators whose jobs rise and fall on school performance as measured on reading and math tests given for three to four days in the spring," he said. "And for schools that serve traditionally underachieving populations, the approach has been to double down on math and reading instruction."

Unlike many charter schools serving low-income kids, DCPS has developed a curriculum that covers a broad range of content beginning in kindergarten. But, says Pope, teachers who are under pressure to raise test scores may choose to focus only on those aspects of the curriculum that seem likely to do that.

Practicing reading skills isn't enough to improve comprehension

To some, the narrow focus makes sense: if kids are struggling with reading, then why not just have them practice reading? But reading comprehension is highly dependent on having background knowledge and vocabulary about what you're reading.

So the only way to truly improve reading comprehension is to systematically provide kids with knowledge, the opposite of what elementary schools have been doing. By the time many kids—especially low-income kids—get to middle or high school, they lack so much knowledge that grade-level material is far beyond their reach.

Students are also more likely to become engaged in school when the curriculum includes subjects beyond reading and math. Pope, who brought an arts focus to an underperforming elementary school in Ward 8, says that experience showed him "you can expect better testing results when you build rich programming that engages kids, and you couple that with the best reading and math instruction you can find."

All kids benefit from a knowledge-rich curriculum, but poor kids, who are less likely to acquire knowledge at home, need it the most. And they're the ones least likely to get it.

"I would love to see more schools say, you know what these kids need to do to close the achievement gap, they need to go bird-watching," Mike Mangiaracina, an award-winning DCPS math teacher, told the SBOE in March. Mangiaracina has organized a bird-watching group at Brent Elementary.

Some tests boost learning, but standardized ones don't

There's nothing inherently wrong with testing. Not only can tests show teachers what students aren't understanding, they can actually help students retain information.

But that's only the case if students are taking tests—preferably frequent, low-stakes tests—that actually reflect the content teachers have covered. Standardized tests don't generally test content, because they're designed to be given in many different school districts that are all teaching different things.

Instead, they test skills. A standardized reading test, for example, gives students a randomly selected passage and then asks questions to assess how well they understood it.

Another problem is that the results of high-stakes standardized tests given in the spring don't become available until the following school year, when it's too late for teachers to use them to guide instruction.

DCPS has devised its own tests, called unit assessments, that it says are based on the units of study in its curriculum. One DCPS parent, Mike Showalter, said that teachers he's spoken with at several schools say the tests are poorly written and don't actually match what's in the curriculum. The teachers called the tests "awful" and "a huge waste of instruction time," according to Showalter.

DCPS guidelines allow 90 minutes for the tests, but a spokesperson said that "feedback from schools suggested that most students finished in less than an hour." And while schools can administer the tests as many as six times a year, the spokesperson said "the vast majority" of schools only give half that number.

DCPS tests don't focus on what teachers have covered

DCPS officials allowed me a glimpse of a few unit assessments, and based on what I saw, they don't test content directly. Instead, they're constructed like standardized tests, giving students a passage to read and asking them questions about it. While the passages are thematically related to the content of the unit, the tests focus primarily on measuring skills.

For example, the test corresponding to a 2nd-grade unit on Canada and Mexico consisted of a passage about a boy and his grandfather, who was born in Cuba and had moved to Miami. One question asked where the grandfather had been born. Neither the passage nor the questions had anything to do with Canada or Mexico.

Why not have the unit tests ask students questions about what they've actually learned? One reason may be that the current format is a better predictor of how students will perform on the standardized PARCC tests given at the end of the year, which have a similar format. But other standardized tests that are given throughout the year already serve that purpose.

Another possible reason is that DCPS administrators feel it's more important to test comprehension or analytical skills as opposed to what they see as rote memorization of facts. When I asked DCPS's director of early literacy, Jennifer Jump, why the unit test I saw didn't ask anything about Canada or Mexico, she explained that if, say, a unit covered World War II, you wouldn't want to just ask students a fact-based question like when the war began.

Perhaps not. It would probably be better to ask them, for example, what factors led to the outbreak of World War II. But in order to answer that question well, they would need to know some factual information about World War II, including when it began.

In other words, divorcing skills from content is a mistake. You can't develop analytical skills unless you're also developing knowledge that gives you something to analyze. At a certain point kids will have acquired enough knowledge and vocabulary that they can understand texts about things they're not directly familiar with, but that point arrives at different moments for different students.

So, for example, if students have learned about World War II, and you test their comprehension or analytical skills by giving them a passage about the War in Vietnam, they may or may not do well. It will probably depend on how much they happen to know about the War in Vietnam, or how much general knowledge they've been able to acquire that will help them understand the passage. But their performance won't necessarily reflect how much they've learned in class about World War II.

If DCPS administrators had designed the unit tests to directly cover the content in the units of study, they could have encouraged teachers to teach that content instead of focusing on skills. The tests might have helped reinforce students' knowledge.

And they could have relieved teachers of the burden of creating their own tests to find out what their students have learned. Instead, DCPS more or less replicated the many standardized tests schools are already giving.

In fact, DCPS allows schools to substitute standardized tests called ANet, which about a quarter of DCPS schools use, for the unit tests. While that may cut down on the number of tests students have to take, it doesn't do anything to promote the teaching of content.

Standardized tests have their place. We need some way of comparing different schools and students and pointing up inequities in our education system.

And ideally, the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests will actually lead schools to broaden their curricula beyond reading and math. To prepare for the old multiple choice tests, teachers could coach their students in strategies like eliminating answers that were clearly wrong. To do well on the new tests, students need to acquire broad general knowledge.

But it's not clear how many teachers and administrators understand that. And we shouldn't count on any standardized tests, no matter how well constructed, to do something they weren't designed to accomplish: improve teaching and learning.

At this point, we need to figure out how to make sure they don't prevent teaching and learning from taking place.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Will Georgetown's campus plan collapse the area's rental market?

In 2012, the Zoning Commission approved Georgetown's latest campus plan. A central part of the plan is that the school committed to providing 385 new on-campus beds by the fall of 2015, with the long term goal of housing 90% of its undergrads on campus by 2025. With that first deadline rapidly approaching, is the rental market already feeling the pinch of reduced demand? A lot of residents I've talked to have concluded as much, and some anecdata supports that.


Image from Rob Pongsajapan on Flickr.

Recently, people have noticed homes still available for rent that would usually be already rented for the fall. And one particularly prominent house that has been rented for years (and is awfully shabby for it) is not only vacant but now for sale. It's the home at 3348 Prospect. This large home can be yours for $3 million.

One argument I've made to those trying to force Georgetown to house more students on campus is that the rental housing would simply be filled by non-students, primarily 20-somethings, who can be just as loud and annoying as college students (I certainly was). But the Prospect Street house may point to a flaw in that argument. According to the listing, the house rents out nine "units" for a total rent of $18,000 a month. That wasn't a typo.


Georgetown's Prospect House. Image by James Emery on Flickr.

It's unclear how many bedrooms the house has (the listing could be read to mean nine, but also up to twelve), but it's very unlikely that anyone other than a Georgetown student would be willing to pay that much to share that building with so many people. And with so many new condos all over the city much closer to more popular neighborhoods, maybe there really aren't that many 20-somethings that want to move to Georgetown period, let alone at the usurious rates that undergrads pay.

And it seems that a collapse in demand is about the only thing that would explain why someone would want to sell a property producing $155,000 a year net profit. The listing claims the $3 million price was arrived at to achieve a 5% capitalization rate. This would be a decent cap rate, but only if it's actually true. And maybe the fact the owner is selling suggests that he or she doesn't think it is.

A version of this post originally ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

There's a growing feeling that standardized tests are taking time from instruction

Some DC education activists, teachers, and parents are concerned that standardized testing and test prep are taking too much time away from instruction. But there's no hard data on how much time schools here devote to testing, and it's not clear education officials are planning to collect it.


Photo of test from Shutterstock.

Testing has been a contentious national issue for years, and the debate has only gotten more heated with the arrival this year of tougher tests aligned with the new Common Core State Standards in DC and dozens of states. In some states, particularly New York, parents have been "opting out" of standardized tests in significant numbers, saying they're a waste of kids' and teachers' time.

Even US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has generally advocated testing, said last year that "testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools." And Congress is currently considering changing federal law to put less emphasis on the results of standardized tests.

While there's no sign of an opt-out movement in DC, there are increasing rumblings of discontent. Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on DC's State Board of Education (SBOE), says "too much testing" and the narrowing of the curriculum it has caused were the two issues that had the most resonance with parents during her campaign.

A panel of award-winning teachers appearing before the SBOE in March raised similar concerns, with some saying testing had gotten out of hand. "As far as I'm concerned, we're past the tipping point," said DCPS elementary math teacher Mike Mangiaracina.

One DCPS parent, Mike Showalter, complained to the DC Council's education committee that "in 2nd grade, children and teachers begin a relentless stream of testing"—much of it useless, he said. Showalter said he considered opting his 3rd grader out of Common Core tests in May but decided against it because he was unable to convince other parents to join him and didn't want to "create more hassle for my child's teacher."

Parents' questions about testing prompted DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to appoint a task force to study the issue 18 months ago. Henderson said the task force would release its findings by the end of 2014. But there's been no word on its progress, and a DCPS spokesperson failed to respond to an inquiry about it.

The SBOE recently called on DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education to assess how much time schools are spending on testing and test prep. They also want to know how much attention schools are paying to subjects that aren't tested, like social studies and science.

When I asked OSSE officials if they planned to follow up on the SBOE's recommendations, a spokesperson said the agency understands the board's concerns and is interested in ensuring that schools have access to "a rich curriculum." But she said nothing about whether OSSE would collect the requested data.

How much time do DC students spend taking tests?

Last year, a report that looked at various urban school districts found that DCPS students spent less time than average on testing. For example, according to the report, DCPS 3rd graders spent 14.3 hours per year taking tests, compared to an average of 16.6 hours.

But those figures were based on the amount of time school systems allocate for testing on their calendars. Teachers surveyed in the report said they actually lose much more instructional time to testing than the calendars indicate, perhaps more than twice as much in elementary school.

Some DCPS teachers have estimated their students spend more than 10% of the school year taking mandatory tests. Mangiaracina told the SBOE that students at his school, Brent Elementary, are tested once every 11 days. That's about twice as much as average, according to one study of 14 school districts .

Angelo Parodi, a 5th grade teacher at John Eaton Elementary, said that testing took so much time this year that he wasn't able to cover nearly as much material as in years past. "This is the first time we didn't get to the civil rights movement," he said. "We barely made it to World War II."

Common Core tests are just the tip of the iceberg

The Common Core-aligned tests that DCPS and dozens of states began giving this year have been a lightning rod for testing opponents. This year, students took them in two rounds, in March and May, and the company administering the tests said they would take about eight hours in total. But a math teacher at Wilson High School, Joseph Herbert, said the first round alone consumed almost eight hours.

Next year, the tests, known as PARCC, will be about 90 minutes shorter and given in one 30-day testing window.

But the PARCC tests, which OSSE requires all DC schools to give to students in 3rd through 8th grade and some high school students, are only the tip of the iceberg. Studies have found that local tests, such as those required by DCPS or individual charter schools, make up the majority of the assessments students take.

Both DCPS and many charter schools administer perhaps four or five other kinds of standardized tests throughout the year, partly to assess growth and partly to predict how students will do on PARCC tests.

Teachers also spend an undetermined amount of time preparing students for standardized tests, as well as giving their own quizzes, midterms, and finals.

Tests can disrupt school for everyone

DCPS and OSSE say standardized tests cause little disruption to normal school routines. One DCPS official told a concerned parent in an email that a longer testing window has allowed schools to rotate smaller groups of students through tests rather than testing everyone at the same time, "so that instruction, student services, field trips, science fairs, performances and the like can continue." But some teachers disagree.

"Some schools shut down when testing comes," Kristina Kellogg, a DCPS teacher, told the SBOE. "There's no field trips, extracurricular activities. Everything is in the box of testing mode."

Testing can disrupt instruction even for students who aren't being tested. Teachers aren't allowed to proctor exams for their own students, so other teachers are pressed into service and have to abandon their classes. Often schools don't have enough computers to go around and commandeer them from classrooms for testing purposes.

The PARCC tests "caused significant and severe disruption to all teaching and learning at Wilson," Herbert says. And David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School, says that each PARCC session "took at least a week to administer and in essence shut the school down for each of those weeks."

Tansey also says that disruption can continue after testing ends, because it can take a while to reestablish classroom routines. When testing occurs near the end of the school year, it may be too late for things to return to normal.

DCPS and OSSE say all this testing is worthwhile because it provides valuable information. And it's true that standardized tests have played an important role in pointing out the gap in test scores between socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Without standardized tests, families at high-poverty schools would have no way of knowing how far behind their children are, even if they're getting high grades.

But it's less clear these tests provide the kind of information that helps teachers teach and students learn. I'll take that subject up in another post, along with the effect that testing has had on the school curriculum.

Update: In response to a question about the status of DCPS's testing task force, a DCPS spokesperson said, "The Chancellor's Assessment Task Force has helped DCPS to more deeply evaluate the assessments we offer. This work has led us to ensure our assessments are high quality and aligned to our curriculum."

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

If you can't get kids to a mental health clinic, bring the clinic to a school

Teachers at high-poverty schools often struggle with behavior problems caused by students' mental health issues. One solution is to provide mental health services in schools, as a company formed by two clinical psychologists is now doing in DC.


Photo of student from Shutterstock.

Education reformers have tended to focus on what goes on inside classrooms, saying that poverty is no excuse for low expectations. Others have countered that teachers can't be held responsible for solving social ills that inevitably spill over into schools. Some schools, including the KIPP DC charter network, are trying to find a middle ground.

Poor families tend to experience more than their share of violence, mental illness, addiction, housing insecurity, and other challenges. That leads to a high degree of stress, which in turn can cause a host of behavioral and cognitive problems in children. While not all students in high-poverty schools have suffered trauma, the outbursts of a few can disrupt learning for all.

At one KIPP DC elementary school in Ward 7, Quest Academy, some kids "have experienced more trauma by age nine than some of us experience over a lifetime," according to the school's founding principal, Cherese Brauer. The Quest community has an even higher rate of poverty-related ills like substance abuse and violence than the school she previously worked at in Anacostia, she said.

While many schools have social workers and even psychologists on staff, they're often occupied with testing and compliance with special education requirements. They may have neither the time nor the training to deal with traumatized kids. Teachers usually don't have that kind of training either.

Recently, though, schools across the country have started to adopt a trauma-informed approach to discipline that seeks to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Locally, DC Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the council's education committee, is convening a public roundtable on trauma-informed schools and support services on June 23.

Psychologists provide therapy and training in schools

Two years ago, realizing their schools needed help with mental health challenges, KIPP DC administrators contracted with a new company called InSite Solutions. The founders, Aaron Rakow and Megan McCormick King, are pediatric clinical psychologists who met while working at Children's National Medical Center.

Both Rakow and King felt a mission to serve disadvantaged kids and wanted to remove the barriers that kept many poor families from getting help at Children's. Those included transportation, difficulty following through on a recommended plan of action, and—most fundamentally—the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health problems. Their goal was, in essence, to build mental health clinics inside schools.

At KIPP DC campuses, Rakow and King train teachers and principals in techniques designed to prevent behavioral problems from arising. They also teach them how to recognize the root causes of problematic behavior and respond appropriately.

Teachers may not understand, for example, "what anxiety looks like in a six-year-old," says Brauer, whose school worked with InSite Solutions this past year. "He's not just going to say, 'I'm anxious.'"

In addition, Rakow and King train school social workers to work with at-risk kids in group settings. For students with the greatest needs, they provide psychotherapy at the school. A psychiatrist visits each school once a week to provide and oversee medication, if needed. Schools can also use the services of an autism specialist.

Involving and educating parents

InSite Solutions also works closely with parents, involving them in decisions about how to respond to their children's behavior. Many parents also come to weekly drop-in hours to get advice on how to manage things like bedtimes and struggles over eating.

"They'll say, 'the school thinks I'm a bad parent, but I just don't know what to do,'" says King. In many cases, they're simply replicating the same approach to parenting their own parents used.

King and Rakow say the fact that they're providing services in schools has been enormously helpful in removing the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental and behavioral problems. "It just became a normal part of the day," says King.

Engaging parents has been particularly important at the Quest campus, which until this school year housed a different charter school, Arts and Technology Academy. Faced with closure for underperformance, ATA chose to have KIPP DC take over the school. It was a decision that didn't sit well with many parents.

"There was no welcoming committee here," says Brauer. "They were grieving the loss of the school."

Brauer says she and her staff also had to transform the school culture into one of high expectations. There were disciplinary issues galore: kids walking out of the building or even trying to jump out a window, and one kid who called 911 after he had punched someone else in the face.

Now, at the end of the school year, Brauer credits InSite Solutions for a marked improvement. "We've gone from two to three disciplinary incidents a day to maybe two to three a month, and I'm probably overestimating that," she says.

Not only are children less stressed, teachers no longer feel they have to shoulder these problems alone, without adequate training.

"I am undergoing an education myself," Brauer says. "Everyone is getting an education."

Families pay nothing for the services they receive at the schools, and InSite Solutions charges KIPP DC a surprisingly modest fee: $270,000 a year for all 16 campuses, or under $17,000 per campus. King and Rakow say they keep costs low by employing five senior graduate students in clinical psychology, who receive a small stipend but gain valuable experience and training.

Still, King and Rakow are each personally following about 350 students spread across the KIPP DC network. It sounds like a lot to handle, but they're eager to take on more schools and reach more kids.

And there's certainly no shortage of kids, families, and teachers in DC who need their help.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

How one DC charter school is "changing everything" to give kids knowledge

For decades, elementary schools have focused on building skills at the expense of instilling knowledge. One DC charter school network, Center City, is in the forefront of a movement to reverse that approach.


Photo of students from Shutterstock.

Most elementary schools in the US teach reading by focusing on skills like "finding the main idea" or "making predictions." Especially in high-poverty urban schools, where kids often struggle with reading, teachers spend hours every day on these skills and don't teach history or science in any systematic way.

But to understand what you're reading, you need a certain amount of relevant background knowledge and vocabulary. Just try finding the main idea of this abstract of an article in a scientific journal. Unless you're well versed in cellular biology, chances are you'll be stumped.

That's what it's like for many kids who try to tackle high school level material after spending years practicing reading comprehension skills on simple stories. And low-income kids, who are far less likely to acquire knowledge at home, start out at a disadvantage and fall farther behind with each passing year.

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by DC and dozens of states, aimed to correct this situation. The authors of the standards included language about the need to build knowledge systematically starting in elementary school, by implementing a broad and coherent curriculum.

But few have noticed that fundamental aspect of the Common Core, which doesn't actually require schools to focus on any particular content. In fact, many have blamed the Common Core for the very thing it was trying to remedy: the narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and math.

Some schools are undertaking the shift

Still, some schools and school districts, including DC Public Schools, have undertaken the challenging shift from a focus on skills to one on building knowledge. One is Center City, a DC network of charter schools with six preschool-through-8th-grade campuses primarily serving low-income students.

Center City is "light years ahead of most schools around the country" in implementing the new approach, according to Silas Kulkarni. Kulkarni is on the staff of Student Achievement Partners, a group that supports teachers in adapting to the new demands of the Common Core.

A few years ago, teachers at Center City, like many elsewhere, would decide what to teach by working backwards from the skills that would be assessed on standardized tests. Center City would give students tests called "ANet" (short for Achievement Network) every couple of months.

"Whatever ANet's assessing in the next nine weeks, that's what I'm teaching," says Center City's director of curriculum, Amanda Pecsi, summarizing the old approach.

But in 2013 Center City got a new CEO, Russ Williams. After hearing teachers complain they were all teaching different things and couldn't collaborate, Williams put Pecsi, then a classroom teacher an assistant principal, in charge of creating a coherent network-wide curriculum.

Pecsi, now aided by two other staff members, has put together a program that incorporates elements from various sources. For kindergarten through 2nd grade, Center City uses the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. In the upper grades, the school borrows from free resources available on state websites like EngageNY and Louisiana Believes has created its own unit plans.

Teachers also get lists of text sets, groups of books or excerpts all focused on a particular subject, like astronomy for first-graders. The texts in the set get increasingly more difficult, and the idea is that as students read they'll build knowledge that enables them to handle more complexity.

Kids find acquiring knowledge more engaging than practicing skills

One criticism often leveled at the Common Core is that it's unrealistic to expect young children to handle the kind of "complex text" the standards call for. But as a visit to Center City demonstrates, kids not only can handle complex ideas, they actually enjoy them.

For one thing, reading isn't the only way for kids to get information. Before asking students to read a text on a given subject, teachers can orally introduce ideas and vocabulary that are beyond kids' reading levels.

In one 1st grade class at Center City's Brightwood campus, for example, the teacher held 25 children rapt as she animatedly read to them about igneous rock. Pointing to a large drawing of the interior of a volcano, she asked the kids where the fire comes from.

"Magma!" they chorused, drawing on knowledge they'd gotten in a previous lesson.

Gradually, the teacher led them to the conclusion that igneous rock—whose Latin root, she explained, comes from the word for "fire"—is magma that has cooled. The children greeted the revelation with cries of wonder.

That's another advantage of a knowledge-based approach: if it's done well, kids find it far more engaging than spending hours practicing finding the main idea. Schools with challenging populations may feel they have to establish order before they can shift to focusing on knowledge, but that could be a mistake.

If kids are excited about learning, "the behavior problems fall away," says Samantha Flaherty, Center City's curriculum manager.

Adopting a curriculum is only half the battle

But adopting a curriculum is only half of what a school needs to make the shift successfully. It establishes what you teach, but just as important is how you teach it.

Providing a teacher with a script about, say, different kinds of rock relieves her of the burden of acquiring all that knowledge herself. But if she just reads the script in a monotone, "the kids will go crazy after ten minutes," says Flaherty. Each teacher has to own the material, teaching it in a way that is both engaging and suited to her own style.

Another challenge is weaning teachers from a focus on data and test scores. Skills alone don't mean much, but it's easier for teachers to measure whether kids are acquiring them than whether they're building knowledge.

And the new Common Core tests that DC and other schools across the country have switched to this year will continue to measure skills, not knowledge. But because the new tests call for greater analytical abilities, kids will only score well if they've acquired enough knowledge to become good general readers. For low-income kids, that could take years.

Williams has a laid-back attitude toward testing. "I tell teachers, don't chase the test," he says. "If you have a strong curriculum, the test will take care of itself."

That's a sentiment you won't hear from many school leaders these days, unfortunately. And at schools where there's pressure to increase test scores, teachers will have an even harder time adjusting to a focus on knowledge.

"People are just beginning to realize that we need to change everything," says Flaherty. "It's not for the faint of heart."

But building knowledge is the only way to make elementary education meaningful for all kids, and it's our best chance of narrowing the achievement gap.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

A new plan to narrow DC's achievement gap

For several years, DC Public Schools has been at the forefront of a movement to give students a coherent body of knowledge starting in kindergarten. It's a commendable effort but still a work in progress.


Photo of students from Shutterstock.

Some of DCPS's education reform efforts, such as teacher evaluations and school closures, have drawn a lot of attention. But few people have noticed a fundamental initiative to change what and how teachers teach. If successful, it could help narrow the District's persistent achievement gap.

Until four years ago, DCPS teachers were left largely on their own in deciding the specifics of what they would teach. To find texts, they worked backward from a set of learning standards that students were supposed to meet by the end of the year.

An English standard might say: "Students will be able to identify the main topic of a multi-paragraph text." And while standards in social studies and science were more specific, teachers got little guidance on classroom practice.

Continue reading this op-ed in The Washington Post.

Education in multiple languages gives kids a big boost, which means high demand for DC's programs

Seven DC public schools and six charters teach children in not just one language, but two. It's an approach that helps native and non-native English speakers, poor and affluent children alike, the latest research shows. But 13 schools are far from enough to meet the demand.


Photo by sussex.library on Flickr.

Children pick up languages very quickly. When you think about it, it's quite an amazing feat to learn one language when you know zero. Their brains can easily pick up languages in the early years, and in much of the world, children learn multiple languages.

Traditionally, US education doesn't start other languages until middle school, when the window of best opportunity has closed. A once-a-week Spanish lesson isn't enough either. But a few DC schools offer true immersion, where many lessons are in a language besides English.

Unfortunately, those programs are so successful that some boast among the longest waiting lists in the city. With few such programs concentrated in even fewer neighborhoods, it's not an option open to everyone.

What is immersion and where is it in DC?

To be an "immersion," "dual language," or "bilingual" school, at least half of the instructional time has to happen in a language other than English, even for kids who are native English speakers. This isn't the same as teaching "foreign language" or "world language" as a separate subject; instead, students might have their math or history lessons in Spanish, or Chinese, or another language depending on the school.

DC Public Schools has seven bilingual elementary schools, all in Spanish: Oyster-Adams in Woodley Park, Marie Reed in Adams Morgan, Bancroft in Mount Pleasant, Powell in Columbia Heights, Bruce-Monroe in Park View, Cleveland around U Street, and Tyler in Capitol Hill.


Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

A number of charter schools also teach in two languages: DC Bilingual in Columbia Heights, Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) in Brightwood and Brookland/Woodridge, and Mundo Verde in Truxton Circle all teach Spanish. There's also Sela, which teaches Hebrew in the Riggs Park area; Stokes, in Brookland, which teaches in French and Spanish; and Yu Ying, near Catholic University, in Mandarin Chinese.

The only private immersion school in DC I'm aware of is the Washington International School, which offers Spanish, French, or a small Dutch program only for native speakers. Some private preschools teach dual language and some teach only in one. CommuniKids runs a Spanish-immersion preschool in Tenleytown as well as both French and Spanish in Falls Church and Loudoun.

When my family took a tour, the CommuniKids administrators explained that most of their students speak English at home, but they teach entirely in Spanish; kids at that age pick up Spanish very quickly, and the Spanish at school balances out with English at home.

Of course, that's not a good strategy for schools serving non-English native speakers, such as immigrants. Many of DC Public Schools's bilingual schools are located in areas with a high percentage of native Spanish speakers (such as Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights) because many started as a way to help "English language learners" (which was called ESL when I was in school) better participate.

However, according to Vanessa Bertelli of the DC Language Immersion Project, a group advocating for more language immersion education in DC, the latest research shows that immersion helps all students, native and non-native English speaking alike.

Is immersion good for native English speakers?

Once, many people in the US believed that if you spoke to a child in two languages, he or she would learn language more slowly overall. In fact, 30 years ago, some educators discouraged bilingual parents from speaking a language other than English to their children from birth.

Today, psychologists believe there isn't a disadvantage, and in fact are many advantages, to speaking multiple languages at home.

Bertelli says that new research shows the same for school. According to a longitudinal study of 85,000 North Carolina public school students, in immersion programs where close to half of students speak the partner language, students consistently outperform their peers by close to two grade levels, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and home language.

Other studies of immersion programs that don't start until grades 2-5 "show evidence of a temporary lag in specific English language skills such as spelling, capitalization, punctuation, word knowledge, and word discrimination," but after a year or two, these gaps disappear and there is no long-term disadvantage in English proficiency.

Some highly educated parents are able to help their children with reading and math at home, but they can't offer them instruction in another language. I've talked to parents in that position who felt that a language immersion program at their local DCPS school could keep them from leaving the system for a high-demand charter or private school, or even moving out of DC altogether.

For lower-income families, the value can be even greater. Start with the overall cognitive benefit: immersion helps close the achievement gap between children of high- and low-income families. Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Dahlberg write that "Children of color, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and English Language Learners make the greatest proportionate achievement gains from foreign language study."

Further, in an increasingly globalized economy, more and more jobs require other languages. The fastest-growing job categories in DC include health care, where bilingual workers command higher salaries, and hospitality and tourism, where the value of other languages is obvious. And knowing two languages makes it far easier to learn a third, compared to only knowing English.


Graph from the DC Immersion Project.

Unfortunately, there are currently no immersion programs east of the Anacostia River. This may originally have been because there are few native Spanish speakers east of the river, but evidence is growing that immersion is valuable even in schools with few children speaking the relevant language.

Immersion seats are in demand

DCPS is taking steps toward expanding bilingual programs, and immersion charter schools have created new options. However, space at immersion schools is not readily available. In fact, many immersion schools top the charts of the longest waitlists.

For pre-kindergarten at age three, LAMB and Mundo Verde lead the city with the longest waitlists, while three other bilingual charters are in the top 12.


Schools with the longest waiting lists for PK3. Bilingual schools highlighted in yellow. Orange bars are DCPS, blue bars are charters. Graph from District Measured.

For age four, bilingual Oyster-Adams in Woodley Park (and non-bilingual Janney in Tenleytown), which start at age four, both top the list. Yu Ying is the fourth highest among elementary schools which are not west of Rock Creek Park.



Schools with the longest waiting lists for PK3. Bilingual schools highlighted in yellow. Orange bars are DCPS, blue bars are charters. Graph from District Measured.

Perhaps the best way to gauge the value of immersion is to look at schools which have an immersion pre-kindergarten program alongside an English-only one, such as Marie Reed, Tyler, and Cleveland. The immersion waitlists are on average 2.2 times as long as the non-immersion ones.


Graph by the author.

Personally, while we are fortunate enough to live in boundary for a school (Ross) which has the second-highest DCPS waiting list at age three, it is not an immersion program. Our daughter is one-quarter Latin American and has been learning Spanish, but not from her parents. She speaks Spanish terrifically for her age, but we fear that in an English-only school she might lose it.

Unfortunately, the long waiting lists for immersion schools, especially nearest to our house, mean immersion may not be a viable option. If DCPS and charters are able to expand immersion programs, perhaps more children can benefit at just the time when their growing brains are ready to learn this valuable skill.

The DC Language Immersion Project is organizing a panel this Thursday, June 11. Greater Greater Washington education editor Natalie Wexler will moderate the panel, which is 7-9 pm at Tyler Elementary School, 1001 G Street SE.

Can DCPS stem the middle school exodus?

Students have been leaving DC Public Schools in droves after the elementary grades because of a dearth of appealing middle school options. A series of graphs from DC's Office of Revenue Analysis shows what's been happening and suggests that things could change in the future.


All graphs from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

Looking at the DCPS cohort that entered kindergarten in 2006 and is now in 8th grade, there's been a dramatic drop: from about 4,000 in kindergarten to a little over half that number in 6th grade. Much of that decline occurred between 5th and 6th grade, the first year of middle school.

While a number of DCPS elementary schools have improved in recent years, parents have complained that the system's middle schools suffer from low achievement, discipline and safety issues, and a limited range of academic and extracurricular offerings.

Only one DCPS middle school, Alice Deal in Ward 3, has proved widely attractive. And with an enrollment of 1,300, Deal is overcrowded.

Drop in elementary enrollments after 4th grade

At some elementary schools, parents begin leaving after 4th grade for private schools, other DCPS elementary schools that feed into Deal, or charter schools, many of which start their middle schools at 5th grade. Some leave the District altogether.

At Ross Elementary School in Dupont Circle last year, for example, the number of students fell from 19 in 4th grade to nine in 5th. In the previous three years, only one of the 47 students graduating from 5th grade went on to the middle school that Ross feeds into.

On Capitol Hill, where some parents have made a concerted effort to retain students in neighborhood schools, enrollment can drop as much as 50% between preschool and 5th grade.

And a Washington Post poll last year found that only 24% of District residents would choose to send their children to a DCPS middle school. Among white and college-educated parents, only 20% would make that choice.

During last year's mayoral campaign, both leading candidates made improving middle schools a key issue, with Muriel Bowser adopting (at least for a while) the slogan, Deal for All.

And DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has focused on middle schools this school year, ensuring a standard baseline of academic offerings that includes algebra, foreign language, art, music, and physical education. She pledged more of an emphasis on students' social and emotional needs as well.

Henderson also promised more field trips, and recently she and Bowser unveiled a plan to offer middle school students who are taking a foreign language the opportunity to travel abroad.

Will DCPS's efforts result in more middle school students?

It's too soon to know if any of those efforts will bear fruit. The current DCPS 6th grade cohort started out smaller than the 8th grade one, but its decline has been less precipitous. So the number of students remaining in DCPS at 6th grade is about the same in both cohorts.

The DCPS cohort now in 4th grade shows the least attrition of all. Although it started out smaller than the cohort of current 8th graders, it's now about the same size that cohort was in 4th grade.

It's hard to say how many of these students DCPS can hold onto. A wider array of courses and more field trips, even international ones, may not be enough to do the trick.

Mixed results on middle school improvements

There have been some bright spots. One middle school east of the Anacostia River, Kelly Miller, has made dramatic improvements under a dynamic principal.

And the new Brookland Middle School, which opens this fall with an arts focus and a project-based learning approach, drew more applicants than expected in the school lottery. That may be a vote of confidence in the school's incoming principal, who is transferring from the well-respected Janney Elementary School in Ward 3.

The interest in Brookland is particularly encouraging because DCPS delayed the school's opening by a year, partly out of concern that it wouldn't attract enough students.

But Hardy Middle School north of Georgetown is still struggling to draw neighborhood students, even after DCPS installed a school leader who seems to inspire confidence.

And Ward 6 families are disappointed that long-promised renovations at two of the neighborhood's middle schools, Eliot-Hine and Jefferson, won't be happening for several more years. Those schools have also been slow to implement a plan to adopt an International Baccalaureate curriculum that could draw neighborhood students.

It can be hard to turn a struggling school around, and even harder to change public perceptions. The experience at Brookland suggests that DCPS might have more success with brand new middle schools, and the plan for new school boundaries and feeder patterns calls for the construction of several.

But DCPS has been spending hundreds of millions building and renovating buildings, particularly high schools, and it's not clear how much more money will be available for such projects.

Some DC parents who have taken the plunge into what seems like a less desirable middle school have been pleasantly surprised. One Capitol Hill mother who passed up a well-regarded charter school for her daughter in favor of Eliot-Hine told the Post that her concerns about safety were unfounded and that she and her daughter are happy with the school.

"I feel like we wasted a lot of time and effort fretting for a year on the pros and cons of the school we considered," she wrote in an e-mail. "We could've focused that energy on [Eliot-Hine]!"

If more parents were willing to give their neighborhood middle schools a chance, the pace of change might well speed up. And then we could turn our attention to an even thornier problem: improving the quality of DCPS high schools.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

New data could help poor kids gain access to nearby charters

A new report showing where students at each DC charter school live could breathe new life into an old idea: changing the law to allow charters to give an admissions preference to neighborhood residents. The new data could help officials pinpoint situations where a neighborhood preference would help rather than harm low-income students.

In the past, some have objected that giving charters the option of a neighborhood preference would exclude disadvantaged students from high-performing schools in gentrifying neighborhoods. Now the DC Public Charter School Board has mapped the geographic distribution of students at every charter campus in DC, revealing which schools attract students who live nearby and which draw them from all over.

Students at almost half the charter schools in DC have an average commute of one to two miles. But the distance students travel can vary widely from school to school.

Those at the Brightwood campus of the Center City charter network have the shortest median commute, at half a mile. (On the maps below, the red dot indicates the school and the blue dots indicate students.)


Map from DC PCSB.

Those at Washington Latin Middle School have a median commute of 4.7 miles and come from all over DC.


Map from DC PCSB.

Within DC's traditional public school system, the vast majority of schools are required to admit all students who live within certain geographic boundaries. As a result, over 60% of DC Public School students live within a mile of their schools.

But DC law bars charter schools from giving a preference to neighborhood residents. They must take all applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. If they have more applicants than spaces available, a random lottery determines who gets in.

If a charter were able to use a neighborhood preference, neighborhood residents would still need to enter the school lottery to apply, but they would get bumped ahead of applicants from outside the neighborhood. Those outside the neighborhood could still gain admission, especially if the school applied neighborhood preference to only a percentage of its seats.

At the same time, neighborhood preference wouldn't guarantee admission to those who live nearby. If a school got more applications from neighborhood residents than it could accommodate, some would lose out.

Task force recommended against neighborhood preference

In 2012, the DC Council appointed a task force to study changing the law to allow a neighborhood preference for charters. At the time, some charged that those in favor of the idea were catering to white parents in gentrifying neighborhoods who wanted easier access to high-performing charters, like E.L. Haynes in Petworth.

The task force recommended against neighborhood preference, in part because its members wanted to guard against that possibility. None favored requiring charters to give a preference to neighborhood residents. And the majority feared that even allowing some charters to adopt a voluntary neighborhood preference could shut disadvantaged students out of high-performing schools.

Only one member of the task force, the Deputy Mayor for Education, thought a charter should be allowed to opt for a neighborhood preference, "provided that safeguards are put into place to ensure that doing so does not adversely impact students who live in under-served neighborhoods."

It's not clear why the rest of the task force didn't support that view, but some charter leaders have expressed fears that even a voluntary neighborhood preference could be a slippery slope leading to a loss of autonomy. At the same time, charter leaders at some schools located in low-income neighborhoods, like KIPP DC and Eagle Academy, have argued they should be able to give a preference to nearby families.

Recently there have been signs that opposition to voluntary neighborhood preference is softening. Leaders of some 30 charter schools have signed a document saying they're willing to consider the idea, as long as it's on an "absolutely voluntary basis."

Data could help protect disadvantaged students

Now, with the new data in the PCSB report, it's also possible to determine exactly which charters are drawing students from disadvantaged areas beyond their own neighborhood or ward. Officials could use that data to decide which schools should be allowed a neighborhood preference and which shouldn't.

There's no bill pending before the DC Council that would change the law on neighborhood preference. But the PCSB's executive director Scott Pearson told the Washington Post that the new report could "offer useful information" to District leaders on the issue.

When I asked a PCSB spokesperson to elaborate on that statement, she directed me to Pearson's remarks on a recent Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.

On the show, Pearson suggested that with a new mayor and new DC Council members, it might be time to take another look at neighborhood preference. "I hear from parents and I hear from many charter schools," Pearson said. "They would love a neighborhood preference. But I want to make sure as we do, that we keep in mind the least advantaged children in the city and make sure that this isn't hurting them."

Neighborhood preference would likely be limited to low-income areas

It can be frustrating for parents to live near a desirable charter school and not be able to get their child admitted. More generally, parents say the lottery system is too unpredictable and gives them only a chance, not a choice.

But a neighborhood preference along the lines envisioned by Pearson would provide predictability only for a subset of parents: those in low-income neighborhoods where there's a charter school. For schools located in gentrifying areas, a neighborhood preference could result in excluding low-income students from areas with low-performing neighborhood schools.

If the DC Council passed legislation with safeguards to ensure that kind of exclusion doesn't happen, those schools wouldn't be eligible for neighborhood preference. And it's not clear they would want the option in any event.

One example is Two Rivers, which has the longest waitlist of any school in the District, with over 1,300 names, and employs an expeditionary learning approach that appeals to many middle-class parents. The school is in NoMa but draws students from all over the District.


Map from DC PCSB.

The school's executive director, Jessica Wodatch, says she wouldn't want a neighborhood preference because it would exclude many disadvantaged students, and the school is committed to serving a diverse population.

On the other hand, she thinks neighborhood preference would have been "a good idea" at the campus Two Rivers is opening this fall in Trinidad, which she says is surrounded by low-income residents who lack access to a high-quality school. Two Rivers has made an effort to recruit neighborhood families, but, given the number of applicants from all over, it's possible few neighborhood children will end up being admitted.

Wodatch says she would support giving the option of neighborhood preference to charters that take over shuttered DCPS buildings, as Two Rivers is doing in Trinidad. That's a position the 2012 task force endorsed as well.

But if a school like the new Two Rivers campus adopted a neighborhood preference, middle-class families might well move into the neighborhood to benefit from it. And that could have the effect of pushing out disadvantaged students, the very thing the task force wanted to avoid. So, as the task force recommended, a neighborhood preference would probably need to be time-limited to protect the interests of low-income families.

It makes sense that a low-income family that wants their child to go to a KIPP school should be able to send her to the one around the corner rather than the one several miles away. It's also important to ensure that some charter schools have diverse populations, especially when the student bodies of many traditional public schools reflect the homogeneity of their neighborhoods.

But if DC officials want to keep more affluent families in the District, they'll need to figure out a way to make high-quality school pathways more convenient and predictable for them as well.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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