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Pedestrians


If students were cars, schools would have opened sooner

Many of the region's schools closed for a full week after the recent blizzard, leaving parents to scramble for childcare and students missing out on valuable classroom time. That's what happens when your storm recovery efforts prioritize making it easy to drive rather than giving everyone a safe way to move around.


Photo by Fionnuala Quinn on Twitter.

The historic storm hit the DC area on Friday, January 22nd. By the time the last flakes fell on Saturday night, just about everything was covered in over two feet of powdery, slippery, transportation-crippling snow.

It was soon pretty easy to drive, but not get around by any other means

As crews throughout the region got to work on their respective snow clearing plans (impressive work for which they deserve a lot of thanks), roads became passable and then completely clear. In contrast, sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus stops were often blocked not just by snow, but also frozen slush.

Some of the area's bike trails were cleared, but access points were plowed in, and the network as a whole was not rideable. Metro returned to service, but getting to stations was a dirty, icy, boulder-climbing adventure and plowed-in bus stops left people waiting often in very busy streets.

Without good options, the only choice left for most people was to drive, clogging our already strained roadways that the remaining snow had narrowed.

As the week wore on and roads became clear, adults returned to work. But faced with the conditions that would have left children walking and waiting for buses in the streets, school officials decided there were not enough safe routes to school, and kept most of the region's schools closed for the entire week.


DC's 5th and Sheridan NW, the Tuesday after the storm. To the right on 5th (the street going left to right) is Coolidge High School. To the left is Whittier Education Campus. Photo by Julie Lawson.

This didn't happen randomly. Arlington is an example of why.

These conditions were a result the fact that our systems for clearing snow focus first on getting cars moving again. People walking and biking are, at best, an afterthought in the region's snow clearing plans.

For example, Arlington posts a clearly thought-out snow operations plan on their snow operations web page:

  • Phase I: During the storm, county crews keep the arterial and collector roads as functional as possible to make sure that emergency access like EMS, fire, police, utility trucks etc. could still get through.
  • Phase 2: Immediately after the storm, they keep working those major corridors, widening lanes so everybody else could start driving again, too.
  • Phase 3: When those are under control they start working their way into residential streets.
Arlington has no unified public plan for clearing the rest of the transportation network - the sidewalks, trails, curb cuts and bus stops that are necessary for people walking, biking and taking transit.

Private individuals are responsible for clearing the majority of sidewalks, and various agencies of the County government are responsible for some routes. Apparently, there are designated "safe routes to schools" that are meant to get priority in snow clearing, but those routes are not made public and are not given priority if the schools are closed. However, many stretches are left without anyone to clear them, unless the County chooses to on an ad-hoc, complaint-based basis.

For example, the stretch of sidewalk along Lynn Street between the intersection of Lee Highway and the Key Bridge is along National Park Service Property. After this storm it took more than a week before the snow and ice were clear along this stretch, which cut off the main sidewalk access between Rosslyn and DC.


Arlington's "Intersection of Doom," at Lee Highway and N Lynn Street, just south of the Key Bridge. People walking and biking would need to climb over this snow/ice mound to get to the iced over sidewalk that leads to Key Bridge. Photo by the author.

When this snow plan was implemented, the streets were cleared, but the sidewalks and bus stops students would have needed to get to school were covered, often in mounds of snow deposited by snow plows. Instead of forcing kids to walk or wait for buses in the street, officials closed most of the region's schools for the entire week after the snow storm, forcing students to lose valuable instructional time at the end of the grading period.

Meanwhile, the region began to get back to work. By Wednesday, after three full days of being closed to allow the region to focus on digging out, most business were open and workers were working.

There are other ways to do this

During and immediately after the late winter blizzard of 1996 that dumped about the same amount of snow as last week's storm, New York City shut down all streets in Manhattan to private cars. The only vehicles on the roads were emergency equipment, garbage trucks, transit vehicles and of course snow plows.

NYC-DOT knew it could never get the city up and running again quickly if they decided that their first priority was to make it possible for everybody to drive their cars again. Roads were opened to traffic only after the sidewalks and bus stops were clear. In New York this took two days.

Arlington could do the same thing: Clear just enough of the roadway to accommodate emergency and service vehicles and eventually transit, but not more. With virtually no cars on the roads, people could at least get around on foot without putting their lives in danger.

And because transit and school bus stops would be cleared and almost no traffic on the road, these buses could actually get through and run on normal schedules. All kids, walkers and bus riders alike, would have a safe way to get to school.

Arlington does transportation well… when it doesn't snow

Fortunately, a good model exists right under our own noses. Arlington's transportation program looks at mobility as a public right, and sees all modes as legitimate. This includes mobility for people in cars, but doesn't leave out people on bikes, people on transit and people on foot.

Arlington's snow operations planners should try looking at mobility the same way when they plan for snow removal.

In this storm we saw a snow removal plan focused on getting cars back on the road. That happened by Wednesday. But cars don't occupy desks at schools.


After snow storms, it'd be smart to prioritize getting schools up and running. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Our public schools closed for a week because there wasn't a safe way for kids to get to them. We need a transportation system that serves the students, whether they drive, ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

We didn't have that after the recent blizzard, so we didn't have school.

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Development


To get ideas for reusing the historic Franklin School building, DC can look to Newark, NJ

The Franklin School, at 13th and K NW, is an iconic DC building, but it has been vacant and abandoned since 2008. On a recent trip to Newark, New Jersey, I got a glimpse of another use for old, historic buildings.


The Franklin School building. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Designed and built in the 1860s by Adolph Cluss, who also designed Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, the Franklin building has a Great Hall that could seat 1,000. It was the centerpiece for DC's public education system—its big windows for light, along with roomy and airy spaces, made for a great learning environment—as well as a resource for community concerts, exhibitions, and public meetings.

Before being abandoned, the building most recently served as a homeless shelter. Mayor Vincent Gray pushed to renovate it, but when Mayor Muriel Bowser became mayer she reversed course and put the proposals on hold. Though Bowser solicited new proposals in October 2015, she has not provided any timeline for review and decision making.

Throughout the 2000s, the DC Council had multiple opportunities to make the building eligible to lease or sell but failed to do so. A 2005 deal to turn Franklin School into a hotel fell through because the proposed lease wasn't valid, and the discussion over what to do with the building has been plagued by a lack of focus, transparency, and analysis of redevelopment options, the kind of thing that can keep proposals with a lot of merit from ever even coming forward.

It's not as if we don't know how to preserve important historic structures. It took just two years after a 2007 fire at Eastern Market for the neighborhood jewel to reopen: Local firm Quinn Evans Architects replaced the roof while retaining many of the original iron trusses, and added sustainability features including high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems, high-performance glazing, and stormwater filtration.
Thinking creatively about place, the built environment, and the long-term prosperity of residents is an essential task for every city and town.

So why have we struggled with the Franklin building so much?

Here's what Newark did with its equivalent of the Franklin School building

If I could, I'd take some of DC's leaders on a field trip to Newark, New Jersey to visit the Hahne & Company department store building.


Photo by Jukie Bot on Flickr.

There, a truly collaborative effort between the City of Newark, Rutgers University - Newark, L & M Development, and J. P. Morgan Chase has resulted in an old icon (a former star of local retail, it's been in disrepair for 30 years) becoming the centerpiece of Newark's recovering downtown.


Construction workers inside a gutted Hahne building. Photo from L&M Development.

During a hardhat tour of the renovation ($174 million, 400,000 sq. ft.), the development team highlighted the future for the building. By December 2016, the mixed use, mixed-income space will be open to its first residents. A total of 161 rental units, 60 percent market rate and 40 percent for low income residents (at 60 percent of area median income), will be ready.

The retail floors, with anchor tenant Whole Foods, will open this spring. Rutgers University - Newark will house their Department of Arts, Culture, and Media there, which will include classrooms, artist studios and gallery space. The project has put nearly every relevant tax credit to use—historic preservation, new markets, and low income housing. For the coup de grace, the great skylight—4-stories above the central atrium—is being meticulously restored to its former glory.


Rendering from L&M Development.

As it turns out, Newark is a hotbed of preservation and reuse. Not far from the Hahne building, a similar coalition is nearly finished renovating the former American Insurance Company tower into a building that will have both retail and residential uses. When it comes to historic preservation, partnerships across sectors, and creating new housing, these projects are transformative.

In Newark, preservationists and other key stakeholders are taking full advantage of the assets they have available—60 to 100 years of growth in the built environment that yielded homes, factories, shopping arcades, warehouses, transportation systems, public utilities, parks, schools, and neighborhood residents.

Although simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. It is for this reason, for the creation of a more prosperous and distinctive place—a place that people want to live in or go to rather than drive through—that historic preservation needs to be an essential strategy for every city and town. In the nation's capital, we have plenty of opportunities to apply these lessons.

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Demographics


Millennials still drive! ... less than other people do

Did you know that:
• Most millennials don't use Uber?
• Most millennials don't shop at Wegman's?
• Most millennials don't live in Austin?
• Most millennials in the Washington region drive to work alone?
• Most people may be misled by recent headlines about millennials?

Image from the study.

Last week, the American University Kogod School of Business released a new Millennials Index based on an online-only survey of 300 people ages 20-34. Amid a lot of interesting findings, the report contained the above graph of transportation mode choices, along with this provocative statement:

While Millennials are often cited as heavy users of alternative transit options, like bike shares and car shares, the reality from our study is that 60% of greater Washington area Millennials are driving alone to work often or always. That's three times the number who are using the Metro to commute.
While this data is interesting and useful, the reality is that, first, this is not a surprise, and second, this statement is misleadingly worded.

Yes, more people drive alone than take Metro. But, as Faiz Siddiqui wrote in the Washington Post,

Some needed context for the study: The proportion of millennial drivers in the transit-dense District pales in comparison to the nationwide figure. Census figures showed 76.4 percent of American workers commuted by driving in 2013. In the D.C. region, 75.7 percent of workers commuted by driving.

So, millennials drive. But they still drive at a lower rate than the overall population.

Unfortunately, the Post put a headline on Siddiqui's article that glossed over this important point: "For millennials, commuting around D.C. means choosing 'the lesser of their evils'—and that's driving."

Not "most millennials" or "many but fewer than the national average" (yes, that's hard to fit in a headline). The above statement in the millennial report and several other news stories on the same topic (such as ones in the Washington Business Journal and WTOP) also reinforced one or more common fallacies I've noticed in transportation discussions with statistics.

The "most millennials don't live in Austin" fallacy: As Siddiqui noted, while most millennials drive, many fewer do than other groups. A Nielsen study found high concentrations of millennials in certain areas (including Washington as #6). But most millennials still don't live in Austin, or Salt Lake City, or DC, just because there are so many other places in the US. They do, however, live there at higher rates than others.

This study polled millennials in the entire Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes part of West Virginia. Metro doesn't extend there, and even the closer-in-counties like Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax are huge, including land far from most transit. As Arlington Transportation Partners notes, a ULI study of millennials found that inside the Beltway, only 26% commuted by car.

The "most millennials don't use Uber" fallacy: Just because something isn't the majority doesn't mean it's not growing. As Ben Freed pointed out in Washingtonian, "New transportation infrastructure and technologies are redrawing our mental maps of the region, but not overnight." Not many people used Capital Bikeshare in the survey, but it's a lot more than five years ago! Most millennials also still don't use Uber, but nobody questions that it's a fast-growing trend.

The "most millennials don't shop at Wegman's" fallacy: Just because something isn't the majority doesn't mean people don't want it. A lot of people would love to shop at a Wegman's: it's hugely popular. But there aren't many of them, so most people don't shop there. We've spent a century building car infrastructure to every single house, but not transit to even every town, let alone every neighborhood. In many parts of the region, transit is just not an available option. This doesn't make it undesired, just unavailable.

I'd also call this one the "Kotkin fallacy" after writer Joel Kotkin, who regularly argues that people prefer suburbs over walkable urban areas because most people live in them. That ignores the fact that there are few walkable urban neighborhoods compared to the many, many suburban ones (and the walkable urban ones are far more expensive).

Meanwhile, many millennials (maybe not all) said that housing prices were a top concern. They called housing prices "insane," "atrocious" and "unaffordable," and put housing cost as the second-highest concern, after finding a job.

What fallacies do you see in news coverage of studies like this? What other analogies can you think of?

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Education


DC adult learners may qualify for regular diplomas—whatever those mean

DC education officials are planning to grant high school diplomas to adults who complete high school equivalency programs. But some members of the State Board of Education have challenged one program's rigor, raising the question: What does a DC high school diploma actually signify?


Photo from Bigstock.

Adults in DC who pass the GED exam currently receive a certificate, not a high school diploma. Some employers and colleges prefer a diploma.

In 2014, the GED organization overhauled the test, aligning it to the Common Core educational standards. The computer-based exam is now seven hours long and calibrated so that 40% of traditional high school graduates wouldn't be able to pass it.

In recognition of that increased rigor, DC's State Board of Education (SBOE) recently directed the State Superintendent of Education to draft regulations that would award high school diplomas to GED graduates. But in a more controversial move, the regulations would also confer state diplomas on those who graduate from the lesser-known National External Diploma Program (NEDP).

Rather than taking a single test, NEDP graduates must demonstrate 70 different "competencies" in subjects like financial literacy, civic literacy, history, and science. Students work one-on-one with a "buddy" and then are assessed individually on each competency.

The NEDP works better for some adults, but its rigor is unclear

Adult educators say the NEDP, intended for students 25 and older, is better than the GED for people who suffer from test anxiety or have unpredictable work schedules that prevent them from attending regular classes. There are NEDP programs in seven states in addition to DC, which has eight NEDP sites.

The developers of the NEDP say the assessment, like the GED, has been revamped to be more rigorous. And administrators at Academy of Hope, a DC adult charter school that offers both the GED and the NEDP, agree. Five of the six students who got the NEDP credential at the Academy last year are now enrolled in college and are doing well, they say.

But Ward 3 SBOE member Ruth Wattenberg and two of her colleagues have asked for objective evidence of the NEDP's rigor, along the lines of the documentation provided for the GED. The NEDP specifies standards and tasks—such as "Describe contributions from diverse cultures to life in the United States"—and requires students to demonstrate "mastery" of each of them. But, Wattenberg argues, it's not clear whether mastery means a Ph.D.-level thesis or a simple paragraph.

In response to Wattenberg's questions, the State Superintendent of Education, Hanseul Kang, has promised that testing experts at her agency will conduct an independent evaluation of the NEDP's rigor before the SBOE votes on the regulations at its meeting on January 20th.

One wrinkle is that graduates of the NEDP program already get regular diplomas, albeit ones issued by individual high schools rather than by the State Superintendent. At Academy of Hope, for example, NEDP graduates get diplomas from Ballou STAY, an alternative DC Public School high school that is also an NEDP site.

Kang says her office included the NEDP in the proposed regulations to ensure that in the future, graduates get a diploma regardless of where they complete the program. But the fact is, the proposed regulations wouldn't change the current situation for NEDP graduates.

Still, Wattenberg says that including the NEDP in the regulations without evidence of the test's rigor would set a dangerous precedent and—if it's put in the same basket as the GED—unfairly dilute the value of a state diploma for GED graduates.

What level of rigor does a regular diploma require?

That may be true. But a larger problem is that we don't know the level of rigor required to obtain a regular DC high school diploma.

Yes, DC's graduation requirements, which are Common Core-aligned and include three years of math, look rigorous on paper. And it's true students have to pass their courses in order to graduate.

But those familiar with high-poverty high schools say students are often promoted from grade to grade without having mastered course content. Teachers may be under pressure to keep up a school's graduation rate, or they may not want students with behavior problems back in their classrooms for another year.

And some high-poverty high schools saw none of their students score proficient in reading or math on Common Core-aligned tests given last year. On last year's SAT, eight DCPS high schools had average scores below 1,000, well below the national average of 1490.

Current graduation requirements are unrealistically high

A more fundamental question is whether we've set high school graduation requirements—including those for the new GED, and possibly the NEDP—unrealistically high, based on the assumption that all students need to be prepared for college. We shouldn't exclude any students from a college prep curriculum if they're willing to do the work, but we also need to provide high-quality options for those who want to head straight into the workforce.

Over 60,000 DC residents 18 or older lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many need diplomas to enter apprenticeship programs in the construction trades, or to move up in fields like health care or day care.

But officials at Academy of Hope say 90% of their students arrive functioning at or below a 6th-grade level. And it takes 400 hours to prepare them for the new GED, as compared to 100 for the old one. The numbers taking the tests have dropped significantly because of the new rigor, they say.

The biggest obstacle is algebra, as it is for students at traditional high schools. But according to one estimate, only 5% of entry-level workers actually need to be proficient in algebra. Are we simply putting an artificial barrier between people who could handle the demands of many jobs and employers who would like to hire them?

We should require that a high school diploma signifies a certain level of achievement, as Wattenberg argues. But ideally, that requirement would apply not just to adult learners but also to the many more who obtain diplomas the usual way.

And we need to question the assumption that high school or its equivalent is just a stepping-stone to college, especially when so few DC high school students get there. True, a high school diploma alone doesn't mean much in the job market these days. But that could change if we started equipping high school students with skills that would actually render them valuable to employers.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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Transit


Metro student passes may be on the way

Five years ago, WMATA and American University teamed up to provide student SmarTrip cards, the goal being to eventually offer discounted student fares. But the program never expanded past its pilot. Will rekindling the effort mean more students on Metro?


Image by the author.

During the pilot, American student ID information went on top of a blank SmarTrip card, allowing students to use the card on campus and on Metro. American and WMATA use the same companies to load money onto their cards, so combining wasn't difficult.

Metro stations near colleges have higher off-peak ridership, an area where WMATA would be happy to boost numbers. Also, special college student passes have been successful in other public transportation systems, most notably in Chicago, where the Ventra UPass gives full-time students at over 40 schools in the area unlimited rides on CTA buses and trains.

The first effort ran into budget problems

The program started in 2010 with 20 of the combined cards going from the American student government to students and faculty. Eventually, the school distributed 300 cards. Combining the cards let AU students simplify their transit use by only having to load money onto one account, as well as see transit data and how much they were spending on fares.

The program's goal was to eventually provide discounted student fares, and with the initial partnership working well, the student government started looking to make it happen.

Talks about discounted student fares and who would fund them began, but they didn't go far. At the time, WMATA couldn't give discounts to particular groups of customers due to its budget rules, meaning the AU student government would need to find a private source of funding for the discounts. Using the data gleaned from the pilot, the student government estimated the cost of the discounted fares to be around $300,000 a year. No one was willing to foot the bill, so the program never moved past the pilot phase.

WMATA and AU are giving it another try

The idea of special college passes has come up again in WMATA's proposed FY 2017 budget, with AU once again working to pilot the program. If combined with some simple steps from universities, like putting bus route maps in freshman orientation packets, the move could greatly boost WMATA's college student ridership.

College student passes with discounted fares would be an excellent way to incentivize public transit use for the estimated 225,000 college students in the DC region. WMATA needs more riders, even if they pay a discounted rate, to boost the bottom line. Colleges are a great place to find them.

Also, a renewed partnership will lead to fewer barriers to using Metro and Metrobus, which will benefit everyone. WMATA is even looking at providing combined SmarTrip and ID's for MetroAccess patrons.

The new program might want to consider old ways

What's on the table now is similar to the 2010 pilot program, but without the combined SmarTrip/ID aspect that made the 2010 program so useful. Instead, students will pay a monthly fee for unlimited rides rather than be able to add to their card as they go.

A college ID is a student's key to their university, and a SmartTrip is a student's key to the city—putting them together made a lot of sense. Having student Metro passes run through American ID's would let students keep all their money in one place, and combining the two into one card would mean students would always have their SmarTrip on hand.

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Education


DC schools are missing an opportunity to equip students for coding jobs

In recent years schools in the District have expanded opportunities for students to learn computer coding, an occupation where demand is outpacing supply. But they could do much more to engage low-income students in a potentially lucrative career path that doesn't necessarily require a college degree.


Photo from Bigstock.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the importance of teaching computer science in K-12 schools. Last week was Computer Science Education Week, during which students in DC and around the world participated in online tutorials billed as an Hour of Code. As part of the fanfare, the incoming Education Secretary, John King, visited a classroom at DC's McKinley Tech High School.

DC and 26 states now allow computer science courses to count towards graduation requirements, up from only 12 states two years ago. At least two DC charter high schools offer coding classes, and DC Public Schools offer a wide range of computer-related courses and extracurricular activities, although it's not clear how many students take advantage of them.

But much of the effort in DC and elsewhere is aimed at getting students to enroll in college and major in computer science. King, for example, asked how many of the two dozen students he addressed at McKinley wanted to study computer science in college. He was pleased when over half raised their hands.

There's nothing wrong with students majoring in computer science in college, of course. In fact, it's an excellent idea. The median salary for computer programmers is over $76,000. There are currently over half a million open computing jobs, according to Code.org, and last year fewer than 40,000 people graduated with computer science degrees. Forecasters predict that mismatch between demand and supply will continue at least through 2020.

The shortage of qualified college graduates is already creating pressure on employers to hire people who can simply do the work, whether or not they have the credentials. At Google, for example, 14% of the members of some teams have no college education. In general, 38% of those working as web developers aren't college graduates.

Some coders and programmers are self-trained, while others have gone through coding "boot camps" that give participants the skills they need in a matter of months. Although Obama administration officials are intent on encouraging students to go to college, they've also launched an effort to enroll more "low-skilled" individuals in coding boot camps and match them with employers.

Why not teach coding skills before kids graduate from high school?

No doubt these programs can be lifesavers for many who don't have the interest or resources to acquire a college degree. But why wait until after they've graduated from high school? Why not give students in K-12 schools the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to snag a well-paying coding job if they want one?

That's the theory behind the efforts of one DC nonprofit to bring coding classes to low-income kids beginning in 5th grade. The Economic Growth DC Foundation is in its second year of sponsoring its Code4Life program, which runs free weekly classes at one DCPS and two charter schools. The idea is that students will remain in the afterschool program through high school, receiving a series of digital badges that will ultimately render them employable as coders.

On a recent afternoon at KIPP DC Northeast Academy, kids in the program weren't focused on their future career prospects. But they were engaged and having fun. In one classroom, a half-dozen 5th-graders were using a simple program called SNAP to create intricate moving designs on their laptops. Down the hall, a group of 6th- and 7th-graders were learning how to use Excel spreadsheets to manipulate data.

At the same time, the kids were breaking down operations into steps and making the computations necessary to write their programs, acquiring logical reasoning and math skills that will serve them well regardless of what they ultimately choose to do.

Code4Life currently serves a total of only 75 students and relies on volunteers from Accenture and other places, including area colleges, to put together its curriculum and teach classes. The foundation's chairman, Dave Oberting, says he'd like to expand the program to more schools, but that would require funding to hire paid staff.

Ideally, Oberting says, he'd like to see coding become a standard part of the curriculum throughout DC. Code4Life, he says, "is a mechanism for showing that [teaching coding] isn't that difficult."

In some places, coding class is mandatory for all

Other school systems are managing to do it. Earlier this year, Arkansas passed a law requiring all public and charter high schools to offer computer science classes. Some places are starting before high school—a good idea, considering that most adult coders say they became interested in computers before the age of 16.

The Chicago, New York, and San Francisco school districts have pledged to start teaching computer science to students of all ages. A largely low-income and Hispanic elementary school district near Phoenix is requiring every student to take coding classes. And beginning this year, Great Britain is mandating computer science classes for all students from the age of five.

One problem impeding some of these efforts is the difficulty of hiring qualified teachers, because people with computer skills can generally find better-paying jobs. But teacher salaries are relatively high in DC, so that might not present as much of an obstacle here.

Considering the potential benefits, all schools in the District—and particularly those serving low-income kids—should find a way to teach the basics of computer coding beginning in elementary school. And given the fact that fewer than 10% of poor children graduate with a college degree, DCPS and charter schools need to stop focusing blindly on their "college for all" mantra and start equipping students with the means to make a decent living with a high school diploma.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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Education


Lower test scores aren't necessarily a sign we're heading in the wrong direction

This week Mayor Muriel Bowser and other DC officials released long-awaited results for grades 3 through 8 from the Common Core-aligned tests given last spring. As expected, scores were far lower than on the old tests, especially for low-income and minority students. But that doesn't necessarily mean DC schools are on the wrong track.


Photo by the author.

Proficiency rates on DC's old standardized reading and math tests hovered around 50%. On the new tests—devised by a consortium called PARCC, and taken by students in DC and 11 states—the proficiency rate is only about 25%.

But scores on the new tests aren't equally lower for all students. White students did far better than average on the PARCC tests, while minority and low-income students did worse. That was true on the old tests as well, but—as with the previously released high school PARCC scoresthe gaps on the new tests are even larger.

Scores on the PARCC tests fall into five categories, with the highest two (4 and 5) considered to be meeting or exceeding expectations for "college and career readiness." As you can see from the chart below, far more white students fell into that category than black or Hispanic students. And far more black and Hispanic students than whites fell into the lowest category, "Did not yet meet expectations."

The gap is even larger between white students and other groups, such as students in special education (SPED) and English Language Learners (ELL). (The "at-risk" category includes students in foster care or receiving government benefits.)


On the old reading tests given in 2014, the gaps between whites on the one hand and blacks and low-income students on the other were about ten percentage points smaller than on the PARCC. The gap between white and Hispanic students was about 15 points smaller, while the gap for SPED students was only one point smaller.

If you want to explore the PARCC data in detail, there are various spreadsheets and other resources available on this DC government website, and a series of nifty interactive graphics are on the District, Measured blog.

The PARCC reading tests assume more knowledge

Why have the gaps grown? The unsurprising answer is that the tests have gotten harder. And, as various officials explained at the rather sober press conference called to unveil the new scores, that's something that needed to happen. The old tests were so easy they didn't mean much. As in other cities, students in DC—especially poor, minority students—were graduating from high school without the skills they needed to enroll in college courses or embark on career training, even if they'd scored proficient on the tests.

And what makes these new tests harder? I'm not that familiar with the Common Core math tests, although I know they require students to demonstrate they understand math concepts rather than just apply math rules. On the reading side, though, the basic reason is that the reading passages on the test assume that students know more vocabulary and are familiar with a wider range of concepts.

Standardized reading tests, by their nature, don't test any particular body of knowledge. Instead, the tests assess a student's general ability to understand whatever is put in front of her. That's partly because different schools are teaching different content. And of course, it's important for students to develop general reading ability in order to function well in school and in life.

But, as cognitive scientists have shown, the ability to understand a given text depends a lot on whether you're already familiar with the words and concepts it contains. That may make intuitive sense: just think of what it's like to try to read a passage on, say, cellular biology if you know nothing about the subject. What's harder for some of us to grasp is how many words and concepts minority and low-income children aren't familiar with.

PARCC and the other Common Core testing consortium, SBAC, have released sample questions that provide an idea of the kind of knowledge and vocabulary the tests assume children will have. According to a group called Student Achievement Partners, the 3rd-grade questions use words like fraying, spouting, blossom, nifty, scorched, and nutrients. They also present topics and concepts like Babe Ruth, Indonesia, and the U.S. Congress, along with biological terms like gills, larva, and pupa.

More affluent 3rd-graders may not know all these terms, but—as the PARCC test scores indicate—they're more likely to have heard enough of them to be able figure out what a passage is basically about. (Cognitive scientists have estimated that a reader needs to be familiar with 90 to 95% of the words in a passage to comfortably understand it.) Studies have shown that children of wealthier, more educated parents hear far more words and engage in more dialogue than their low-income counterparts almost from birth, and they enter school with significantly higher literacy skills.

Schools can help close the knowledge gap

Some have concluded that, since so much of literacy is dependent on family background, there's not much schools can do about this situation. And schooling can actually make it worse: some studies indicate that the achievement gap grows the longer kids stay in school. But the fact is, we don't know what schools might be able to do to close the gap, because most elementary schools serving low-income kids haven't spent much time trying to systematically build their knowledge and vocabulary.

Instead, they've focused on the comprehension skills the tests seem to call for: finding the main idea, making inferences, and—in the Common Core era—connecting claims to evidence in the text. But if kids don't have the knowledge and vocabulary to understand a reading passage in the first place, they won't be able to demonstrate any of those skills on the test. And it may take years for a low-income student to acquire enough knowledge to do well on a test of general reading ability.

"People want us to just flip a switch, and young people will be off to Harvard," DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said at Monday's press conference. "That's not the way it works."

She's right: these things take time. The real question is whether schools in DC are on the right track. Henderson and others point to data in the test results to argue that the answer is yes: generally higher test scores at the lower grade levels than in high school. That shows, they say, that kids exposed to the Common Core approach from an early age are getting it, and that they'll continue to do better when they reach high school.

But the tests get harder in high school, and kids may just hit a wall—as they have in the past, even on easier tests. And the disparity in scores only holds true for math. In reading, the percentage of students scoring proficient was essentially the same at all grade levels, including high school.

Still, some DC schools are on the right track. A number of educators in DC, in both the charter and traditional public school sectors, have grasped the importance of building knowledge, especially for students who are disadvantaged. I've been in classrooms where kids are lapping up facts, words, and ideas that will serve them well in high school and beyond. Whether and when that knowledge shows up in their test scores should be a secondary consideration.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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Education


Are long waitlists for DC's public preschools hurting the entire school system?

At some DC Public Schools, the programs that prepare kids for kindergarten by teaching pre-literacy and math skills, like learning the alphabet and counting, are in such demand that many neighborhood residents are unable to enroll their children. If DCPS doesn't expand the number of preschool slots where demand is highest, it risks losing those families to charter and other non-DCPS schools.


A preschool classroom. Photo by Herald Post on Flickr.

Officially called the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program, it offers Preschool-3 (PS3) and Pre-Kindergarten-4 (PK4) classes at elementary schools around the city through a lottery called My School DC. When it opens on December 14th, thousands of families from around the city will enter in hopes of securing a seat at the school of their choice.

To apply, families fill out a single online application for participating public charter schools (PS3 through 12) DCPS out-of-boundary schools (K-12), most DCPS ECE (PS3 and PK4) programs including programs at in-boundary schools, and DCPS citywide selective high schools (9-12).

Each student may apply to as many as 12 schools per application. The My School DC lottery is designed to match students with the schools they want most, and maximize the number of students who are matched.

As 3 and 4 year olds are not required by law to attend school, DCPS is not required to offer a seat for every in-bound child. Therefore a child must enter the lottery to secure an ECE seat. DCPS is current piloting program that offers guaranteed seats for in-bounds PS3 and PK4 student at six Title I (low income) elementary schools across the city (Amidon-Bowen Elementary, Bunker Hill Elementary, Burroughs Elementary, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary, Stanton Elementary, and Van Ness Elementary) but families are required apply through the lottery to exercise this right.

Preferences are given to students that are in-bounds and have a sibling that attends the school, in-bounds students without a sibling at the school, and students that are out-of-bound and have a sibling that attends the school, in that order. A majority of elementary schools are able to offer seats to all of their in-bounds ECE students. If there is a waitlist, students are ordered by the lottery based on the algorithm, which accounts for any preferences a student may have.

The in-bounds waitlists can be very long

The list of schools that are able to accept all of their in-bounds students into their ECE programs is shrinking. Last year 25 schools had to waitlist one or more of their in-bounds ECE students. The schools on this list put an average of 25% of their in-bounds students on the waitlist, although in some cases it was much higher.

Of the four schools that waitlisted 50% or more of their in-bounds students, two were located in Ward 3 (Stoddert and Oyster-Adams) and offered only PK4 slots, while the others were located in Ward 6 (Brent and Maury) and offered positions for both PS3 and PK4 students.

Brent and Maury provide examples of how quickly things can change:


Table by the author.

These numbers offer a poor introduction to many families that DCPS is trying to attract and retain. The situation is worse for new families, as children with older siblings in the school receive priority over other in-bounds students. This past year, in-bounds students without siblings had a 24% chance of getting into Maury's PS3 class and no chance of getting into Brent as they had 39 students receiving the in-bounds with sibling preference for only 30 PS3 spots. While there is a chance that students could receive a PK4 seat the following year, the fact remains that a large percentage of in-bounds families will not experience the best recruiting tool DCPS has to offer.

Families are deciding about middle school when their kids are three years old

At a time when DCPS is taking steps to encourage families to stay beyond elementary school, potential new families can see these large waitlists as a deterrent. DCPS also risks losing these students to private schools, DC public charters, or other districts with more established middle school options.

Even if the student returns for kindergarten, DCPS has missed an opportunity to build loyalty with these students and their families, which matters in neighborhoods with unsettled middle school situations like Capitol Hill. Due to the increasing number of middle school options, some families are choosing to leave DCPS elementary schools as early as second grade.

Also, the charter middle schools that are popular with Capitol Hill families such as BASIS and Washington Latin start in fifth grade, which also pushes up the Middle School Decision timeline. As a result, DCPS may only have a few years with a student that starts in kindergarten to demonstrate they are a viable option beyond fourth grade.

Here's what DCPS can do about this problem

One option is for DCPS to eliminate PS3 classes in the schools with long in-bounds waitlists and convert those seats into PK4 seats. This still may not provide room for all in-bounds students, but by bringing in a larger percentage of the in-bounds population for one year it would offer a better experience for more families and would reduce the "Golden Ticket" feeling that divides communities into haves and have-nots at three years old.

It is notable that in Northwest DC, only two of the twelve elementary schools that flow to Wilson High School offer PS3 classes. While many of those twelve schools still have to waitlist in-bounds students applying for PK4 seats, in several cases they are able to accommodate a much larger percentage of their in-bounds students. As DCPS tries to create a "Deal and Wilson for all," Eastern High School and the schools that flow to it offer DCPS a chance to re-create that model, which starts for most families at PK4.

As more families choose to stay in the city, it is likely that DCPS will have additional schools that experience large increases in the number of in-bound applicants from one year to the next. However better demographic information in the school districts would allow DCPS to predict and then plan for these large increases in order to minimize the waitlists.

As DC changes, its preschool programs will need to as well

The DCPS ECE program is a great resource for District families, and is often the envy of our friends in Maryland and Virginia. While it is often derided as "free day care," ask parents with children in one of the classes around the city and instead they will talk about the excitement of their students describing metamorphosis and reading and writing their first words. They will also talk about the relationships their children have developed with the other students and the sense of community a neighborhood school can provide.

As DC continues to change, DCPS must be able to anticipate these changes and adapt as well. Investing in information gathering will benefit DCPS by allowing neighborhood schools to better predict how large rising classes of in-bounds three year olds may be.

DCPS has made significant strides convincing DC families that the DCPS elementary schools will provide an excellent education for their children. In fact, they have been so successful that families are clamoring for seats in their ECE programs. However, the next phase, persuading DC families to believe in DCPS middle schools, begins with families' first interactions with DCPS.

DCPS has the ability to make that interaction better.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that families who wanted to claim an in-bounds state at one of the six schools that guarantees admission to their ECE program did not need to go through the My School DC lottery. That's incorrect. Students must still apply through the lottery to claim their in-bounds seat.

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