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DC's charter schools boost learning for poor and minority students

DC's charter schools do a better job than its traditional public schools when it comes to educating low-income and minority students, according to a recent national study. But the study indicates that white and Asian students fare better in the traditional sector.


Photo of classroom from Shutterstock.

The study ranked DC's charter sector sixth in the nation among 41 urban school districts for its positive impact on student learning.

Overall, students in charter schools have had bigger gains in both reading and math than similar students enrolled in the DC Public School system, especially when it comes to middle school math. And while charter schools are still far from closing the achievement gap, it's smaller for charter students than for those enrolled in DCPS.

The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), looked at data from the 2006-07 through 2011-12 school years. It matched "virtual twins," students with similar backgrounds and test scores, some of whom went to charters and some of whom stayed in the traditional public school system.

Researchers then compared rates of growth for the "twins" in each sector, as measured by increases in standardized test scores.

Nationally, the CREDO study found that students in urban charter schools gained the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 additional days in reading.

It's harder to quantify the gains on the local level, which the CREDO report frames in terms of standard deviations (SDs) rather than days of learning. But overall, charter students had gains of 0.09 SDs in math and 0.13 SDs in reading over their DCPS counterparts.

Results for different demographic groups in DC

Generally, the strongest positive results were for students who were poor and black or Hispanic, as compared to white non-poor students in DCPS. Charter students who were eligible for free and reduced price lunch, a frequent measure of poverty, were only 0.02 SDs below non-poor students in math. The equivalent gap for low-income DCPS students was .09.

The charter sector also improved the performance of Hispanic students and students learning English as a second language, as well as students who qualify for special education services, although the gains were not as large.

White and Asian students in the charter sector didn't fare as well. Both groups actually did worse than their peers in DCPS, by 0.06 SDs in reading and about 0.10 in math.

There are two possible explanations for that, according to Anne Herr, director of school quality for FOCUS DC, a charter advocacy organization. One is that the sample sizes are small. White students make up 12% of DCPS's student population and just 5% of the charter school population.

It's not clear how many Asian students attend DC's public schools, but the number is low. Last year, Wilson High School was the only one in the District with ten or more Asian students scheduled to graduate.

The other reason is that the DCPS schools with large numbers of white students are generally high-performing, so the base of comparison is much higher.

The negative results for white students in charter schools are consistent with CREDO's nationwide data. Nationally, those students lost the equivalent of 36 days of learning in math and 14 in reading, compared to their peers in traditional public schools.

The CREDO study praised DC as one of four cities that had few low-performing charters and also a majority that outperformed traditional public schools in both math and reading. The other three cities in that category were Boston, Detroit, and Newark.

Another recent report labeled DC's charter sector the healthiest in the nation. Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS DC, says the two studies prove the value of DC's charter schools.

"I don't see how people can try to ignore anymore that the DC charter movement is thriving," Cane said. "It's a combination of some really brilliant people who have started schools and a really good authorizer that's willing to close schools that are not closing the achievement gap. We also have a very good law that gives charters a lot of freedom of action."

Reasons to question data on charter success

While Cane has a point, some would counter that charters enjoy certain advantages that high-poverty DCPS schools don't: for example, a self-selected group of students that is more likely to be motivated, and the option of denying admission to students who arrive midyear.

And while DC may rank sixth in the CREDO study, it lags pretty far behind the top charter sectors. Boston ranked number one in both reading and math gains, with 0.324 SDs in math and 0.236 in reading. The comparable figures for DC were 0.134 and 0.097.

And, of course, given that these are comparative measures, even a charter sector that isn't doing a great job can look good against the background of a low-performing traditional school system.

Another cause for concern is that charter success, both locally and nationally, is greater in math than in reading, and seems to stall at the high school level. In DC, the highest gains were in middle school math, with charter students gaining 0.23 SDs. For middle school reading, the figure was only 0.02.

The gains for DC charter high schools weren't statistically significant, but at the national level high schools provided their students with the equivalent of 32 additional days of learning in math and only 9 in reading. As in DC, the highest gains nationally were in middle school math, with 73 additional days of learning.

It's generally easier to raise the performance of low-income students in math, probably because math doesn't require the background knowledge and vocabulary that reading comprehension does. But literacy skills are arguably more important, since they're fundamental to understanding all other subjects—including, to a certain extent, math.

While it's not clear from the report why gains drop off in the higher grades, one likely reason is that high-school-level work requires more sophisticated reading, writing, and analytical skills. And it's possible that even high-performing charter middle schools haven't really been preparing their students to handle them.

With the advent of the Common Core and its more rigorous standardized tests, which students in DC and elsewhere are taking for the first time this year, those deficiencies may soon become apparent at lower grades as well.

DC has much to be proud of in its charter schools, and many low-income students have received a better education than they otherwise would have thanks to their existence. But the achievement gap is fundamentally a literacy gap, and the jury is still out on how much progress the charter sector has really made in closing it.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

We visited 18 schools in 90 days to play DC's annual preschool lottery. Here is what we learned.

Parents all over DC are awaiting the results of the city's annual lottery to get into public schools and public charter schools, which are expected to hit inboxes Friday. The anxiety level is high.


Lottery image from Shutterstock.

My husband and I entered the lottery to get a spot in a preschool program for our three-year-old child. Not all 3- or 4-year-olds are guaranteed a spot in a school, even in the school they are zoned to attend. Only in kindergarten is there a secured spot for students in the District (and for preschoolers in five low-income areas as a pilot program).

That means applying to multiple schools in hopes of getting into one. For months or years, parents like us have pored over school data, researched curricula, visited school buildings to meet with principals, teachers and parents, and asked questions of other parents on listservs, on the playground and at community meetings throughout the city.

We all want to get our children into the "best" school that is the "right fit." And it all comes down to putting together a list of 12 schools in ranked order in the hopes that our lottery number and/or other preferences will get our children into a school we actually want to send them to.

Here is some of what we learned about the process and about some of the schools in DC.

Lotteries are enormously competitive. At both charters and neighborhood schools, alike, we often heard the refrain of "Our school is more difficult to get into than (insert the name of the Ivy League school du jour)." Some of these elementary schools receive hundreds if not thousands of applications, with just a few spots to fill. (We tried our best not to even entertain the idea of going to places like Brent Elementary, where it seems a family must win the actual lottery to afford a house that is in bounds for the school.)

The largest number of seats for incoming 3-year-olds that we saw was in the low 60s. Most were in the 20s and low 30s, and that is before the schools take into account the sibling and other preferences. The lottery gives preferences to the siblings of students already at the school and, in some schools, children of the school's staff.

After hearing about the difficult odds, parents in the open house sessions murmured and whispered among themselves. And at the end of the sessions, these same administrators would smile and say, "We invite you to apply for our school and to put us in the No. 1 spot." While inviting to hear, it also made us wonder whether some schools are trying to goose the numbers of applications, so they can continue to tout their desirability to future parents.

There are some amazing schools in DC. Really amazing. Yes, it's an urban district with lots of unevenness and inequality—some painfully obvious—but there are many schools that are thriving and excelling. For example, one of the first schools we walked into was Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, and I was very impressed with what we witnessed. From the outdoor garden to the music class, it felt like a warm, friendly building where children would grow and be challenged.

The inequities of the system are real. Why can't all of DC's kids go to a school like Peabody? Some schools have old buildings, or school leadership that doesn't demand and provide excellence, or general poverty, or parents who aren't or can't be more involved in their children's education, or a whole host of other issues all combined. But it still hurts to know that not every child can go to the excellent schools that the District has to offer.

PTAs are providing enormous amounts of extra funding and other types of aid to schools throughout the District. Many of the schools we visited have signature fundraisers that they put on every year in the hopes of buying a new kiln, supporting a gardening program, updating the school library, etc., etc. This is both invigorating and frustrating.

It's wonderful to see parents come together to support their children's education, and I expect one day that we will be heavily involved with our son's school's PTA. But what about parents who don't have extra money or extra time to give? What happens to schools without those extra resources? How can we as a city support ALL schools with resources for the arts as well as for writing, reading, math, social studies and science?

Demand for the city's language immersion schools is high and only growing, as many parents want to see their children gain valuable skills and knowledge about other cultures in this globalizing world. We are keenly interested in these schools and this model of teaching and ended up putting many of these schools near the top of our list, even though the chances of getting in are so thin. District leaders—and others throughout the country—should pay close attention to this demand and find ways to meet it.

School data—or the lack thereof—can make you start to twitch. My husband, a statistician, eagerly dove into the data that he could find about the results of past lotteries to help us figure out where we'd have the best chance of getting in. (We have no sibling or other preferences for 11 of the schools we chose, and we put our zoned school, which is still struggling to find its way, last on the list.)

But even with all his expertise, we still couldn't get a great grasp on the numbers because many of the charters don't supply that information. And that's just the information about the lottery. We had to ask basic questions at every school—publics and charters alike—about things like whether there is a full-time school nurse, whether there is a separate library in the building with a dedicated librarian, etc.

For the most part, all of the public schools had these things, but many of the charters did not (especially the newer ones). Regardless, we shouldn't have had to ask for this information. All of this should available publicly in a place where everyone can peruse and compare easily and quickly. No one should have to go into a school building to figure out these basic things.

There is data in DCPS's school profile pages, on the Public Charter School Board's website, and on LearnDC, but not everything we wanted to know.

The charters we visited are offering a solid education and a caring environment to students. It's unfortunate that the public schools don't have the flexibility to do some of the things the charters can, but there are great schools of both types. However, I firmly believe that if the charters receive public money they must be just as accountable and transparent to the residents of the District and their children as the public schools.

It was dispiriting to hear one charter administrator speak with some level of hubris as if her school answered to no one, least of all the parents of the children in her school. (That only happened at one place we visited, thankfully.) We as parents and citizens in the District should demand more transparency from the city and Congress about the charter schools whose budgets come, at least in part, from our tax dollars.

The whole process is heavily weighted in favor of wealthier residents. My husband and I both took off time from work—which we later made up in various forms of working late or on weekends—to attend the open houses. We are grateful that our jobs allowed us the flexibility to do so. Only some schools offered visits after working hours. For anyone who works a job on a shift or with little flexibility, visiting these schools would not have been an option. The schools need to do a better job of finding other ways to open their doors to potential parents.

An organization called DC School Reform Now has been making videos, or "virtual school tours," to address this problem. There aren't a lot of videos yet, though, and it's not going to close the gap entirely.

DC doesn't really offer "school choice" today. Yes, we did make choices about which schools to put on our list. Yes, with the charters and publics taken together, the city offers a variety of different models and philosophies. (We really liked the Montessori schools, for example, but they aren't for everyone.) And yes, there are some truly excellent schools in the District.

But ultimately, with so many people competing for few spots, our ability to get into those schools is mostly due to chance, not choice. Rather than being a process of choosing what's right for one's child, the current lottery is mostly about hoping that child can get into any good school at all.

An expanded version of this article originally appeared on Medium.

Ask GGW: Urbanist children's music?

Greater Greater Washington readers came up with a great list of children's books which have urbanist themes or describe experiences of kids growing up in the city, like riding the subway or walking outside an apartment neighborhood on a snowy day. What about for music?


Bubble Ride cover from Vanessa Trien.

Sophie has really been enjoying Bubble Ride, a CD by Boston area children's singer Vanessa Trien. Besides some (great) songs about the popular topic, farm or zoo animals, there are several songs about living in the city.

"Train Dance" is about some people on the T who can't help but dance to the rhythm of the train rumbling. And "Spinning Around" relates the experience of a child who lives in a second-floor apartment in the city and goes on a "walk to the bank or to the grocery store" in the stroller.

Do you know of other children's albums that kids in walkable urban places can relate to?

Here's a school-by-school look at DC's high school graduation rates

Graduation rates vary a lot among DC's high schools. A series of graphics from the DC government shows just how different they can be.


Photo of graduation cap from Shutterstock.

DC Public Schools had an overall four-year graduation rate of about 58% last year, up by only two percentage points from 2013. And the overall rate for the charter sector fell almost seven points, to 69%.

To calculate the rate, statisticians divide the number of high school graduates in a class by the number of students who entered as 9th-graders four years earlier, with adjustments for students who transfer. Having a four-year rate helps standardize the high school graduation data, but it's not clear we should expect all students to graduate in four years.


Image from DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

Selective DCPS schools push up the average for the sector

The graphic above, which came from DC's Office of Revenue Analysis, shows that five DCPS schools that are selective in their admissions pulled up the average significantly for the traditional public school sector. All had graduation rates over 90%.

The next two highest rates within DCPS are for Columbia Heights Education Campus, which also requires an application for admission, and Wilson High School, which has the highest number of affluent and white students of any neighborhood DCPS high school.

The other DCPS neighborhood high schools are clustered towards the bottom of the spectrum, with rates ranging from 39% at Anacostia to 62% at Roosevelt. (Washington Metropolitan and Luke C. Moore are both alternative schools, while Eastern will graduate its first senior class this year.)

The graphic also allows you to see graduation rates for different subgroups of students at a school, and doing that can change a school's ranking. If you select for special education students, for example, you find that the top-ranked school is a charter, Friendship Collegiate. You can access the full range of graphics here.


Image from DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

Most of the DCPS selective schools aren't listed in this version of the graphic, because they had fewer than 10 students scheduled to graduate in the special education category.

Other filters reveal discrepancies in the graduation rates for subgroups within schools. At Wilson, for example, the graduation rate for white students is third in the District, at 90%. But for black students, Wilson is in 14th place, with a rate of 76%.

The graphic also shows that only three schools in DC had more than 10 white students graduating last year, all of them DCPS schools: Wilson and two selective schools, School Without Walls and Duke Ellington. Wilson is the only school that graduated 10 or more Asian students.

Changes in rates over time

Another set of graphics shows how four-year graduation rates have changed at each school over the last four years for various subgroups. Wilson's data, for example, shows gains for black students but decreases for special education and a mixed record for Hispanic students.


Image from DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

A longitudinal view can also reveal ups and downs in a school's overall rate. DCPS has highlighted the 16-point jump in the graduation rate for H.D. Woodson from 2013 to 2014. But the rate in 2011 was only three points lower than the rate for 2014.


Image from DC Office of Revenue Analysis.

While the charter sector's graduation rate is still well above DCPS's, a seven-point drop seems significant. The executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board told WAMU that the board is looking into reasons for the decline, but he noted that the schools with the lowest rates closed last year or will close at the end of this year.

On the other hand, two of the charter sector's highest-performing schools had double-digit declines. The graduation rate dropped from 96% to 85% at Washington Latin, and from 95% to 85% at KIPP DC College Prep.

Smaller cohorts and greater rigor in charters may explain lower rates

Martha Cutts, the head of Washington Latin, doesn't see the decline as cause for concern. Some classes are simply not as strong academically as others, she said, and when you have a small cohort a few kids can make a big difference.

In Washington Latin's case, the original 9th-grade cohort was 54 students, and 46 of them graduated in four years. In an email, a spokesperson for KIPP DC made a similar point, noting that there were only 69 seniors in the class of 2014. (Disclosure: I have contributed financially to KIPP DC.)

Both schools also noted that a number of students who didn't graduate in four years are on track to graduate next year. Cutts said that she expects three students to do so, and KIPP DC anticipates that the five-year graduation rate for its 2014 cohort will be close to 90%.

For the charter sector as a whole, the five-year graduation rate is 80%, an increase of 11 points over its four-year rate. While the DCPS five-year rate is also higher than its four-year rate, the difference isn't as large: 63%, an increase of only five points.

For the last several years, education officials have focused on reporting how many students make it through high school in four years, partly due to a federal effort to standardize the way different states report graduation data.

It's certainly important to compare apples to apples. And it's important that students stay on track to graduate. On the other hand, high school is not a race. What students learn is at least as important as whether they finish "on time." And without any high school exit exam in DC, it's hard to know whether a graduate of one high school really has the same qualifications as someone who has graduated from another.

According to KIPP DC, one reason for the dip in its four-year graduation rate is that the school has increased the rigor of its program after "receiving feedback" from their alumni. "Ultimately we want our students to be well prepared to tackle the challenging coursework that awaits them in college," a spokesperson said.

Of course, not all DC high school graduates are headed to college, and perhaps not all of them should be. But a high school diploma should at least certify that a student has mastered high-school-level material, even if it's taken him longer than four years to do that.

Correction: Based on information from the DC Office of Revenue Analysis, the original version of this post said that the subgroup data didn't include schools with fewer than 25 students in a given category who were scheduled to graduate. Later that office contacted us to say the correct figure was not 25, but 10. We have changed the graphs and text to reflect that information.

An entire student neighborhood bites the dust in College Park

New investment is pouring into College Park, seeking to turn this town known for undergrads and traffic into an urban hub for all ages. As part of that transformation, the famous Knox Boxes student neighborhood is transforming from the ground up.


College Park's Knox Boxes are just a memory. All photos by the author unless noted.

For decades, the Knox Boxes epitomized the University of Maryland's image as a party school. The cluster of 25 low-rise 1950s-era brick apartment buildings was just south of the campus, behind the seedy bars and pizza joints on Route 1.


The same intersection (Guilford Drive and Hartwick Road) in 2006.

For many undergrads, a Knox Box apartment was their first taste of living on their own, and the small backyards and proximity to other neighbors made for comfortable college living.

But they were also cheaply built and poorly maintained. During my freshman year at Maryland, two students died in separate Knox Box fires.

As Maryland became known more for academics than basketball riots, the university and the City of College Park started looking at ways to redevelop the Knox Boxes.

Getting multiple landlords to sell was difficult, but by 2013, a single owner had purchased most of the Knox Boxes. That year, the city approved a plan from developer Toll Brothers, usually known for suburban McMansions, to replace the Knox Boxes with Knox Village, a luxury student apartment complex for over 1,500 students.


The future Knox Village (as seen from Guilford and Hartwick). Image from WDG Architecture.

Like most of the new student housing going up in College Park, Knox Village's apartments and townhomes will have gourmet kitchens and amenities like a pool, gym, and covered parking garage. The complex will have a series of courtyards with a grand staircase (which Toll Brothers compares to the Spanish Steps in Rome...), and two spaces for shops and restaurants.

Mayor Andy Fellows called the vote a "landmark occasion." Construction began last summer, though a few of the Knox Boxes whose owners didn't sell remain.

Change in College Park goes well beyond the Knox Boxes

Knox Village is just one piece of a bigger plan to recast College Park as more of a college town, hoping to attract post-graduates or even families. The university and the city recently opened a charter school to keep more faculty in the area. In a reversal from 10 years ago, when the administration opposed the Purple Line running through campus, president Wallace Loh has been a strong supporter.

More high-end student apartments are going up on Route 1, and last week Target announced plans to open one of the nation's first Target Express stores inside one of them. The university itself has been buying up properties in downtown College Park, and they're partnering with developer U3 Advisors to buy a former bar and turn it into a branch of Milkboy, a Philadelphia music and art venue. Even Ratsie's Pizza, a longtime favorite of the drunk and hungry, will become a Nando's Peri-Peri.


Even as new development comes to College Park, bits of the old remain.

Not even six years since I graduated from Maryland, much of College Park is unrecognizable. Having lived on Knox Road as an upperclassman, I admit I'm a little nostalgic about losing the Knox Boxes. It's also worrisome that so much of the new student housing is very expensive and might make the already high cost of attending college even higher. On the other hand, thousands of new student apartments are coming in, and as the supply increases, rents are likely to fall.

When I lived there, College Park could be frustrating if you weren't into the party scene. There wasn't even a grocery store within walking distance of campus. It's exciting to see College Park develop into more of a college town. That's not only great for students and faculty, but also for neighbors who aren't even affiliated with the university.

Check out these photos of the Knox Boxes in 2006 and today.

Anxiety abounds as DC schools roll out new, harder tests

DC's public school students, like those around the country, are taking new, more rigorous standardized tests this month. And teachers are anxious about whether students are prepared to do the kind of reading and writing the tests require.


Photo of student at computer from Shutterstock.

Students in both DC Public Schools and charter schools are taking new tests designed to align with the Common Core State Standards. Questions on the old tests were almost all multiple choice, and they related to one reading passage at a time. But the new tests ask students to provide written responses comparing two or three challenging texts and citing specific evidence for their answers.

In addition, for the first time, almost all DC students are taking the tests on computers or tablets rather than in paper-and-pencil form. That means children as young as third grade will need to demonstrate keyboarding and other computer-oriented skills.

Students in grades three through eight and some high school students are taking the DC tests, which come from a multi-state consortium called PARCC.

The tests have drawn criticism around the country. Parents in some states are refusing to allow their children to take the tests, saying they're too hard and badly designed.

There's no sign that DC parents are engaging in an organized opt-out movement, and teachers and administrators I've spoken to say they believe the rigorous tests are part of a worthy effort to revamp education.

"PARCC is the best accountability test I've ever seen," says Phyllis Hedlund, chief academic officer at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. "This is the way we should be asking kids to think." The old tests set such a low bar, she says, that they were really "a waste of time."

Still, at a recent meeting to prepare for the tests, many DC teachers voiced anxiety about whether, at this point, we might be asking too much.

Worries about computer skills and writing ability

The meeting was part of an effort spearheaded by E.L. Haynes to help teachers in both DCPS and the charter sector adjust to a new era in education. Some of the teachers had been meeting since 2011 to learn how to meet the demands of the Common Core, but recent sessions have focused on the practicalities of the PARCC tests. While the tests include both math and reading sections, the meeting I attended focused on reading.

Many of the concerns raised by teachers had to do with the mechanics of a computer-based test. Most schools have many fewer computers than students. So, rather than having the entire school take the test at the same time, schools will have classes take turns on the computers. That means the entire testing window can run as long as four weeks.

And once students get onto the computers, they'll need to know how to type and use a cursor. They'll also need to scroll down, highlight or drag-and-drop text, navigate between tabs, and be able to compose an essay without writing it out first in longhand.

Even some teachers at relatively affluent elementary schools, where children are most likely to have computers at home, say their students don't have these skills. Schools are trying to teach them, but it's not clear kids will have learned them by the time they take the tests.

More fundamentally, teachers don't know whether students—especially low-income students and those still learning English—will understand the complex reading passages on the test. Even if they do, they may not be able to comply with directions to write essays analyzing the material rather than just summarizing it, and to cite specific evidence in support of their answers.

"They don't understand what it takes to put something in writing so that someone else understands it," one teacher said.

And even if students can do those things, they may not have the time to demonstrate it. Under the old tests, students had unlimited time to answer the questions, at least theoretically. The new tests are not only harder, they impose a time limit.

Teachers at last week's meeting traded ideas on how to make it easier for students to do well on the reading tests. Have them first focus on the question they have to answer, one teacher said, so they'll know what to look for. Tell them they don't need to read the different passages in the order they're presented, said another, because later ones may be easier to understand.

For students to do well, schools need to make fundamental changes

But if schools want kids to do well on these tests in the long term, they'll need to change both what and how they teach.

Many elementary schools focus on reading comprehension skills at the expense of subjects like social studies and science. But comprehension depends on a reader's background knowledge and vocabulary. Affluent students often acquire that knowledge and vocabulary at home, but many low-income students don't. And if they don't acquire it at school beginning at an early age, they'll fall further and further behind their middle-class counterparts.

Schools also need to change the way they teach writing. To the extent that students have gotten formal writing instruction, it's mostly been focused on writing about themselves, or perhaps on how a story relates to their own experience.

But the Common Core and the PARCC tests ask students for detailed written analyses of texts. One DCPS elementary school teacher at the meeting told me her school has no program that teaches students to engage in that kind of writing.

And many of the readings on the tests relate to scientific or historical subjects. As another teacher at the meeting complained, English teachers may not feel equipped to help students write about those topics. That's a good point, but the answer is to have history and science teachers also incorporate writing instruction into their classes.

Some schools have already begun focusing more on content rather than comprehension skills and on teaching analytical writing across the curriculum. But even there, change will take time.

Jessica Matthews-Meth, an instructional coach at a low-income DCPS school where many students are still learning English, says the writing program her school has been piloting for the last two years has helped students with the kind of writing PARCC calls for. But many students are still struggling to write good sentences, let alone well constructed multi-paragraph essays. (Disclosure: I have contributed to the pilot program and serve on the board of the nonprofit organization that promotes the writing method it uses.)

One comment I heard frequently from teachers at last week's meeting is that, even with all this preparation, no one really knows what to expect from PARCC. But one thing we can safely expect is a decline in scores.

That won't mean schools—or teachers or students—have gotten worse. It might mean that some of the questions on the tests aren't well designed. But it will almost certainly mean that long-standing deficiencies in the way schools have been teaching are finally coming to light.

DCPS schools are more likely than charters to have high concentrations of at-risk kids

Students who are homeless, in foster care, or otherwise "at risk" are more likely to be in the DC Public School system than in charter schools are concentrated in a few DC Public Schools but are more spread-out in the charter sector. And the more at-risk kids a school has, the lower its standardized test scores.


Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

The sloping green line on this graphic shows that when a school has a lot of at-risk students, it generally has low test scores. That's no surprise.

But the graphic also shows something that's been hard to get at through existing data: DC's traditional public schools A subset of DC's traditional public schools are serving a disproportionate number of students who are likely to be the hardest to educate.

In addition to students who are homeless or in foster care, the at-risk category includes those receiving welfare or food stamps, and those who have been held back a year or more in high school. A DC law that went into effect this school year set up the at-risk category and appropriated additional funds for those students.

Data show which schools have the most at-risk students

Guy Brandenburg, a blogger and former DCPS math teacher, used the data generated by the legislation to create the graphic above and the ones below. To his surprise, he found that only three DC charter schools have 70% or more of their students in the at-risk category. Within DCPS, on the other hand, there are 31 such schools. (Originally, I did not realize that the figures Brandenburg used were estimates the schools submitted last year. As the note at the bottom of this post explains, actual enrollment figures show that ten charter schools and 38 DCPS schools have 70% or more at-risk students this year.)

Two of the three charter schools with over 70% at-risk students—Maya Angelou and Optionsare specifically targeted to kids in that category. The third school is Friendship Blow Pierce.

The usual yardstick for the degree of poverty in schools is the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But students in that federal program can have a family income of up to 185% of the poverty level. The at-risk measure identifies the subgroup of students who are likely to be living in the deepest poverty.

Leaders of DC's charter sector often point out that charter schools educate a higher percentage of low-income students than DCPS. But they're talking about students who are eligible for free and reduced meals, not those in the at-risk category.

Graphics showing school size and names

The graphic below shows the same data as the one above, but the size of the dots corresponds to the size of the school.


Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

A third graphic provides the names of some of the schools.


Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

Brandenburg has also posted a table with all the data that he used to create the graphics.

Based on the data, Brandenburg predicts that DC is moving to a tripartite education system. He sees wealthier students attending DCPS schools in Ward 3 or a handful of charters that appeal to more affluent families. Those "in the middle of the wealth/family-cohesion spectrum," many of them black or Hispanic, are largely in charters. And those "at the seriously low end of the economic spectrum," most of them black, are in highly segregated DCPS schools.

Correction and clarification: The graphics above are based on estimates of at-risk students that schools submitted to DC education officials last year. According to the Public Charter School Board, the actual enrollment figures for this school year show that at least ten charter schools and 38 DCPS schools have 70% or more at-risk students.

In addition, the PCSB has compiled data showing that the overall proportions of at-risk students in the DCPS and charter sectors are about the same (49.3 in the charter sector and 50.6% in DCPS). However, at-risk students are more concentrated in a subset of DCPS schools, while they are generally spread more evenly through the charter sector.

DCPS wants to focus on boys of color, but some say that's unfair and illegal

DC Public Schools is launching a new initiative that will focus on males of color, but some critics say the plan is unfair to black and Latino girls, and possibly illegal.

As part of its Empowering Males of Color initiative, DCPS plans to recruit 500 volunteer tutors for black and Latino males. It will also award grants to schools that devise their own programs to help those students. And, in its flashiest move, in the fall of 2016 it will open a new boys-only high school east of the Anacostia River.

After DCPS unveiled its plans with great fanfare a few weeks ago, Councilmember Mary Cheh sent a letter to DC Attorney General Karl Racine, asking for an opinion on whether the planned $20 million initiative would violate DC or federal anti-discrimination laws. And this week the ACLU of the National Capital Area wrote to Mayor Muriel Bowser raising the same question.

Three other councilmembers are defending EMOC, citing statistics showing that black and Latino boys lag behind white students on many academic measures. Bowser and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson have chimed in to defend the initiative as well.

Cheh doesn't dispute that boys of color have it worse than white students. But she and the ACLU-NCA say that black and Latino girls face problems just as serious as their male counterparts.

The DCPS initiative is part of a broader movement focusing on black and Latino males. Last year, President Obama announced a program called My Brother's Keeper designed to improve the lives of minority boys. Sixty urban school districts have joined the effort.

Critics say girls of color have it just as bad

But, like Cheh and the ACLU, some observers have questioned why the initiative targets only males. They argue that minority girls also live in poverty, come from single-parent homes, drop out of school in large numbers, and get arrested. Not only that, they say, girls of color face high rates of sexual assault and are at risk for teen pregnancy.

And a recent study suggests that school discipline affects black girls more disproportionately than their male counterparts. Across the country, black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls, according to the study. Black boys are only three times more likely to be suspended than white boys.

Still, it's clear that in some ways black and Latino males fare worse than their female counterparts. Within DCPS, test scores and attendance rates are lower, particularly for black boys. More broadly, incarceration rates are higher for black and Latino men, and fewer of them enroll in college.

Perhaps, as a matter of policy, those statistics do warrant a special focus on males of color. But do they justify a boys-only high school?

"Studies show that separating boys and girls does not improve academic performance," wrote the ACLU-NCA's executive director, Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, in the letter to Bowser. "It simply increases gender stereotyping."

Single-sex schools raise special legal issues

Still, some maintain that single-sex environments actually help break down gender stereotypes, and you could argue that DC should be able to experiment even in the absence of hard data. But there may be legal obstacles to doing that.

In defending the initiative, Councilmember David Grosso argued that lots of government programs target funds to populations with particular needs, such as low-income students and those with learning disabilities. "The EMOC initiative, in my opinion, is no different," he said.

But in the eyes of the law, the EMOC initiative actually is different. That's because the Constitution, and the federal law referred to as Title IX, impose special restrictions on the government when it discriminates on the basis of gender.

Federal regulations interpreting Title IX say that school districts offering single-sex schools have to provide a substantially equal school to the excluded gender. That doesn't mean DCPS would have to set up an all-girls school, but it's not clear that it could even offer a coed equivalent to the urban prep school it's planning.

And the Title IX regulations aren't the last word. There's also the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has relied on that provision to require an all-female nursing school to admit men and an all-male military school to admit women. But it hasn't ruled on the question in 20 years, and it's far from clear how it would come out on a school like the one DC is planning.

In fact, these days there are many single-sex public schools—particularly charter schools—operating across the country. DC has an all-girls charter school, and until recently it had one that was all-boys.

But, says the ACLU's Hopkins-Maxwell, the fact that single-sex public schools exist doesn't mean they're legal. It just means no one has challenged them yet. The ACLU has challenged a number of single-sex programs around the country, but it doesn't have the resources to challenge them all.

Single-sex classes could be a problem too

In addition to single-sex schools, the ACLU has focused nationally on single-sex classes within coed public schools, which are actually regulated more closely than single-sex schools.

Under Title IX, a school must provide a rationale for the single-sex class, ensure that enrollment is voluntary, offer a coed class in the same subject, and avoid gender stereotyping. Every two years, the school must conduct a review to ensure that the rationale is still valid.

There are a number of public schools with single-sex classes in the DC area. While they don't necessarily reinforce stereotypes, I happened to visit one DCPS elementary school that had such classes, and I noticed that schedules for boys appeared in blue and those for girls in pink.

A spokesperson for DCPS failed to respond to questions about how many other single-sex classes the system offers and whether the district is complying with the federal regulations that govern them.

The EMOC initiative has attracted a lot of attention, and whatever its merits it makes sense to get an opinion on its legality before investing millions of dollars in it. But perhaps someone should look into whether DCPS is already in danger of violating Title IX because of its single-sex classes.

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