Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 

Volunteer tutors aren't the answer to DC's reading crisis

Some observers are pinning their hopes on volunteer tutors as a low-cost way of narrowing the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. But there are limits to what volunteer tutors can do.

Photo of child reading from Shutterstock.

A leading nonprofit tutoring organization deploys minimally trained volunteers to teach reading comprehension as a set of skills. The problem is that to understand what they're reading, kids need background knowledge, not just skills.

A study released last month concluded that Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers to work one-on-one with struggling readers, boosts students' abilities. The program is active in eight states and the District, where it provides tutoring in 16 schools. Fewer than half of DC students score proficient in reading on standardized tests.

Reading Partners, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade, will probably soon be expanding its efforts in DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that as part of an initiative targeting male students of color, the District will recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with Reading Partners and several other tutoring nonprofits in DC Public Schools.

Reading Partners is a well-run organization staffed by dedicated individuals. But after spending a year as a Reading Partners tutor and educating myself about reading comprehension, I've concluded that its approach in that area is fundamentally mistaken. The approach assumes that reading comprehension is a skill like hitting a baseball, which you can learn by practicing certain strategies repeatedly. If you practice keeping your eye on the ball over and over, for example, you'll get better at hitting it.

Reading Partners tutors, who receive minimal training, work with students on comprehension skills like "finding the main idea" and "making inferences." At the beginning of each 45-minute session, the tutor picks up a packet containing two or three books at the child's reading level and a worksheet that focuses on the skill of the day.

The child chooses one of the books to read, and the tutor guides the child in practicing the skill. Children come to the reading center twice a week, and often miss regular class time in order to do so.

Because Reading Partners only works with students reading below grade level, a fourth-grader might be reading books on a second-grade level. Some of the books are fiction and some non-fiction, but the focus is on learning skills rather than on the books' content.

The books cover a random variety of subjects, and there's no effort to coordinate them with what children are learning in class. The theory is that once a child gets good at "finding the main idea," she'll be able to find the main idea in whatever text is put in front of her.

Reading comprehension isn't a skill

The problem is that reading comprehension is, in fact, not a skill like hitting a baseball. It's very dependent on how much you already know about the subject you're reading about. To see what it's like to read about something you're unfamiliar with, try parsing this summary of a technical scientific article.

Generally speaking, low-income children start out in school with a lot less background knowledge and vocabulary than more affluent children. That makes it harder for them to understand what they're reading.

So if we want to close the achievement gap, we need to spend time giving low-income kids as much knowledge as we possibly can. Giving them comprehension strategies rather than knowledge in elementary school means that by the time they get to high school, they'll be hopelessly behind.

Why, then, did a study conclude that Reading Partners was able to raise student achievement? It did give students a bump, but the effect was not all that dramatic. As compared to a control group that was getting other kinds of reading help, the Reading Partners group made about one-and-a-half to two months more progress. They also spent about the equivalent of an extra month working on reading, so the additional bump is even smaller than it appears.

And studies have shown that teaching kids reading strategies can boost comprehension, but only up to a point. Kids who get 50 sessions receive no more benefit than kids who get six.

Beyond that, we need to look at how the researchers measured progress. They used an assessment that, like all standardized tests, treats reading comprehension as a skill. Let's say a fourth-grader reading at a second-grade level manages to find the main idea in a third-grade-level text. That counts as progress. But when that student gets to ninth grade and is expected to, say, read a text about the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, will he be able to find the main idea? Only if he acquires a lot of background knowledge in the interim.

Having tutored both elementary and high school students in high-poverty schools, I'm skeptical that he will. I have learned never to assume background knowledge on the part of students. When I've asked the fourth- or fifth-graders I've tutored through Reading Partners to find DC on a map of the United States, they've had no idea where to begin. And the high school students I tutored in the past had huge gaps in their knowledge. Among other things, they had barely heard of the Supreme Court and didn't know the meaning of words like "admirable."

Part of the problem is that many elementary schools focus on skills rather than knowledge. While DCPS elementary schools theoretically focus on knowledge, they apparently aren't using methods that ensure kids will absorb it. And that continues to be a problem in later grades.

Kids want and need knowledge, not just skills

Aside from the fact that a skills-based approach doesn't give students what they need, it's also boring. One student I tutored, who I'll call Keisha, was so resistant to coming to Reading Partners that she would sometimes enter a state of near catatonia, not answering questions or making eye contact. Eventually, she just refused to come.

While levels of enthusiasm vary, I personally know of several kids who were clearly unhappy to be at Reading Partners. And tutoring is unlikely to work if a student isn't motivated.

Meanwhile, kids are hungry for actual knowledge. One boy I tutored wanted to know if you could get poisoned by eating a poisonous snake. Another asked his tutor if a hyena was more like a cat or a dog. These are good questions, and tutors can do their best to answer them. But giving kids that kind of information isn't the purpose of the program.

In any event, kids don't absorb and retain knowledge from hearing random facts once or twice. They need to spend several weeks on a topic, not only reading about it but also listening to their teacher talk about it in a way that may be beyond their reading level but within their ability to comprehend. They should also be writing about it.

Volunteer tutors might be useful in some areas. Math is one possibility. Tutors may also be able to help very young children learn the basic skill of reading, or decoding, as opposed to reading comprehension. Reading Partners also uses volunteers to do that kind of tutoring, and next week I plan to start working with a student who needs that sort of help.

I suspect it would also be effective to use volunteer tutors to meet with kids after school and help them understand what they're supposed to be learning in class—assuming the kids are learning actual content and not just comprehension strategies. That's the kind of tutoring wealthier kids often get. But it's hard to see how you could get minimally trained volunteers to engage in that kind of tutoring on a large enough scale to make a dent in the problem.

Any tutoring program that relies on volunteers would do best to focus on giving young children the basic skills necessary to decode text. And schools and school districts, like DCPS, should ensure that classroom teachers are supplying kids with the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand it.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

DC is giving low-income babies and toddlers the kind of childcare they need

The District has led the nation in making public preschool available to all children from the age of three. Now it's beginning to focus on improving child care for low-income children during the crucial years before three.

Photo of baby from Shutterstock.

Last month, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced an initiative that promises to boost the quality of child care for some of the District's youngest, and poorest, children. Currently, about 750 babies and toddlers in DC benefit from the high standards set by the federal Early Head Start program. Soon another 400 will join them.

The expansion will be fueled by about $2.7 million in government funding this year. DC is providing $1.8 million of the money, with another $900,000 coming from the federal government. The federal award will continue for five years, although it's possible the annual allocation will change.

Congress created the Early Head Start program in 1994, prompted by research showing that much of a child's brain development occurs before age three, when regular Head Start programs begin.

Research has also shown that poverty has significant effects on the cognitive capabilities of infants and toddlers. One frequently cited study found that by the time low-income children reach age three, they've heard 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers. Recently, another study found that Latino children, especially those in immigrant families, start out with the same language and cognitive abilities as their white counterparts but lag significantly behind by age two.

The stress of living in poverty may even have an effect on the size of children's brains. Researchers have found that even one-month-old infants from poor families have smaller brains than wealthier babies.

These effects seem to be preventable and reversible, especially if young children engage in a lot of verbal interaction with adults. Some programs have attacked the early literacy gap through home visits designed to get low-income parents to speak to their young children more, and more encouragingly, or to read books to them.

Children and families benefit from Early Head Start

But another approach is to make sure infants and toddlers get verbal stimulation and emotional support at high-quality day care centers, where they may spend as much as ten hours a day. One study found that children who participated in Early Head Start performed better on measures of cognitive and socio-emotional development than a randomly selected control group.

Because Early Head Start also educates and engages parents, it can have an effect at home as well. The same study found that parents with children in the program did better on measures of parenting skills and were more likely to be employed.

But the program's reach has been limited. In 2010, Early Head Start served fewer than 4% of the children who were eligible nationwide. The situation has been somewhat better in DC. A spokesperson for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) estimated that Early Head Start here is now serving about 750 of the 5,600 who are eligible, or 13%. With the addition of 400 new slots, that will rise to 21%.

DC's grant is part of a $500 million Early Head Start expansion that Congress approved last year. Rather than expanding the programs of the large childcare providers currently certified as Early Head Start providers, DC chose to use the funds to create the Early Learning Quality Improvement Network (QIN). OSSE chose three large centers to serve as "hubs" for networks of smaller child-care providers.

The hubs will train and coach teachers at the smaller organizations, which include 14 childcare centers, located in all wards but Ward 3, and 12 home-based centers in Wards 1 and 4. And the smaller centers will use the hubs to offer families services like health care and help with literacy and nutrition. DC government agencies offering those services will partner with the hubs to provide them.

Help for small childcare centers

In the past, it's been difficult for smaller childcare providers to qualify for Early Head Start because they often lack the wherewithal to engage in the rigorous application process, according to HyeSook Chung, executive director of DC Action for Children. But the hub structure should enable them to offer their enrollees the high quality of care and comprehensive services that the larger centers in the program have been able to provide.

One of the centers in the QIN is Jubilee Jumpstart, which serves children from birth to age five. Located in an affordable housing site in Adams Morgan, it serves a total of 50 children, including 34 under the age of three.

Dee Dee Wright, the organization's executive director, says a coach from its assigned hub, United Planning Organization, has already begun visiting classrooms and helping staff improve their interaction with children.

Southeast Children's Fund, which operates two child care centers in Ward 8, is also participating in the initiative. Robert Gundling, deputy operating officer, said the centers serve a total of 106 children between six weeks and three years old.

While both Wright and Gundling said they're looking forward to having family service workers assigned to their families and to the coaching their teachers will receive, their centers may not need as much help as some others. Both already use well-regarded early childhood curricula that help foster social and language development. But if a center isn't already using a good curriculum, the QIN will provide one.

Clearly, the QIN will still leave out many low-income babies and toddlers. But at this point DC has chosen to focus on improving quality rather than simply expanding the number of daycare slots available. That makes sense, given what we now know about the importance of a child's experiences before age three.

Ultimately, though, we'll need to focus on scale as well as quality. Because high-quality childcare requires a high ratio of staff to children, that will take money. And of course, even excellent care doesn't guarantee that a baby or toddler will stay on a pathway to middle class, which Bowser has identified as the goal. Excellent schools and continuing social services are necessary as well.

But the QIN is at least a promising baby step in the direction of narrowing the achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

DC's attorney general has okayed DCPS's plan to help males of color. But that may not be the end of the story.

DC's attorney general has decided that a District initiative to help boys and young men "of color" doesn't violate laws against sex discrimination. But there are large holes in his argument.

Photo of girl of color from Shutterstock.

In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson unveiled a $20 million initiative called Empowering Males of Color (EMOC). The plan calls for establishing an all-boys college prep high school, recruiting 500 volunteer tutors, and awarding individual schools grants for proposals focused on helping black and Latino male students.

But some weeks later, DC Councilmember Mary Cheh asked DC's attorney general to issue an opinion on the legality of the plan. She said EMOC raised serious questions under the US Constitution and federal and local anti-discrimination statutes, because it seemed to offer educational benefits to boys that wouldn't be available to girls.

Last week, Attorney General Karl Racine said he believes the plan is legal. The Washington Post editorial board and others have applauded that conclusion, and even Cheh seemed to indicate she was content with the result. But that may not be the end of the story.

In an interview, Cheh, who teaches constitutional law at George Washington University Law School, pointed to some major flaws in Racine's analysis. Given my own legal training, I can see some others myself. That doesn't mean Cheh and I are opposed to helping black and Hispanic boys.

In my case, that concern isn't just abstract. As a volunteer tutor in high-poverty DCPS schools, I've gotten to know and become fond of a couple of African-American boys, and my heart aches when I think about what the statistics predict about their future.

But there are girls of color in DC who face risks that are just as severe. There may not be as many of them, it's true. But my conscience—and, perhaps, the law—say that we can't exclude any individual girl from an effort to help the neediest kids.

Under the Constitution, the government can't just say it wants to help boys as opposed to girls. It has to have a really good reason, and it has to show that what it's doing to help boys actually attacks the problem it's trying to solve.

Let's examine Racine's arguments one by one:

Racine says there's an important reason for the discrimination

When deciding whether gender discrimination violates the Constitution's Equal Protection clause, the Supreme Court requires "an exceedingly persuasive justification." Here, Racine cites statistics showing that black and Hispanic males are generally at the bottom of the heap on measures like test scores and graduation rates.

By contrast, black and Hispanic girls are doing better. They're overrepresented at DCPS's selective academic high schools, like Banneker and School Without Walls. And while their overall test scores and graduation rates aren't great, they're not as bad as those of their male counterparts.

(Racine didn't address discrimination against white males because DC has apparently redefined "color" to include white, at least for one aspect of the EMOC initiative. In a letter to Racine, Henderson said the high school will admit male students "regardless of race.")

But, as Cheh points out, Racine isn't comparing the right groups. He's comparing all boys of color to all girls of color. But DC's argument is that it's trying to help at-risk kids, and targeting boys is a good way of doing that because they're more at-risk than their female counterparts. But in that case, Racine should be comparing at-risk boys to at-risk girls. If he did that, Cheh says, "all the differences would fall away."

In that case, there would be no justification for identifying the problem as the low achievement of males of color. DC would need to frame the problem as raising the achievement of all at-risk students, regardless of gender.

Racine says EMOC is "substantially related" to the objective of closing the achievement gap between males of color and other groups

To justify gender discrimination, you also have to prove that the method you're using is likely to help solve the important problem you're attacking. In this case, DC has to show that excluding girls from EMOC is somehow related to raising the achievement of boys.

On the high school, Racine points to the track record of the outside operator DCPS is bringing in to run the school, Urban Prep Academy. Urban Prep operates three all-male charter high schools in Chicago, and it's had a 100% college acceptance rate for its graduates over the past five years. He says it's "reasonable to conclude that Urban Prep's success" is at least partly due to its single-gender model.

Leaving aside questions about whether Urban Prep really has been all that successful, Racine doesn't point to any evidence that its success is due to its exclusion of girls. He just says it's "reasonable" to think that. He doesn't cite any research on the benefits of single-sex education, perhaps because it's been inconclusive.

Even Robert Simmons, the DCPS official in charge of the EMOC initiative, isn't making any claims for the benefits of single-sex education. "The jury's still out," he told the Atlantic. "But the jury currently says it doesn't do any harm."

Racine says the other two prongs of the initiative—tutoring and the grants to schools—"present a closer question," because they could be expanded to include girls "without sacrificing their character or effectiveness." But, he continues, they're "substantially related" to DC's goal because "the problem is severe enough to warrant deploying scarce resources to target with laser-like focus the District's least successful cohort."

But saying the problem is really severe doesn't prove anything about whether DC's policy of excluding girls from the effort will be necessary or even helpful in solving it. Of course, if you see the problem as just raising the achievement of boys of color, it will be, because you're targeting resources to boys. But as I pointed out earlier, it may not be constitutional to frame the problem that way.

Racine says there are "substantially equal" alternatives for girls

Under Title IX and the regulations the Department of Education has crafted to implement it, public schools can be single-sex as long as the excluded gender has an educational option that's pretty much the same, whether coed or single-sex. So DC doesn't have to establish a parallel girls' school, but it has to show there's something open to girls that provides a similar experience to Urban Prep.

Racine says DC meets the "substantially equal requirement" for two reasons. First, he says, DCPS has other application-only, college prep high schools that are open to both girls and boys. Second, he says that all DCPS high schools offer things like AP classes, tutoring, and extended day options.

DCPS hasn't provided specifics about how Urban Prep will choose students, but it's safe to say the criteria won't be the same as those at the highly selective School Without Walls or Banneker high schools. To get in there, students need top grades and test scores. At the event announcing EMOC, Henderson said Urban Prep has achieved its results not with students who were already high-achieving, but with "the knuckleheads."

Will female knuckleheads have a school like Urban Prep open to them? I don't think so. And clearly, Henderson and Bowser don't think AP classes and tutoring in a low-performing neighborhood school provide a "substantially equal" experience to Urban Prep. If they did, they wouldn't go to the trouble and expense of creating a new school.

Racine also points to the New Heights Program for Expectant and Parenting Students, which operates at six DCPS high schools, as an alternative option for girls. But that program isn't restricted to girls by its terms, although 80% of the students enrolled are female. It's also much smaller in scale than Urban Prep, costing $1.3 million a year. And its prime focus is helping students both raise a child and get through high school, not ensuring they get to college.

Throughout the letter, Racine refers to EMOC as a "pilot," and suggests that it's okay for DC to try attacking the problem of the achievement gap one step at a time. But most pilot programs don't involve building a new building and cost $20 million. And courts don't buy the one-step-at-a-time argument when the government is making distinctions on the basis of constitutionally sensitive characteristics like race or gender.

One part of EMOC Racine didn't address, because Bowser announced it after Cheh requested the opinion, is an internship program for 100 young men. Each intern will not only get a year-long paid job, he'll also be paired with a mentor who will "provide guidance on career, school, and life choices."

Perhaps there's a convincing argument to be made for EMOC, but Racine hasn't made it. And I'm not sure I'd want to try making even a more convincing argument to a "knucklehead" female of color who wants a chance to go to Urban Prep.

The ACLU of the National Capital Area, which also raised questions about EMOC, is still considering its response to Racine's opinion. The ACLU has challenged single-sex education in other parts of the country, and all it might need to sue DC is a girl who wants to go to Urban Prep. Or, perhaps, a white male or female who wants a tutor or a paid internship.

Racine said in his opinion that his office is "fully prepared to defend the initiative" if it's challenged in court. He may get his chance. But he might want to do a little more preparation before he launches his defense.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

DCPS plans to give Wilson High School less money to serve more students

DC Public Schools plans to cut Wilson High School's budget next year by 10%, even though the student body is expected to grow by 10%. Parent groups and the school's principal are protesting, arguing that the cuts will hurt the most vulnerable students at the relatively affluent school.

Photo of Wilson High School from DCPS website.

Next year's proposed budget will effectively reduce the school's allocation by $1.8 million, according to Interim Principal Gregory Bargeman. He and parents at Wilson warn that the cut will mean larger class sizes, decreased security, and less support for struggling students, many of whom travel to the Ward 3 school from other parts of the District.

Bargeman recently told parents and students that DCPS plans to reduce Wilson's per-student allocation from $9,276 this year to $8,306 next year, an amount he said was the lowest allocated to any neighborhood school in the District. According to Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, other high schools are receiving an average of close to $14,000 per student.

At the same time, the Wilson student body is growing even faster than expected. This year's budget was based on a projected enrollment of 1708, but the actual enrollment is almost 1800. That resulted in a shortfall of almost $790,000 this year.

DCPS projects that next year's enrollment will be 1878, but parents say recent trends indicate it will be at least 85 more than that. Even assuming DCPS's figure is correct, Bargeman says the school system is asking Wilson to serve 170 more students than last year with less money—$309,600 less, to be exact.

Wilson's Parent Teacher Student Organization and Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) have sent a letter to Mayor Bowser and other DC officials asking that Wilson get an additional $900,000 for next year. They plan to hold a meeting at the school tonight, and are asking residents, especially those who live outside Ward 3, to contact their DC Councilmembers.

Cheh has already sent DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson a letter protesting the budget cut. "To parents across the District who send their children to Wilson," she wrote, "Wilson is a model and restores confidence in DCPS. With this budget, however, you will dramatically shake that confidence."

Wilson draws students from every one of DC's 22 zip codes, according to school parents. And 44% of its students come from beyond its boundaries.

In Wilson's weekly bulletin last week, Principal Bargeman said he had spent much of the previous week "trying to persuade DCPS to reconsider the proposed cut. To date, DCPS has been unwilling to make changes."

Funding and at-risk students

Henderson told the Washington Post that the school system is reducing Wilson's funding because it has to target funds to schools with large concentrations of at-risk students. DC law requires that each school get an additional $2,000 for each student who is homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

But as Cheh points out, Wilson does have a substantial number of at-risk students. According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, at-risk students make up 31% of its student body. True, many other DCPS schools have at-risk concentrations of 70% or more. But because Wilson has such a large student body, that 31% translates into 550 students, which is greater than the number of at-risk students at several other high schools—and greater than the entire enrollment at two of those schools.

Beyond that, DCPS isn't just decreasing Wilson's additional funding for at-risk students. It's decreasing the minimum amount the school is supposed to get to provide basic services to all its students, in order to provide additional funds to other schools.

Last year, DCPS didn't allocate the at-risk funds proportionally as the law required. Because of time constraints, it used the money to help fund initiatives it had already planned.

A guide to the school budget posted on the DCPS website explains that in allocating at-risk funds for next year, officials decided they couldn't "in good conscience" take money away from worthy initiatives that are getting the funds this year. So, among other cost-saving measures, they "examined the budgets of schools with smaller numbers of at-risk students" and reduced per-pupil funding for next year on the theory that it was "the least harmful way of freeing up funds."

All students at Wilson will suffer from the planned cuts, but at-risk and low-income students there will suffer the most, says Jeffrey Kovar, a Wilson parent and chair of its LSAT.

For example, Wilson will no longer have a full-time college counselor. Middle-class students whose parents went to college themselves will still be able to navigate the college application process, but low-income first-generation college applicants will be at a serious disadvantage.

Kovar, one of the authors of the letter calling on residents to protest the cuts, also says Wilson will lack money to support minority students taking challenging AP classes and struggling to pass 9th grade.

Class sizes will climb to 30 for regular classes, he predicts, and AP classes, already averaging 30 students, could go as high as 40. A lack of staff to monitor behavior in a building designed for only 1550 students could also pose a threat to safety.

The year of the high school and Wilson's achievement gap

Kovar finds it particularly ironic that Henderson is planning to cut Wilson's funding in what she has declared "the year of the high school." Just as last year DCPS focused on improving middle schools, next year it will concentrate on improving high school quality, especially for low-income and struggling students.

Wilson has long had an achievement gap between its wealthier and lower-income students, and the apparent reason the school's principal was fired earlier this school year was his failure to make enough progress closing it. Now, says Kovar, the school will have an even harder time doing so.

DCPS presumably feels that affluent families within Wilson's boundaries will continue to flock to the school despite the cuts. And perhaps it hopes that allocating more money to schools in poorer neighborhoods will lure students into remaining there rather than traveling across town. Certainly it would make sense to try to fill the gleaming but half-empty high schools that DC has spent many millions building or renovating in recent years.

But it will take a while before those other schools achieve Wilson's drawing power, whether that power is justified or not. No doubt poorer DCPS schools desperately need funds, and there seems to be an assumption that Wilson will be okay no matter what. But that may not be true. Wilson is the one neighborhood high school in DC that holds the promise of being both diverse and high-performing. It would be a shame if DCPS made that promise impossible to fulfill.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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.

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.

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.

For one group of kids from Anacostia, a dream deferred is turning into reality

In 1988, a DC philanthropist promised a group of low-income 7th-graders in the Anacostia neighborhood that he would pay for their college educations. What's happened to the kids since then shows that the presence of a caring adult can alter a child's life trajectory.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post.

A thought-provoking new documentary called Southeast 67 will be screened at the DC Independent Film Festival this Friday. It traces the lives of some of the 67 kids "adopted" by Stewart W. Bainum, Sr., as part of the national I Have a Dream program. While it's not a simple success story, the film suggests Bainum's initiative ultimately helped many escape the multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Bainum, a hotel and nursing home magnate who died last year, randomly selected one half of a class at Kramer Jr. High School (now Kramer Middle School) in Anacostia to be his beneficiaries.

He hired two people to mentor and help the kids with their schoolwork through high school, and pledged to pay their college tuition if they graduated by 2000.

By 1994, 72% of the "Dreamers" had graduated from high school. That was significant. The graduation rate for the half of the class not chosen for the program was only 27%.

But the idea behind the program was that students would go on to college right away, and few did. Only six of the 67 earned a BA on time, according to an article in the New York Times, and 36 never used any of the tuition money that was available to them.

Growing up amid a crack epidemic

It's clear that designers of the program vastly underestimated the challenges facing kids in Anacostia at the time. It was the height of the District's crack cocaine epidemic, and violence pervaded the Dreamers' lives.

One of the two adults hired to mentor the Dreamers, Steve Bumbaugh, estimates that only 15 to 20 of the kids were abused at home or had parents who were crack addicts. But, he says in an oral history on the film website, "Every single Dreamer witnessed somebody being murdered. They were living in something I would describe as a low-grade civil war."

Obviously, tutoring alone wasn't going to be enough to ensure the success of kids living in such an environment. But Bumbaugh and his colleague, Phyllis Rumbarger, went way beyond tutoring—and even way beyond providing food, organizing basketball games, and rousing tardy students from bed, all of which they did.

Essentially, they gave many of the Dreamers the encouraging, reliable adult presence that was otherwise lacking in their lives. In some cases, they forced that presence on the kids. And as writer Paul Tough and others have detailed, research has shown that the presence of a caring adult in a child's life can counteract the effects of toxic stress caused by growing up in poverty.

Still, it wasn't enough to get many on the path to college immediately. One Dreamer in the film, Martece Gooden Yates, seemed to have it all together in high school. What no one knew—not even Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—was that her mother had become addicted to crack.

She couldn't go away to college, she says, because she was afraid her mother would OD. She did enroll at the University of the District of Columbia, but she was already pregnant by then and soon dropped out.

Tenille Warren, who I've written about before, was a talented artist and seemed to have a promising future. But she wanted to make money to get away from an abusive mother, so she took a job at Safeway.

And Antwan Green was one of ten Dreamers who went off to the conservative all-white boarding school in Ohio that was Bainum's alma mater. Green had no trouble making straight As there, but quit when an uproar broke out after a white girl invited him to a dance. He ended up dropping out of high school and dealing drugs.

Success can come later in life and extend to the next generation

You might judge these three, now in their late 30s, to be failures. But as the film makes clear, they're anything but. Yates is still married to the father of the child she gave birth to after starting UDC, and she's pursuing a nursing degree at Trinity University.

After Herculean efforts, Warren is now a student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

And Antwan Green, after narrowly escaping a long-term prison sentence, has a GED, his own trash-hauling business, and a stable marriage. And it's clear from both the film and his remarks at an invitation-only screening a couple of weeks ago that he's at least as thoughtful and articulate as many college graduates.

So while a college degree is clearly important these days, it shouldn't be the only measure of success. Even if it is, maybe you shouldn't impose a time limit on it. In addition to Yates and Warren, two other Dreamers are currently in college, and a total of nine have graduated, according to the Times article.

More significant, perhaps, is what is happening in the next generation. Nineteen children of Dreamers are in college, three hold BAs, and two are in graduate school. The film shows Antwan Green's college student son hunched over his books. Green predicts he'll get a Ph.D.

In an oral history on the film's website, Bumbaugh provides more texture for these statistics. In the past 10 years, he says, the Dreamers have been getting married, keeping the same phone numbers, staying at the same jobs—in short, building the kinds of stable lives their parents didn't have, and passing the benefits on to their kids.

It's impossible to know how the Dreamers' lives would have unfolded if they hadn't been chosen for the program. But, as Bumbaugh says, "All of these outcomes cannot be coincidental. They're so radically different, unfortunately, from the kids who were not in the program." For many of the Dreamers, he suggests, the program was able to help break a cycle of poverty going back many generations.

No doubt things would have gone even better for them if their environment had been safer and they'd had more access to things like "a goddamn doctor if they got sick," as Bumbaugh says. They needed, he argues, more than "a cheerleader telling them to be the best they can be."

But, as the life trajectories of many of the Dreamers show, cheerleaders—or at least, cheerleaders with the ability and dedication displayed by Bumbaugh and Rumbarger—can make a huge difference. Ideally, parents serve as those cheerleaders. But many parents are too stressed by poverty themselves to perform that role.

The question is: how do we find thousands more people like Bumbaugh and Rumbarger, and provide them with the resources to help the many kids who need them?

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