Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler is a board member at DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer tutor in a DC Public School. She also serves on the board of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the teaching of analytical writing to underserved schools. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

Some area schools spend a lot less on poor kids than others

Schools in the Washington region spend wildly different amounts on students per pupil, and districts vary a lot in how much extra they spend on low-income students. While more spending doesn't guarantee better quality, the discrepancies raise basic questions of fairness.

Screenshot from Metro DC School Spending Explorer. Click for interactive version.

An interactive map from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank based in DC, allows you to find the per-pupil spending amount for any school inside the Beltway. This is the first time spending data for the area has been presented on a school-by-school basis, according to Michael Petrilli, president of the institute.

That's because individual schools within districts don't have their own budgets, Petrilli said on the Kojo Nnamdi Show Thursday. Districts allocate staff and resources to schools depending on factors like the number of students at each school and their needs.

The data is based on expenditures during the 2011-12 fiscal year. It includes both public and private funds, but not spending on capital projects like buildings.

A data summary that accompanies the map shows that average per pupil expenditures in the area range from about $10,000 in Prince George's County to close to $16,000 in DC Public Schools and Alexandria. DC public charter schools spend an average of just over $18,000 per student, the highest in the region.

Spending on low-income students

In a blog post analyzing the data, Petrilli and Matt Richmond focused on which District-area school systems spend the most on low-income students. Arlington County leads the pack, and Prince George's brings up the rear, they found.

Arlington spends over 80% extra on its low-income students, or about $21,000 compared to the $12,000 it spends on its more affluent ones. But Prince George's, which has many more low-income students, spends only about 2% more on them, or a little over $10,000.

DCPS falls somewhere in the middle for the region, spending about 21% extra on low-income students, although its spending floor is the highest of any school district in the region. (The "extra spending" figures are for elementary school students only.)

In the blog post, Petrilli and Richmond single out Montgomery County for particular scorn. Despite Superintendent Joshua Starr's claim to be a warrior for social justice, they say, Montgomery ranks third in the region for extra spending on low-income students. At about 32%, it's below both Arlington County and Fairfax County, which spends about 34% extra.

Low spending in Prince George's County

But, as Petrilli and Richmond point out, the big story here is Prince George's County's low level of spending on its low-income population. They point out that at one Prince George's elementary school, the amount spent per student is about half what DCPS spends at a school less than seven miles away.

Given the relatively low property tax base in Prince George's, Petrilli and Richmond argue that the state of Maryland should be doing more to fund schools there.

Of course, it's not clear what any of this means for educational quality. As the Fordham authors acknowledge, it's hard to establish a direct relationship between spending and educational outcomes. More money doesn't make much difference unless schools know what to do with it.

But it's also true that programs designed to close the achievement gap cost money. So while money may not be sufficient to accomplish that goal, it's almost certainly necessary.

And, as a recent report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute details, low-income students need a host of services outside the classroom in order to succeed inside it. All of those cost money, too.

It would be useful to put school districts' differing rates of expenditure next to a comparison of student achievement. Are low-income students in Prince George's actually learning less than low-income students in DC or Arlington, for example?

That's hard to say right now, because each state gives its own standardized tests, and they're not really comparable. And the nationwide standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, basically gives results at the state-wide level rather than by school district.

Perhaps after this year we'll at least be able to compare DC and Prince George's County, because both Maryland and DC will be giving the same Common Core-aligned test, known as PARCC. (Virginia will continue giving its own test.)

But whatever the test results show, one thing is clear: It's not fair for a low-income student in Arlington to get the benefit of $21,000 a year in school spending, while one across the river in Prince George's gets half that or less.

Does Ward 3 need a charter middle school, or can Hardy transform itself?

Hardy Middle School, long shunned by families in its Ward 3 neighborhood, is beginning to change, say at least two candidates for the Ward 3 seat on the State Board of Education (SBOE). But another candidate says it's time to start a new charter middle school in the area.

Photo of Hardy Middle School from DCPS website.

Almost 90% of the students at Hardy, in Georgetown, come from outside the school's boundaries. Some of its feeder elementary schools send only 10% of their students to the school, according to Tricia Braun.

Braun has been co-president of the PTA at one of those feeders, Key Elementary, and is currently running for the SBOE from Ward 3. Neighborhood students often leave the DC Public School system after elementary school for charter schools like BASIS and Washington Latin, she said.

But Braun said that, largely thanks to her efforts in convening PTA leaders from Hardy's feeders, the school is beginning to attract more in-boundary students. The key, she said, was to make specific suggestions to bring the school up to the level of Alice Deal, Ward 3's other middle school, which is highly sought after and overcrowded. One suggestion was to offer geometry to 8th graders, as Deal does.

Last year, Braun said, one feeder, Mann Elementary, sent six students to Hardy, a marked increase over previous years when it had only sent one.

Braun's remarks came at a forum for Ward 3 SBOE candidates Tuesday evening moderated by Washington Post education reporter Michael Alison Chandler. All four Ward 3 candidates attended.

One, Ruth Wattenberg, said that based on her experience as a former Deal parent, she thinks Hardy can change. When her older child started at Deal, she said, it wasn't the coveted school it is now. Wattenberg said she helped spark improvements when she chaired Deal's Local School Restructuring Team in 2009-10.

"Deal transformed itself in five years," she said, "and Hardy can too."

She suggested that Hardy adopt the International Baccalaureate Middle Years curriculum, as Deal has done. That school-wide approach, she said, provides a vision for the school. She also recommended dividing the school into teams, which enables teachers to get to know their students better.

But a third candidate, Stephanie Lilley, argued that Ward 3 needs an entirely new middle school. She said she has begun the search for a building where a charter school could open. Ward 3 currently has no charter schools.

After the forum, Lilley revealed that the building she has in mind is the Fillmore Arts Center in Upper Georgetown, which she says is now owned by George Washington University.

Graduation requirements, testing, and qualifications

The candidates, who include Phil Thomas, also debated new graduation requirements that the SBOE is currently considering. And both Wattenberg and Braun called for less emphasis on testing and basic skills in reading and math. "A lot of reading is also about what you know," Wattenberg said. "You can't just drill on skills."

Each candidate argued that he or she would bring a unique perspective to the Board. Braun said she is the only candidate with children currently enrolled in DCPS, and argued that her skills as a parent activist and former prosecutor would serve her well.

Thomas, an elementary school PE teacher, said the Board needs another teacher voice. Only one of its current nine members is a teacher.

Lilley, who has served on the boards of two charter schools, presented herself as someone with expertise in school turnarounds and a focus on the gap in achievement between affluent Ward 3 and other areas of the District.

And Wattenberg argued that she had a combination of grassroots experience through parent activism and expertise in education policy, having worked in that field at the national level for 30 years.

Another forum for SBOE candidates, this time for the two candidates running in Ward 6, will take place from 6:30 to 8 pm on Tuesday, October 14, at Eastern High School. I will be the moderator, and a panel of Eastern students will be asking questions.

Correction: The original version of this article listed Hardy as a Ward 3 school. Hardy is actually in Ward 2, all but one of its feeder elementary schools are in Ward 3.

Innovations at Dunbar High School have sparked progress, but there's still a lot of student churn

Last week, Dunbar High School celebrated a dramatic rise in test scores with a pep rally featuring some of its alumni, including Mayor Vincent Gray. Other troubled DC high schools could learn something from Dunbar's experience, but student churn is still a problem.

Mayor Gray at Dunbar. Photo by the author.

Dunbar, located in Truxton Circle near Union Station, was an elite black high school in the era of segregation. More recently it's fallen on hard times, with some alumni proposing earlier this year that it recapture its glory days by becoming a selective school.

But Principal Stephen Jackson seems to be turning the school around. Last year, Dunbar's gains on DC's standardized tests were the largest of any high school in the DC Public School system. Dunbar's proficiency rate on the reading section of the test went up by a whopping 23%, to 41%. That put it third in reading scores for neighborhood high schools, still 30 percentage points below Wilson, but just one point below Eastern.

Dunbar's math proficiency rate also went up, by seven points, to 24%. While that increase may look modest compared to the gain in reading, it's still significant.

Innovations that boosted scores

What's behind the rise in scores? According to a press release, Dunbar has introduced a number of innovations, including weekly "inter-visitations among teachers on best practices." Two recent best-selling books on education have argued that that kind of teacher-to-teacher observation and collaboration is crucial.

Dunbar administrators have also been visiting classrooms "on a daily basis," according to the release. The DCPS teacher evaluation system requires five observations a year, with only some by a school administrator. But more frequent and regular observations by someone who knows the teacher well may be less threatening and more helpful.

Dunbar has also extended the school day for 9th and 10th graders, and students at risk of failing have been attending school on Saturdays.

In addition, the school has divided itself into five "academies," each with a different theme. That, according to Dunbar math teacher David Tansey, has helped create "interconnectedness" between students and teachers.

Ninth Grade Academy

But one innovation has been trumpeted above the rest: Dunbar's Ninth Grade Academy. Ninth grade is a bottleneck year in many DC high schools, because students have to pass algebra and English to advance to 10th grade. Generally, only about 60% make it.

That has led to 9th grade classes that include many older students repeating for the second or third time. Four years ago, Principal Jackson started separating the repeaters from the first-time 9th-graders, putting the repeaters into a "twilight academy" that met after school.

The Dunbar experiment looked promising enough that last year, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson expanded it to eight other high schools. In addition to isolating the newbie 9th-graders from the sometimes jaundiced repeaters, the Ninth Grade Academy at Dunbar gives them a double dose of math and English. It also requires students to participate in extra-curricular activities and sports.

While it's hard to say how much of Dunbar's rise in scores is attributable to its Ninth Grade Academy, the school is trumpeting another statistic. It says that 98% of its first Ninth Grade Academy cohort, now in 12th grade, is on track to graduate. Considering that DCPS's overall graduation rate is more like 60%, that's an astounding figure.

But according to the Washington Post, almost half of the original 75 students in the cohort36 of themhave left the school. It's not clear how many of them are now on track to graduate. It's also not clear how many other students have joined the class since 9th grade, and where those students stand academically. I put that question and others to school officials but didn't get a response.

Student mobility

Student mobility is a major problem in DC, and Dunbar isn't the only school that suffers from it. At Anacostia High School, for example, students entering midyear were at least 29% of the student body by May of last year, with 22% having exited. At Dunbar, the figures were 18% for midyear entries and 14% for withdrawals.

A report released last year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education revealed that thousands of students were moving in and out of schools midyear, and a recent report on graduation rates found that 30% of DC students begin and end their high school careers at different schools.

Each switch results in a 10% decrease in the chances of a student graduating on time, according to the report. It's also hugely disruptive for schools to get a constant influx of new students.

Perhaps attrition rates at Dunbar for more recent 9th-grade cohorts have been lower. Tansey, who started teaching in Dunbar's Ninth Grade Academy during its second year of operation, says the first year was a little rocky, and that the number of entering freshmen has grown since then. Last year, he says, it was 120.

Tansey says the Academy helps the school keep track of its entering freshmen. "We can say, these are Dunbar kids," he says. "We've made a commitment to them."

He also says the creation of the Academy has reduced teacher turnover at that level. Before, he says, there was a new team of 9th grade teachers every year. And it's helped with "backward-mapping," enabling teachers to ensure students are prepared for the demands of 10th grade.

While Dunbar clearly still has a long way to go, there was justifiable pride in the cheers of "We Are Dunbar!" that resounded at last week's pep rally. But for those 36 former 9th-graders who have moved elsewhere, and for many other DC students like them, it's not yet clear that cheers are in order.

Charter schools sue for more funding, and the result could be a setback for home rule

A group of charter schools claims the DC government spends about $2,000 less per student on the charter sector than on DC Public Schools each year, in violation of federal law. Opponents say that requiring strict equality in funding between the sectors makes no sense.

Photo of judge with scale from Shutterstock.

But if a federal court buys the charters' legal argument, its decision could have far-reaching implications not only for education in DC but also for the issue of home rule in general.

The DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which represents 39 charter schools, filed a complaint in federal court in July along with two individual charters, Eagle Academy and Washington Latin. The schools say the District has shortchanged the charter sector by more than $770 million over the past eight years.

The group is not seeking to recover that amount, but it does want the court to order DC to fund the two sectors equally in the future. The group claims the DC School Reform Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1996, required the DC Council to create a per-pupil funding formula that is the same for both DCPS and charters, and not to supplement that amount with any additional funds for DCPS.

"Nobody really wants to sue," says Robert Cane, executive director of a charter advocacy organization called FOCUS. But, he says, the charter community has been trying to negotiate with DC on the funding issue for many years, without success.

Last week, the DC Office of the Attorney General (OAG) asked the court to throw out the lawsuit, arguing that even if the funding is unequalsomething DC isn't concedingthe DC Council had the right to amend the federal statute under the Home Rule Act.

Legal issues and home rule

Everyone agrees that under the Home Rule Act, passed in 1973, Congress delegated legislative control to the DC Council over local matters like education. All legislation in these areas passed by the Council goes to Congress for a 30-day review period, but if Congress doesn't act, the legislation goes into effect.

But the charters argue that when Congress passed the School Reform Act 23 years later, it was reclaiming the legislative authority over DC granted to it by the US Constitution. That means, they say, that the DC Council has no authority to change fundamental provisions of the Act. The District says this argument is a "novel" one that has no basis in the law. The charter group will file its response to DC's legal arguments in November.

Some observers argue that the charter group's interpretation of the law would be unworkable. Under their view, says Matt Frumin, a DC education activist, "in order for the District to make any significant modifications to education, we would need to have a law passed by two houses of Congress and signed by the President."

Cane counters that congressional action is only needed for "substantive changes that violate the letter of the law or the intent of Congress," not for "technical fixes." But Frumin responds that that the School Reform Act doesn't make that distinction. Nor, he says, is it clear who would decide what is "substantive" and what is merely "technical."

Different sectors have different costs

Aside from the legal issues, some say there are policy reasons to treat charters and DCPS differently. A DC-commissioned study released last year found that it was impossible to compare costs in the two sectors accurately. Each charter school has its own accounting system, and DCPS has yet a different one.

While the study acknowledged that DCPS gets more funding per pupil, it also concluded that DCPS's per pupil costs are much higher. Not only does DCPS, unlike the charter sector, need to pay union wages, it also has to maintain a lot of unused space because it's required to serve all grade levels in every neighborhood. The study estimated that DCPS needs only about 70% of the space it's currently maintaining.

DCPS schools also include facilities like pools and auditoriums that serve other community purposes. And DCPS buildings also tend to be older than those used by charters and more expensive to maintain.

Given the sectors' different cost structures, Frumin argues that charter advocates "are saying either give DCPS less than it needs to succeed, or give charters more, in the name of mathematical parity." Instead, he says, schools should be funded on the basis of what they actually need to educate children well.

Robert Cane of FOCUS responds that DCPS hasn't been forthcoming about its true operational expenses, and that the numbers the school system puts out have varied wildly. "This is all made up after the fact," he says.

Cane acknowledges that the per-pupil allotment for charters in DC is generous compared to what charters get in many other jurisdictions, but he says that's not the issue.

"It's very expensive to educate these kids," he says. "We have more poor and minority kids than DCPS has. If we have more of these kids, why should we have less money?"

The implications of the lawsuit

But the federal district court isn't considering these policy questions. It's only concerned with the law. If the court sides with the charter group and requires strict equality in funding, the result will be either that DCPS funding goes down or charter funding goes up.

If DCPS loses funding, it will have an even tougher time competing with the charter sector. If charter funding goes above its current relatively generous level, even more charter operators may be drawn to the District, and the charter sector's share of students could grow well above the 44% it stands at now.

Beyond that, the charter group's interpretation of the law of home rule would significantly limit DC's autonomy. If the courts accept the charters' argument, any time Congress passes legislation specifically directed at the District, DC authorities will lose their ability to change that law and then interpret congressional silence as acquiescence.

DC's charter sector has some legitimate grievances, especially when it comes to the difficulty of finding suitable space for schools. And no doubt charters here could find good uses for additional funds.

But it's far from clear they need more money to do a good job of educating their students. DC's charter sector was recently declared the best in the nation by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. And most charters here have a comfortable financial cushion, with the sector as a whole listing $283 million in assets at the end of fiscal year 2013.

Given those circumstances, it's difficult to see why they would choose to jeopardize DC's hard-won legislative autonomy in a bid for more funding.

Education activists urge DC mayoral candidates to commit to improving neighborhood schools

A coalition of DC education activists says we should strengthen the system of neighborhood by-right schools, and require coordinated planning between District of Columbia Public Schools and DC's public charter sector.

The coalition has released six principles it hopes will provide a basis for discussion during the current election season. Over 60 DC residents have signed the statement, and the group's press release says they include supporters "of each of the major candidates for Mayor."

In addition, the signatories include representatives of education councils in several wards, parents and teachers, ANC commissioners, and several former members of the advisory committee that drew up the new school boundary plan.

A coalition spokesperson, Evelyn Boyd Simmons, says the group hopes that one or more of the mayoral candidates will incorporate the entire set of principles into his or her platform.

Some principles touch on areas of broad agreement, such as "Focus resources on students and communities with the greatest need." Others, however, may encounter opposition from some in the charter school community.

The first principle calls for ensuring that "all families have access to high-quality DCPS schools in their neighborhoods," arguing that the demand for matter-of-right neighborhood schools became clear during the recent debate over school boundaries.

"While residents want the ability to select alternatives," the group's statement says, "they do not want to be at the mercy of a lottery for access to a school that can fully meet the needs of their children and community."

Charter school growth

The coalition appears to endorse the view that the growth of the charter sector, which now educates nearly half of all DC public school students, threatens to undermine efforts to strengthen the DCPS system.

The signatories urge the DC government to "require coordinated planning" between DCPS and the Public Charter School Board to "build a core system of stable DCPS neighborhood schools with a complementary set of alternative options." Such planning, the statement says, should cover "proposed modernizations, expansions, closing, and openings of any school."

Some charter advocates have resisted anything other than voluntary cooperation between the sectors. Of the 65 signatories to the principles that are currently listed on the group's website, only three list affiliations with charter schools: two are charter parents, and one is a board member at a charter school for adult immigrants, Carlos Rosario.

Boyd Simmons said she hopes more charter school parents and leaders will sign on in the future. She also said that many parents don't see the two sectors as that separate, because they move back and forth between them or have one child in each.

At the same time, she acknowledged that the conversation with the charter sector about the issue may be "dicey." But, she added, "that doesn't obviate the fact that it needs to be addressed."

Of the three leading mayoral candidates, Carol Schwartz has been clearest in endorsing the idea that charter school growth and location should be limited. In her education platform, she criticized the recent opening of a science-focused charter school across the street from a similarly themed DCPS school.

Muriel Bowser has made increased collaboration between the two sectors one of the planks of her platform, but she stopped short of saying restrictions should be imposed on charters. Instead, she said she would "empower the Deputy Mayor for Education to make recommendations about improving collaboration" between DCPS and charters.

David Catania made no mention of charter growth or cross-sector collaboration in his lengthy education platform.

The six principles include calls to improve the transparency of the DCPS and charter school budgets and to use measures beyond proficiency rates on standardized tests to assess student growth. The signatories also want to ensure that families and community members are able to participate in decisions affecting education.

No stand on school boundaries

One thing the principles don't take a stand on is the new school boundary plan, which has attempted to address overcrowding in some schools and under-enrollment in others. While a poll showed a majority of DC residents support the new plan, some who have been zoned out of more desirable school catchment areas have fiercely opposed it. Both Bowser and Catania have said they would not implement the plan as it stands now.

Boyd Simmons and Matt Frumin, another member of the coalition, said the boundary issue was simply not a focus of the group's discussions, which started over a year ago, before the advisory committee on boundaries was even formed.

Both were also members of that committee, and they said that one frequent criticism of the committee's work was that it didn't address the issue of school quality. That, they said, is the focus of the principles the coalition has put forward.

"It's more about whatever it takes to move the whole public education system forward in a positive direction," Boyd Simmons said.

We have good data about DC's low graduation rate, but little idea how to increase it

Given current trends, 40% of DC's 9th-graders won't graduate from high school on time. A new report gives us a lot of data about what lies behind that figure. Now the question is how policy-makers can use that data to improve the situation.

Photo of high school student from Shutterstock.

The report, released last week by a public-private partnership called Raise DC, reveals that a student's characteristics in 8th grade have a lot to do with her chances of graduating on time. But some high schools do better than others at getting high-risk kids back on track. At this point, it's still not clear how they do it, or even which high schools they are.

Eighth-graders who have special education status or limited English skills are more likely to drop out of high school, according to the report. The same is true for those who are over-age, have a lot of absences, score low on standardized tests, or fail math or English. And students who have been involved with the foster care or juvenile justice systems are also at high risk.

While it's good to have all of this quantified, few will be surprised by these findings. The real question is what changes will emerge in response to them.

Raise DC, the partnership that announced the report, launched last year in an effort to bring rationality and a spirit of collaboration to DC's social service sector. The idea is that government agencies and nonprofits will work together to help improve outcomes for DC's children and youth.

The first phase of the joint effort focuses on collecting data. In addition to last week's report on graduation rates, which was done by a consulting firm under the supervision of the Deputy Mayor for Education, Raise DC put out a baseline report card over a year ago.

One of the baseline figures was the percentage of students who graduate from high school in four years: 61%. The goal is to raise that figure to 75% by 2017.

The graduation rate study tracked about 18,000 students who were first-time 9th-graders between 2006 and 2009. The students attended either DCPS schools or one of four public charter schools: Perry Street Prep, KIPP, Maya Angelou, and Cesar Chavez.

While the report ranked high schools on how well they improved students' chances of graduating on time, it didn't attach school names to the results, and DC officials wouldn't release them. But school leaders received data for their own schools, and a working session on Friday gave them a chance to begin formulating strategies to address their school's weaknesses.

Here are some questions they and other policy-makers might want to consider:

How early should we start focusing on kids who look like they're at risk of dropping out?

The report targets danger signs in 8th grade, but other school districts have begun looking for them even earlier. Montgomery County, for example, is now looking for red flags as early as first grade.

While no one wants to stigmatize young children, the sooner schools start focusing on problems with attendance, behavior, and coursework (the ABC's of early warning signs), the less difficult it will be to address them.

How can we help schools that have a lot of high-risk students?

High schools that do the most to help high-risk students graduate have very few of them, according to the report. One conclusion might be that you should spread those students around, so that no school has a high concentration of them.

But that's unlikely to happen. Of the 16 schools that did best in improving students' chances of on-time graduation, only two were neighborhood high schools. The others were selective DC Public Schools or charters, with generally low numbers of high-risk students. You can't just assign high-risk students to such schools.

In fact, it's far more likely that high-risk students will be concentrated in a few schools: the report found that 50% of the students who fall off-track right away in high school attend just seven different schools.

But there's one school, identified in the report only as "School 7," that seems to do well despite the fact that 29% of its students are high-risk. It's a traditional public school with a 59% graduation rate. That may not sound impressive, but it's 20 percentage points higher than predicted, given the school's student body. It would be nice to know what is enabling that school to achieve those results.

What can we do to reduce the number of students who switch schools?

Every time a student switches from one high school to another, the report says, his chances of graduating on time sink by 10 percentage points. And 30% of DC students switch schools at least once during their high school years.

One likely factor contributing to DC's high student mobility is a lack of affordable housing, which can cause low-income students to move frequently or even become homeless. A study released last year revealed that thousands of students exit and enter DC public schools midyear.

This is a problem not just for those students, but also for the DCPS schools that have to take them in. The disruptive effects of that kind of student churn recently led New York City to exempt two struggling high schools from the obligation to admit students mid-year.

The bottom line is that increasing DC's graduation rate, like other efforts directed at closing the achievement gap, is going to require more than just classroom reform. Schools can do a lot, but government agencies and non-profits will also need to address housing problems, mental health issues, and a host of other poverty-related ills.

In theory, Raise DC should make it easier to put in place the kinds of cross-sector strategies that are necessary. But it's still too soon to tell if that theory will translate into practice.

Bowser remains vague on education plans, but clearly hopes Henderson will stay

Front-running mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser has released a more fleshed-out education platform, but it's still short on specifics. And it seems to put a lot of faith in a hoped-for collaboration with the current DC Public Schools Chancellor.

Photo by Charlie_2001 on Flickr.

Bowser has abandoned her flimsy "Deal for All" education platform, which promised to replicate Ward 3's Alice Deal Middle School in all eight wards, replacing it with a plan that would achieve "World-Class Schools for All" instead. But despite the shift in language and the addition of more detail, it's not much clearer how she plans to accomplish that goal.

One of her promises, for example, is to "completely transform" middle schools by 2020. The plan includes "the identification of those schools that need change the fastest, the renovation and/or construction of new buildings, and the evaluation and re-imagination of the curricular and extra-curricular offerings" for all middle-grade DCPS students.

It's clear that most DCPS middle schools need a lot of help, and Bowser has made their improvement a key campaign issue from the beginning. But aside from the part about renovating or constructing buildings, this aspect of her platform is pretty vague.

How do we decide which schools "need change the fastest"? Will expanding the menu of offerings be enough to bring about fundamental change? And will there be enough middle-grade students at K-8th-grade education campuses to support those expanded curricular and extra-curricular offerings?

Vagueness and inconsistencies

Perhaps it's unfair to ask a mayoral candidate to get too detailed in her plans. But to evaluate Bowser's vision, we need to hear more than that she "will accelerate the pace of school reform by discontinuing ineffective programs and policies and replicating those that have demonstrated strong outcomes."

When Bowser does get specific, she's sometimes oddly specific. For example, she singles out a program called SchoolStat, which she defines as "a data-driven performance-management system currently used by DCPS." She says she'll expand the use of the program to identify which education policies are working and which aren't.

I'd never heard of SchoolStat before, and a Google search turned up only a few references to its use in DCPS, all of them at least three years old. One calls it an "accountability tool" that divides employees into teams that meet periodically with the chancellor about how various initiatives are working. Maybe SchoolStat has potential, but it's an odd thing to single out for attention.

Bowser also promises to target schools "that are on the brink of being highly regarded by parents." She calls this the Good to Great Initiative, but the only explanation of how she'll get schools to "great" is to "focus on these schools in a targeted way." Once these schools have made it to greathowever that is definedthe District can begin to "focus its energy and attention on those schools most in need of support."

Aside from the quibble that it's hard to focus on things in anything but a targeted way, this part of Bowser's platform seems to conflict with another one that calls for a "specific focus on the 25 lowest-performing schools," apparently simultaneously. Again, she gives no details about what that would mean, other than providing those schools with "additional resources."

Another apparent contradiction in the platform is its final item: "Evaluate Model of School Governance." Bowser says it's "time to assess how" mayoral control of DCPS has worked and see "if changes can or should be made" to accelerate the pace of reform.

But the platform then goes on to say that "As Mayor, Muriel is committed to mayoral control of public schools." So why evaluate whether that model should be changed?

Wooing Kaya Henderson

Generally, Bowser's platform covers many unobjectionable topics without getting into depth on any of them. But one theme that comes up a lot, in addition to "ensuring a high-quality education for every child in DC," is working collaboratively with the DCPS chancellor. Although she doesn't always mention her by name, it's clear Bowser is hoping that the chancellor in question will be the current one, Kaya Henderson.

Bowser says in her platform, as she has before, that she wants Henderson to stay, arguing that "continuity in leadership at DCPS is the best way to ensure the District's reform efforts move forward interrupted." At several points, Bowser seems to be wooing Henderson.

She mentions "working with the Chancellor" to extend the school day, something Henderson has made clear she would like to do at more schools. And while Bowser doesn't quite take sides in the debate about joint planning between DCPS and the charter sector, she hints that she'd like it to go beyond the strictly voluntary collaboration that charter advocates favor and impose some limits on charter school growth and location, as Henderson has urged.

Bowser also wants both sectors to work together "around efforts to provide a neighborhood preference." Charter advocates have generally resisted the idea that they should give neighborhood students priority in admissions, and Henderson has supported it, at least in some circumstances.

But there's one issue important to Henderson that Bowser, like her rival David Catania, doesn't mention in her education platform: what to do about the controversial new school boundary plan recently adopted by outgoing Mayor Vincent Gray. Henderson supports the plan, and Bowser and Catania have both previously said they oppose it.

It's possible that Bowser is having second thoughts about her opposition, especially in light of a new poll showing a majority of DC residents in favor of the plan. At the recent mayoral debate, she suggested the plan might only need some "tweaks," and a new version could be ready within a year. But a public statement withdrawing her opposition at this point would look too much like waffling.

To some extent, Bowser is telling people that a vote for her is a vote for Henderson, as Jay Mathews has argued in the Washington Post. And at this point, continuity of leadership at DCPS would be our best bet for progress.

There's only one problem: while Henderson has said generally she would like to stay in her post until 2017, she hasn't committed to staying if Bowser wins. There's certainly a better chance she would stay under Bowser than under Catania, who has had a contentious relationship with the Chancellor. But at this point there are no guarantees.

While Catania doesn't have all the answers on education, he has a deeper grasp of the issues and a much more substantial record on education legislation. If Henderson plans to depart under the next mayor, Catania looks like the better choice.

The decision for voters who favor continuity in education reform would be easier if Henderson made her intentions clear. Right now, a vote for Bowser is not so much a vote for Henderson as a vote for a pig in a poke.

No more teaching to the test: Some DC teachers adopt a technique that gets students to think deeply

Has education become too focused on test scores? Do we need an approach aimed at getting students to think analytically rather than memorize facts? A growing number of educators from a variety of DC schools think so, and they're changing the way they teach.

Photo of DCPS students commenting on each other's work from Amanda Siepiola.

For the past two years, a group of DC teachers has been meeting regularly to learn about something called Project Zero, an educational approach research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The group has grown rapidly, and now includes over 500 teachers from independent, parochial, charter, and traditional public schools.

This summer, over 100 175 DC-area teachers gathered for a Project Zero institute sponsored by the independent Washington International School, which uses the Project Zero approaches school-wide. The teachers learned how to use classroom techniques called thinking routines: sets of questions teachers can pose to get students to think deeply about an image or a text.

The objective of the Project Zero routines is to "make thinking visible." One basic routine, called See-Think-Wonder, has students looking together at an image of a text or work of art. First they spend several minutes simply discussing what they observe. Then the teacher asks what they think is going on in the image.

After that, students talk about what the image makes them wonder about, based on their observations and interpretations. Along the way or at the end, the teacher or students "document" the discussion, writing down ideas. Teachers say routines like this get students to slow down, pay attention to details, and engage in analysis.

Critiques of test-focused teaching

Although Project Zero has been around since the 1960s, its approach fits in with recent critiques of test-based instruction for focusing too much on basic skills and not enough on analytical thinking. Even Arne Duncan, who many see as the architect of a test-focused approach, recently called for de-emphasizing test results. Locally, the Fairfax County school system is formulating a plan that its superintendent says "will lessen the focus on standardized, high-stakes testing."

A new best-selling book, Building a Better Teacher, argues that treating students as passive receptacles for knowledge only gets you so far: for true learning to take place, it argues, students have to take a more active role.

The Common Core standards, adopted by DC and 45 states, also aim to get students thinking analytically, and their emphasis on "close reading" of a text resembles the Project Zero approach.

Some of the thinking routines, like See-Think-Wonder, seem particularly well suited to studying works of art. In fact, the National Gallery of Art has used the routines in many of its education programs for over 10 years, according to Lynn Russell, head of its division of education. But teachers say the techniques can be applied to almost any subject.

Tondra Odom-Owens, a teacher at Savoy Elementary, a DC Public School with a low-income student body, says that when her students "wonder" about a work of art, they ask questions that go beyond the surface: "I wonder why he used that color, I wonder what if this was a portrait of a man." It hasn't been difficult for them to translate those strategies into thinking deeply and analytically about texts, she says.

And Karen Lee, who teaches government at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, recently used a thinking routine to get her high school students to make connections between the Langston Hughes poem "I Too" and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The routine, she says, "provided a framework for deep thinking."

Effects on comprehension and test scores

I saw some thinking routines in action recently at Sacred Heart, a bilingual Catholic school in Mt. Pleasant that has a largely low-income, Hispanic student body, and where most teachers have had Project Zero training. The 7th- and 8th-grade classes I observed included sophisticated and thoughtful discussions of concepts like empathy and ambiguity.

"I think kids' comprehension has sky-rocketed," said the Sacred Heart teacher I observed, Kristen Kullberg. "They begin to understand that ambiguity and unanswered questions don't need to be sources of frustration. The reality is a lot of things are ambiguous."

While teachers say it's too soon to know whether the approach has an effect on test scores, Kullberg says her students have developed a "culture of perseverance" that could help on tests. And Odom-Owens said she feels thinking routines will help her students understand test questions and come up with strategies to answer them. Lee says the routines also help her figure out what her students haven't understood, so she knows where to focus.

All the teachers I spoke with say the thinking routines level the playing field, bringing lower-performing students into the discussion. Because there are no wrong answers, kids are more willing to take risks. And the lower-performing students sometimes have the most perceptive observations, winning the respect of their peers.

The Project Zero approach could help move teaching beyond the rote drilling that too often characterizes education today. But there are some caveats:

It takes training. The teachers I spoke with all said the approach fit in with their natural teaching styles. While most said they thought any teacher could use the thinking routines, it's not just a matter of following a script. Teachers not only have to ask the right questions, they also need to be responsive to students' answers. It helps to observe teachers who are experienced in the approach.

Schools need to be flexible about teaching methods: The routines can be adapted to work with any curriculum, but classrooms can get noisy as students move around or call out their thoughts. Odom-Owens said some DCPS teachers, especially new ones, might shy away from the approach for fear of getting a low score on the system's teacher evaluation system.

It won't provide everything lower-performing students need: Students deficient in vocabulary and background knowledge, as many low-income students are, will need more direct instruction to construct coherent sentences and organize their thoughts logically in writing.

But in the hands of a skilled teacher, the Project Zero thinking routines can play an important role in engaging students in learning, spurring analytical thinking, and giving them the motivation to put their insights into persuasive written form.

School quality is the issue, says Catania. But his platform may not improve it.

Mayoral candidate David Catania has laid out his vision for a key issue in the race, education. Building on the education-related legislation he has introduced as a DC Councilmember, Catania calls for strong measures to improve school quality, reduce the achievement gap between black and white students, and strengthen special education services.

Photo from office of David Catania.

Catania identifies the basic issue in DC education as school quality. The unevenness of that quality, he says, results in what he has called a "morning diaspora," with some 60,000 DC students choosing to commute to schools other than the ones they're assigned to.

Catania proposes attacking the quality problem through both vertical and horizontal measures. He calls for "vertical alignment" between the elementary, middle, and high schools in the same feeder pattern, so that programming and expectations are consistent throughout a student's school career.

On the horizontal front, Catania wants to standardize offerings across the District. One middle school, he points out, might have "expansive language and enrichment programs while a middle school across town has far fewer of both."

And when elementary schools with different levels of "quality and preparedness" feed into the same middle school, he says, the entire middle school suffers.

Catania also has other prescriptions, such as directing more funding to at-risk students, something that he's already effected through legislation he introduced. He also wants to guarantee college aid to students who graduate from DC high schools, expand career and technical education, and change the way school improvement is measured to introduce factors other than test scores.

And he discusses, in general terms, the legislation he's introduced that would overhaul many aspects of DC's system for delivering special education services.

Catania has made himself into something of an expert on DC's education system since becoming chair of the Council's education committee at the beginning of last year. He's personally visited almost 150 traditional public and charter schools, and he's introduced a raft of education-related legislation. His energy and ability to retain information are awe-inspiring and have won him ardent supporters among parents and others involved in education.

A variation on "Deal for All"?

But his basic plan for improving school qualityvertical alignment and horizontal standardizationis unlikely to get to the root of the problem. At bottom, it's a more sophisticated version of his opponent Muriel Bowser's simplistic mantra of "Alice Deal for All," a promise to bring the features of Ward 3's highly sought-after Deal Middle School to every sector of the District.

In arguing for the benefits of vertical alignment, Catania points out that "DCPS's highest achieving feeder pattern"the one that includes both Deal and Wilson High School"already employs this practice of vertical integration with great success." But while vertical integration may be a good idea, it's not the reason Deal, Wilson, and the elementary schools that feed into them are high-achieving. That has far more to do with the relative affluence of their student bodies.

Similarly, Catania's plan to standardize programs and offerings throughout the District will only take us so far in improving quality. You can offer the same "expansive language and enrichment programs" that Deal boasts at other middle schools. But if the students at those schools aren't prepared to take advantage of them, they'll be no more than empty promises.

As Catania is no doubt aware, low-income students generally start school far less prepared than their middle-class counterparts, and the gap between the two groups only widens as the grades progress. If you want to truly improve the quality of neighborhood schools beyond the few that are now seen as desirableand which, not coincidentally, have a high proportion of affluent studentsyou need to figure out a way to improve the performance of low-income students.

Prescriptions for closing the achievement gap

Catania does have some prescriptions for doing that, but they're either vague or somewhat mechanical. For example, it's great that, largely thanks to his efforts, more money will be directed to at-risk students, but there's still the question of what that money will be used for.

He mentions that directing funds to at-risk students recognizes "the fact that students from more challenged backgrounds often require additional resources for academic and social-emotional interventions." But he doesn't specify what those interventions should consist of, or how the government can ensure that poor children get the services they need to counteract the effects of poverty that often interfere with their ability to learn.

Catania also points to legislation he authored that essentially ends the practice of social promotion. True, promoting students who haven't mastered material year after year is a recipe for disaster.

But merely requiring those students to repeat a grade doesn't ensure they'll learn what they didn't absorb the first time around, especially if teachers use the same methods. And the stigma of being held back can have lasting effects.

School quality and school boundaries

The question of improving school quality has taken on added urgency because of the recent controversy over school boundaries. Catania has said he's opposed to any plan that would switch students to lower-performing schools.

He's also said that he would delay implementation of the current plan for at least a year, but the measures he outlinesor any measures, for that matterare unlikely to improve school quality anywhere near that fast.

Catania doesn't mention school boundaries anywhere in the 15 pages his platform devotes to education. Nor does he mention another hot-button issue: whether to place limits on the growth and location of charter schools.

And yet both of these issues have major implications for school quality. When more middle-class families attend a school, its quality generally goes up, benefiting the school's low-income students as well. If boundaries are redrawn so that a group of middle-class parents know their children will be attending a particular lower-performing school in, say, five years, they can strengthen each other's resolve to send their kids there and improve it.

On the other hand, if charter schools that attract middle-class families continue their current rapid growth, they could undermine that possibility by draining those families out of the traditional system. Catania's failure to address this controversial question is understandable, but it's nonetheless disappointing.

For all its flaws, Catania's education platform is far more detailed and has many more solid ideas than anything that his rival Bowser has put forward so far. There are still many uncertainties, not least of which who Catania would install to replace DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is likely to depart if he wins. But right now, he's the only candidate who has both articulated a vision for improving education in DC and who stands at least a chance of winning.

Shifting DC school boundaries promises real change

With education set to be a pivotal issue in the D.C. mayor's race, both of the leading candidates have rejected a plan to redraw school boundaries and feeder patterns. They argue that changing boundaries before improving school quality will drive middle-class families out of the system. But it may be that the best way to improve quality and retain middle-class families is to reassign students first.

Photo of change sign from Shutterstock.

There's only one neighborhood middle- and high-school feeder pattern that middle-class parents want: the Deal Middle School-Wilson High School one in Ward 3. Both schools are too crowded; other D.C. Public Schools are under-enrolled. The Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, which spent 10 months formulating its recommendations, has tried to correct that imbalance by shrinking the Deal and Wilson boundaries.

Not surprisingly, many families who have been cut out of those boundaries are up in arms. It was easy for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to endorse the reassignment plan after he lost his bid for reelection. It's not as easy for those running for his seat.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in The Washington Post.

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