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How can we discuss education? Can you help?

One of my goals for this coming year is to ramp up Greater Greater Washington's coverage of education. What topics would you like to see covered? And, most importantly, can you write about some of them, or help us find people who can?

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Education is a very significant factor for many people in deciding where to live. For many, it's the most significant. This blog is a place to discuss what makes neighborhoods greater or less great for their residents and future residents, and it's impossible to fully explore that topic without talking about education.

In some ways, education is tougher to discuss than transportation or planning. You can see a bike lane or a building, but not what's happening inside the classroom unless you have a child in that class.

Discussing education is always going to be a balance between the needs of individual children, and any parent understandably puts his or her own child first, and the issues facing the community as a whole. How can we make education better for the kids in good schools, bad schools, traditional public schools, and charter schools right now, and also in the long run? Are those always compatible?

Most education discussions elsewhere in the media get very heated about a few hot-button issues, like "school reform" and Michelle Rhee. The editors and contributors who work on education generally don't have an absolutist position on these topics.

Those seeking to remove poorly performing teachers have some good points, but aren't always right. Teachers' unions have some good points too, but aren't always right either. Michelle Rhee was not perfect, but wasn't the devil; she did some good and made some mistakes.

We can all agree, however, that education in DC needs to be better for kids of many different backgrounds, different neighborhoods, races and income levels, and we need to figure out how to best achieve that shared goal. I hope our discussions about education can look at issues through that broad lens and bring a thoughtful perspective that is often missing.

Our education discussions spanned many topics last year

We've talked about a number of education policy topics in 2012. I looked at whether DC schools are "good enough" for parents with a choice, the problems with the rankings and statistics we have today, whether schools can be diverse, and how to promote diversity.

Ken Archer discussed whether Ward 3 schools are getting more exclusive and if we're headed toward 2 separate and mostly segregated systems. We asked whether 100% choice should be the goal, whether charters expel too many kids, and whether to have a common lottery

Steve Glazerman argued charters should not favor neighborhood residents, while Ken felt it would create a level playing field; a panel ultimately recommended against the idea.

Ken also talked about plans for Ward 5 middle schools and the DC claims that it has "universal" pre-K are dubious; even the auditors say so.

We started out the year with conversations about education funding in the budget, from Steven Glazerman, after-hours community schools, from Celine Tobal, and the widely-criticized IFF study on school closings.

These articles were all about education in the District, where the policy issues are very different from most Washington suburbs. That doesn't mean our education conversations should only focus on DC, however, and it would be great to have more about the issues in other cities and counties in the region.

What education topics would you like to discuss?

Can you help?

If we're going to have more discussions about education, we need posts. Greater Greater Wife and I don't have kids yet. These nonexistent kids are not enrolled in any local schools. Some of you do have children, and know interesting things about what's going on in your child's and other children's schools.

Can you share some of these? You don't have to have a Ph.D. in education or be a professional education researcher, though we also would welcome hearing from those folks. When we talk about buildings or bike lanes or parks or Metro, we try to look at things from the perspective of the regular person, and mix in a little bit of context. A post does not need to be a research paper.

Our commenters know a lot, too. Often a good post just poses some interesting thoughts and then gets a topic going. It's definitely not necessary to cover all of the bases of a subject to bring it up. A good post is the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

Nor does every post has to answer the broad question, "what is the most important educational policy issue"? Often very small things, at the local level, make the greatest difference. One of the best ways to talk about an issue on a blog is by example: we discuss one specific architectural decision or intersection design or local zoning fight, and through a large number of these, creates a collage that builds up to the bigger picture.

Are you trying to pick a school for your kid? Why not write about what you're learning and what factors you're weighing? Have a kid in a school with a great principal? You could interview him or her and write about what he or she does really well. Or are you sitting on a gold mine of useful statistics of some kind? Share them!

If you have access to really great information that would help advance the discussion, but can't publicly put it under your byline, we're interested in that too. However, we don't have a staff of reporters who can take a general tip or topic suggestion and do their own research for an article; that's what we need contributors to do. Most articles don't need a lot of research; you can just write about what you already know.

Can you help out? Let us know on this form. Even if you can only do a little, with a lot of people it will add up. I hope you can.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I often enjoy the op-eds that are published here. Soliciting more of those on education might spur some productive conversations. Maybe you could ask CM Catania, chair of the council's new education committee, to share his perspective; or a representative of the teacher's union; or the head of an after-school program.

by Gavin on Jan 11, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

How about these topics: school options for kids with disabilities, examining reasons why kids might transfer from charters to DCPS (I know it happens, albeit in small numbers), and/or a comparative look at the School Board vs Charter School Board.

by Brooklander on Jan 11, 2013 3:24 pm • linkreport

Most of the discussion around reform involves assumptions that are never really explored and much of the data gets shoved aside. Charters, magnets, etc. often are based on untested ideas that appeal to funders, administrators, and/or parents. language immersion, classical curricula, arts-based learning, boot camps, etc. Michele Rhee was preoccupied with breaking teachers unions, transferring her kids' principal, etc. but put nothing into the void she created and that's pretty typical of what passes for reform. And this may explain why charters, overall, do not outperform regular schools in most places and outcomes often seem dismal across the board (e.g., not every private school is St Alban's).

There's almost no discussion of what actually does work or why it rarely gets implemented. There is an enormous amount of research regarding curricula, classroom management, teaching methods, etc. None of these things is "sexy". Most people can look back on their education and see that there were periods where they were tracked and where they weren't, where they were forced to do things like diagram sentences even it wasn't helping them write.I never had phonics but my Catholic school friends had years of it and only children with early evidence of reading problems seem to benefit from it. At other times, schools may have tried some half-baked version of progressive education that devolved into chaos. The list goes on and most of those things were driven by someone thinking they were a "good idea".

There's very little understanding of test scores and why they move or don't move and why teaching to to repeated testing can be a bad idea.

That people, often very well educated and seemingly resourceful people, use a failed newsmagazine's easily gamed ratings to pick colleges is a good example of how little people know about the education they're getting or seeking.

by Rich on Jan 11, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

I cannot agree with Rich that Rhee was focsed exclusively or even primarily or even much on "breaking the union". FIrst of all, the Rhee reforms did move resources from central admin to schools to a considerable degree. Remember the inability to get textbooks to schools from the warehouse? That pretty much ended. Also other supplies needed by schools were expedited. The new DCPS/Union agreement was supported by an overwhelming vote of the union membership and has significant changed a lot of key factors. Budgets became a bit more rationalized and the overwhelming weight of too many very small schools was lessened some by the closings. Better principal leadership was put in place in a lot of instances, and they were supported in moving toward improving education. Finally, in large part because of Rhee, the budget for education rose sharply. None of those is about breaking the union and most of it had a quite positive impact on education for our kids -- both in the near term and in the future.

by Tom M on Jan 11, 2013 4:00 pm • linkreport

@Tom M: Agree, and also the move towards accommodating special education in DC rather than farming it out.

by LouDC on Jan 11, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

Start with some posts outlining reasonable expectations for DC schools before jumping to the solutions.

by alexandrian on Jan 11, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

Someone should look into the inadvertent consequences of requiring charters to have neighborhood preference, such as motivating charters to locate in certain neighborhoods and not others. Ken Archer should write it.

by LouDC on Jan 11, 2013 4:36 pm • linkreport

@Tom M -

I don't disagree with the statements you made about Rhee's successes, but she was a union breaker. See Dean Baker's post today about Rhee and unions.

More on Rhee (not as DC-related):

by Nick on Jan 11, 2013 5:37 pm • linkreport

One question will be whether the scope is education, or public education. In some parts of Greater Washington, the quality of private schools is as big of a consideration as the quality of public schools for people deciding whether to move. The assumption that the public schools are significantly inferior can become--to some extent--self-sustaining; and getting parents to give the public schools a chance may be a bigger challenge than changing how the schools operate.

by JimT on Jan 11, 2013 6:15 pm • linkreport

JimT: What is the line between public and private, and is it relevant?
- Isn't charter school is a private school with public money.
- Is is selectivity?There are highly selective public schools, while many parochial schools are as selective as public schools.
- access? In theory, public is open to all. But can a poor person afford to live Howard, Montgomery and Fairfax counties? Even within a county, certain areas have better schools than others. Due to parent subsidies, teacher attractiveness etc, you get positive feeback loops.
-Money? The excellent public systems spend a lot on education, sometimes more than private schools. There are terrible systems that also spend a lot of money.
Many public schools are subsidized by parents chipping in with money or labor, and many private schools have scholarships for the less well-off.
- Elite? THere are the super elite schools, but that is not most private schools. I know high income people with kids in public school, and people who scrimp and save every penny to send their kids to private school. Aren't the best public high schools in the region elite, since you need to live in typically wealthy areas.

Is the private/public distinction even relevant?
For parents and kids, the bottom line is whether they can get a good education, and what is the best education that they can afford.

by SJE on Jan 11, 2013 6:54 pm • linkreport

Any discussion of what Rhee was able to accomplish (in comparison to her predecessors or not) must acknowledge the fact that her time as Chancellor marked the first time where school authority rested with one person. So while she did make improvements, the new position created for her allowed it to happen. Given such authority, I imagine her margin of success is comparable to would likely be that of any other school leader's performance.

I believe the biggest thing she can get credit for is the new union contract and becoming the public face for education reform. That was a huge accomplishment. The rest was standard...not bad things..just standard.

The assumption that the public schools are significantly inferior can become--to some extent--self-sustaining; and getting parents to give the public schools a chance may be a bigger challenge than changing how the schools operate.

Yes. It's sort of like a stereotype. People naturally react to them. I have friends who will not consider sending their kids to DCPS...during and post-Rhee.

Or inner city living. I know others who won't allow their kids to ride the trains from the burbs into the city.

by HogWash on Jan 11, 2013 7:15 pm • linkreport

@HogWash: I love that "inner city" bit. Since I live there, does that make me tougher?

by goldfish on Jan 11, 2013 7:33 pm • linkreport

I think the more honest dialogue that people are engaged in the better. I write for a blog that tries to open the dialogue with perspective from a teacher and parent. Please check out this blog at:

by Florence on Jan 11, 2013 8:17 pm • linkreport

Gary Imhoff's good-government and its email newsletter very often address education. While Imhoff and crew follow the news and connect the dots (which is helpful), the writers-in tend to wave partisan flags. Over and over. So, please, subscribe to themail@dcwatch, but let's not reopen that same old can of worms at GGW.

by Turnip on Jan 11, 2013 9:04 pm • linkreport

@SJE: Those are very interesting questions. I am not sure whether they are ideas that came to you upon reading my comment, or if you inferred that I have opinions on those matters which you wanted to solicit (for the most part, I don't.)

Is the private/public distinction even relevant? I guess that depends on what you mean. To the extent that authors make that distinction by focussing on one group of people to the exclusion of others, the excluded will often find that distinction more relevant than the included.

by JimT on Jan 12, 2013 12:18 am • linkreport

It’s what’s not every day discussed that’s key. Low expectations and double standards are the biggest problem – not dealing with that leaves any “improvement” DOA. Parents unwilling and disenabled from exercising true parenting. Special programs like DC’s special needs program that draw incredible amounts of funding out of the general education pool – some say 15 times per child what the standard student is allotted. Students who are expelled and become burdens to society. Sub-par students who are passed year after year while retaining no knowledge at all other than “street smarts”. It all boils down to apathy. Why bother having children if you won’t assure they become happy citizens of our great country?

by Alex on Jan 12, 2013 8:34 am • linkreport

Budget, teachers without jobs, students completing their studies, getting a job or admitted to the next level of education and graduation are all important. Isn't the ultimate measure, the learning, the yardstick we never apply?

by Lee Richardson on Jan 12, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

To echo what Turnip said about not reopening the same old cans of worms, isn't it time move beyond discussions of Michelle Rhee? She's not the chancellor, and hasn't been for more than 2 years - love her or hate her (and there doesn't seem to be any in-between), she's just not relevant to the future of the DC school system(s).

I appreciate the work Ken has done on covering education for GGW (although I have significant disagreements with his positions - and perhaps have come off as overly testy explaining my disagreement).

This is not a specific topic suggestion, but most of the education posts have set up a discussion of charters v. DCPS, and ultimately people are forced to attack/defend one or the other. Perhaps that's inevitable (you can't really discuss facilities, budgeting, school selection, test scores, etc. without soon falling into a discussion of those differences), and it's certainly valuable, but broader discussions of education are also valuable.

And as David said, narrower discussions - for example, my daughter's class year happens to be approximately 70% boys/30% girls, which creates a very different dynamic than a 50/50 split, or a 70/30 female/male split. It's also an situation that is not going away - her school has little attrition - and while not a problem at this point, creates classroom management challenges for the teachers, and may become an issue as the years pass. Is this topic (or others like it) something that GGW would be interested in?

by dcd on Jan 12, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

JimT: Those ideas came to me after reading your comment. I do not ascribe them to you. I also apologize for my grammar: I realized just after writing that I was coming down with flu.

by SJE on Jan 12, 2013 7:17 pm • linkreport

Curriculum - DC is changing along with 45 states to the Common Core. Montgomery county has taken pains to inform parents but DC has done very little. Already most of us are mostly seeing homemade worksheets and little use of the text books already purchased. Will these reforms again be the substandard step child of our wealthier neighbor?

by DC parent on Jan 12, 2013 8:04 pm • linkreport

DC parent: you remind me of another point. With the new common core curriculum, can we readily compare year to year performance?

Separate issue re education: why do we treat schools as single use facilities? Why do we have this building that is used for only 10 months a year, 6 hours a day?

by SJE on Jan 13, 2013 10:02 am • linkreport

Along the lines of what Rich wrote earlier ...

There is a big literature out there; although what I get out of it from a limited reading is that there is a lot of uncertainty with respect to what does and does not work. For instance, at least as of a few years ago, the literature on class size (or per student spending) and student performance was all over the map.

In response to JimT's comment ...

My guess is that the public/private distinction is important since it is going to be related to something about the distribution of household incomes -- and a whole host of things correlated with it -- and the social networks of students and parents within the community. At least in our limited experience, who our kids play with determines in large who we meet. It's hard to make precise predictions without better data and a lot more space/time to write, but I suspect the absolute and relative quality of public and private institutions in a community will have a big effect on the qualitative characteristics of a community.

by Geof Gee on Jan 13, 2013 5:14 pm • linkreport

I imagine that it may be more challenging to write about private than public schools. Public schools are different within a school system, yet the fact that they are all within a small number of systems makes it possible to write about the large systems and then use the within-system differences to stress one point or another.

But what can one say about the private schools without drilling down to a specific school--unless we assemble a large set of authors. I could write some prose about one Quaker school, or two AMI Montessori schools--but that is not enough for a decent article. If 3-4 parents of children in other AMI Montessori schols wanted to collaborate we might have something useful to say about AMI Montessori in the region. Or if parents of other private schools in PG Co wanted to collaborate, we might have sommething good about private schools in PG Co. Perhaps the forces that lead people like me who went to public schools to send a child to private schools would be useful--but these are all much harder to put together than articles about what the government-funded schools are doing.

by JimT on Jan 13, 2013 9:02 pm • linkreport

It's exciting to see that GGW is taking this step towards looking more closely at education. Public education strikes me as a reflection of how access to resources varies across the DC and it certainly is part of the ecosystem of urban development. I suspect the Mr and Mrs GGWs (or Mrs and Mrs GGWs or Mr and Mr GGWs...) of the world will likely one day explore life w/ mini GGWs. Once you get past the right childcare (an adventure in an of itself), schools and education will come into the picture.

DCPS (and charters) are making great strides in attracting families to elementary schools by offering 3 year old programs and special programs (ex: language immersion, experiential learning, museum studies, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, the list goes on). It's lottery season, and while I haven't checked recently, I imagine DCUM is starting to light up w/ anxious parents discussing schools.

In many parts of the city (that don't feed into Deal or Hardy), things seem to fall apart around 3rd grade, when it becomes clear that there are very few viable middle school options (DCPS or charter). I don't quite understand why. Is it parental angst that drives families out, or is there really such a lapse in quality?

In any case, I'd certainly vote to keep middle schools in the education conversation. I'd love it sustain this conversation for as long as it takes to fix them. I love DC and I hope to raise my children here and keep them in the public schools. Our family does our part in fundraising, volunteering, advocating. I just want our educators (and the politicians who control their destinies) to do their part.

by Sandra on Jan 14, 2013 2:21 am • linkreport

The problem with writing about education is that it is pretty meaningless unless one delves into actual examples. But when one does that, it is is very difficult to lay out criticism, even anonymously: if one says school X is failing because the principal is incompetent, or its teacher ossified, or whatever, that quickly moves into a shouting match from its defenders. Worse, that can undermine its students or teachers that are putting their heart into it every day.

So criticism tends to be vague and at the DCPS or "all charter" level, which is rarely helpful to either system or useful to the parents that must choose.

by goldfish on Jan 14, 2013 9:11 am • linkreport

To focus on the original question and not the brewing debate about Unions/Rhee/Charters etc., I think good education should be a mix of:

1) Local issues (such as the attempts in Alexandria to complete new schools, or the implementation of DC's teacher evaluation system).

2) National trends - which should certainly cover the Common Core (and hopefully dispel the misinformation about it)


3) New research concerning education.

by Melissa on Jan 14, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

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