Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Charter Schools

Education


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.

Education


Carol Schwartz bids to become the education mayor

Carol Schwartz has produced a detailed, thoughtful platform on a key issue in the DC mayoral race, education. It's unlikely to be enough to propel her long-shot campaign to victory, but right now her position is the one most likely to ensure stability in DC Public Schools.


Photo by David on Flickr.

Schwartz, a former at-large DC Councilmember, has some good ideas about things like lessening the focus on standardized tests and retaining veteran teachers. Her 15-page white paper is a far more comprehensive document than anything produced by either of the other candidates, and her positions align better with those of DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Schwartz also has more education experience than her rivals, Councilmembers Muriel Bowser and David Catania. She first came to DC to teach special education, inspired by the experience of caring for her intellectually disabled brother. She went on to serve two terms on the now-defunct Board of Education, which governed DC's public schools (not to be confused with the current State Board of Education, which does not). And her three children all attended DCPS.

Schwartz's stances on hot-button issues like school boundaries and charter school growth suggest that a Mayor Schwartz would have a better chance of retaining the current DCPS Chancellor than either a Mayor Catania or a Mayor Bowser.

How important is that? It's true that the pace of progress under Henderson has been slow. And some DCPS policies, like the system for evaluating teachers, could certainly be improved. But it will be unfortunate if the mayoral election results in Henderson's departure.

Henderson is a smart and competent administrator who has demonstrated an admirable willingness to try new initiatives, some of which may be on the verge of bearing fruit. It would be a shame if those processes were disrupted and the pace of change slowed further, or possibly even reversed.

With those considerations in mind, some DC education activists have thrown their support to Bowser rather than Catania, despite Catania's greater expertise on education. As chair of the DC Council's education committee, Catania has acquired a detailed knowledge of the public school landscape, and he's brimming with ideas about how to improve it. Bowser's strategy on education, on the other hand, has basically been to say as little about it as possible.

But Catania and Henderson have had a testy relationship, and he hasn't said whether he would keep her on. It's not clear she would stay under a Mayor Catania even if he wanted her to.

Bowser, on the other hand, has said she'd like Henderson to stay, and she's been generally complimentary about the Chancellor's performance.

Bowser's opposition to new boundaries

But Bowser's recent statements on the controversial boundary plan adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray may have soured that cordial relationship. Henderson supports the plan, and Bowser, like Catania, recently came out in opposition to it.

What's more, for some reason Bowser added that she didn't anticipate involving the DCPS chancellor in formulating a substitute proposal.

As Gray observed, that doesn't seem like a wise move. Henderson wasn't in charge of the recent boundary process, but she was certainly involved. And that seems only appropriate for a process involving the boundaries and feeder patterns of the system she heads.

Not only is the move unwise substantively, but Bowser's remark seems bound to alienate Henderson. While the Chancellor hasn't said anything publicly about these developments, it's possible she'll decide that Bowser isn't someone she actually wants to work under.

Schwartz, for her part, seems to have struck all the right notes for retaining Henderson. Schwartz commits to allowing her to stay on for "the time she has stated she wants, which is one or so more years." (Henderson has said she'd like to stay until 2017.) And in one of a series of veiled digs at Catania, Schwartz says she would not "micromanage" a chancellor but rather would "partner with" her "in setting policy and goals."

Schwartz on school boundaries and charters

On the crucial issue of school boundaries, Schwartz suggests a few tweaks, such as increasing the percentage of set-asides for out-of-boundary students to maintain diversity. But she says she accepts the need for change.

She also sides with Henderson on some issues that have emerged recently in the relationship between DCPS and the charter sector, such as joint planning between the sectors. While charter advocates are amenable to joint planning that is voluntary on their part, it's clear that Schwartz believes it would make sense to impose limits on such things as where new charter schools can open.

Charter advocates have resisted that as an infringement on their autonomy. But Henderson and others have argued, with some justification, that without those kinds of limits, charter expansion could easily undermine plans to improve DCPS schools.

Will any of this convince DC education reformers who want Henderson to stay on to switch their support from Bowser to Schwartz? Probably not, given the overwhelming odds against Schwartz. But perhaps they can urge Bowser to do whatever she can to mend the damage she may have done to her relationship with Henderson.

Beyond that, Bowser might want to flesh out her own skimpy education platform with some of the ideas that abound in Schwartz's white paper. Schwartz may never get a chance to implement those ideas herself, but it would be nice if someone did.

Education


Some see the DCPS-charter relationship breaking down, but charter leaders disagree

Shortly before the advisory committee on school boundaries and feeder patterns released its final proposal, the DC Public Charter School Board's representative resigned in protest over one of the committee's recommendations. Does that move reflect a deepening rift between the charter and traditional public school sectors? It depends on who you ask.


Photo of arguing fingers from Shutterstock.

There's been a lot of brouhaha surrounding the committee's recent recommendations, their adoption by Mayor Vincent Gray, and their repudiation by both of his likely successors. The resignation of Dr. Clara Hess, the PCSB's official representative on the committee, has gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle.

But in interviews, members of the committee candidly expressed anger and dismay at Hess's resignation, seeing it as one more step in the apparent deterioration of the relationship between DC's charter sector and DC Public Schools.

"Everybody was disappointed," said Faith Hubbard, a member of the committee who lives in Ward 5. "It was like, all this work we did over a year, and you want it to come down to this?"

Others disagree that the once cordial relationship is breaking down. "I think actually relations between the sectors are better than ever," said Scott Pearson, executive director of the PCSB. "And I think the level of collaboration will continue to grow."

Priority for at-risk students

The recommendation that prompted Hess's resignation focuses on "at-risk" students, a new designation that includes kids who are homeless, in foster care, eligible for food stamps or welfare benefits, or a year or more below grade level in high school. The category includes 43% of DC students.

Beginning this school year, the DC government will provide additional funding to schools based on the number of at-risk students they enroll.

The committee recommended that all public schools, including charter schools, with fewer than 25% at-risk students give priority to such students for 25% of the seats they allocate through a lottery each year.

Pearson said the committee hadn't sufficiently analyzed the impact of that recommendation. The committee did produce data showing how many schools would be affected (19 DCPS and 13 charter schools) and how many seats at each school would be set aside for at-risk students (between two and 38).

But Pearson said the committee should also have analyzed whether at-risk students would displace others who are economically disadvantaged but don't fall into the at-risk definition.

PCSB's authority to bind charters

More fundamentally, Pearson said the PCSB did not have the authority to agree to a recommendation that would bind individual charter schools. There were no representatives of individual charter schools on the committee.

Hubbard argued that it would have been impossible to have representatives of all DC charter schools on the committee, just as it was impossible to have all DCPS schools represented. There was one representative from DCPS, she said, just as there was a representative from the PCSB.

But Pearson said those representatives were not equivalent, since all of DCPS is a single Local Education Agency, while each charter operator is its own LEA.

Part of the problem was that the committee didn't begin focusing on charter schools until fairly late in its 10-month process, so there wasn't time to canvass charter leaders on the at-risk issue. The committee's initial mission was to redraw boundaries and feeder patterns for DCPS schools.

But at community meetings on the first round of proposals in April, parents repeatedly called for comprehensive planning that would include both sectors, according to committee members.

Pearson said those meetings, held at DCPS schools and organized according to DCPS feeder patterns, didn't adequately represent charter school parents. Committee members responded that parents often switch back and forth between sectors, so there was more charter representation than was apparent.

"To say charter parents weren't represented in the process is erroneous and is convenient if you don't like what came out of it," said Eboni-Rose Thompson, a Ward 7 resident who was on the committee. Thompson has also been a contributor to Greater Greater Education.

The DCPS-charter relationship

The more important question, especially now that the future of the committee's recommendations is uncertain, is what the disagreement means for the DCPS-charter relationship. Thompson and Hubbard were pessimistic, feeling that a generally positive process had ended on a sour note.

But Pearson was more upbeat, pointing to another recommendation that calls for a task force to be set up by the end of December that will focus on collaboration and planning across school sectors. The PCSB still supports that recommendation, he said.

His perspective was echoed by Emily Bloomfield, a committee member and former board member of the PCSB who is in the process of launching a new charter school.

"I'm very optimistic about collaboration partly because I've seen more of it over time," Bloomfield said, citing the common school lottery and an annual school fair that used to be limited to charter schools and now includes DCPS.

But those who have called for collaborative planning generally envision a process that would impose some limits on charter growth and location. As Pearson has made clear, the charter sector is adamantly opposed to any limits that aren't voluntary on its part.

Hubbard feels that attitude will be a problem for the task force that the recommendations call for. "Charters have been allowed to grow without much oversight," she said, "and this task force is going to infringe on that. Anytime, they could say: we're going to take our ball and go home."

Both Hubbard and Thompson, an alumna of a charter school, say that things have changed since charters were a small part of the educational landscape. Now that they educate nearly half of DC's students, Thompson said, charter autonomy shouldn't be seen as sacrosanct.

"Now it should be about how we ensure we're making a good faith effort to serve all students," she said, "and not just buying into words that sound attractive like 'innovation' and 'autonomy.'"

Perhaps, as Thompson predicts, the DC Council will soon be ready to impose limits on charter growth, although so far there have been few signs of that. Or perhaps, as Bloomfield suggests, charter operators will be willing to voluntarily adjust their plans in exchange for a better way of obtaining suitable buildings from the DC government.

What's clear is that many in both sectors share a sense of mission about improving the quality of education for DC's low-income students. But they don't always agree on the best way to achieve that.

Let's hope the task force, which is scheduled to begin meeting before Gray leaves office, will provide a better forum than the advisory committee for hashing out differences between the sectors. Unlike the committee, the task force will most likely include representation from charter school operators, and it will be clear from the outset that its mission is cross-sector planning and collaboration.

Education


DC schools need a mayor who's in a hurry

Ask most of the candidates in the District's April 1 Democratic primary about the gap between our most and least successful public schools, and they'll tell you they want every school to be great. That's a laudable aspiration, but at our current pace it will take more than a generation to get there. Sadly, few candidates support acting boldly to change the lives of students being left behind.


Photo by Eirien on Flickr.

The District's traditional public schools have made significant strides, with scores rising to the point at which last year 47 percent of D.C. Public Schools students scored proficient in reading on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (D.C.-CAS), the District's standardized test, and 50 percent did so in math. But that means only about half of our students are able to perform fairly basic math and reading tasks.

There is a long way to go. And the gap in achievement between wealthier and poor kids not only persists but also is increasing in some areas.

The bottom line is that the pace of change has been excruciatingly slow, with scores rising only about 1.3 percentage points per year. At that rate, true change will not come until the children of many of today's elementary school students are starting school.

Continue reading our latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC