When Congress replaced the failed “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB) with the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) in 2015, it presented States and localities with a fundamental choice. Would they use the flexibility and guidance ESSA gave them to implement a new, effective strategy for improving the quality of low-achieving schools and educating America’s low-income and minority students? Or, would they essentially continue business as usual, voluntarily perpetuating NCLB’s basic, test-driven, ineffective approach to school improvement and accountability?
NCLB’s strategy unquestionably failed. Notwithstanding 14 years under the NCLB regime, 46% of black public school students nationwide are still “Below Basic” in reading and 44% “Below Basic” in math, as measured by the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress ― America’s most reliable student achievement measure. Likewise, 41% and 34% of Hispanic students, 40% and 35% of low-income students, are still “Below Basic” in reading and math, respectively. (All percentages represent the average of 4th and 8th grades.) That is, millions of America’s disadvantaged students still do not have even “partial mastery” of the knowledge and skills needed for their grade level.
Unless States/localities can now implement an effective, new approach for school improvement that prepares disadvantaged students to become self-sufficient and productive society members, America’s economy, military preparedness, public safety and world leadership status will be seriously undermined.
Fortunately, the new D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, appointed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, has now initiated a promising new direction for district-led school reform. It’s contained in the Mayor’s recently announced “A Capital Commitment Strategic Plan 2017-2022” (plan), read together with Wilson’s “From The Chancellor’s Desk” (FTCD) e-mails to stakeholders and others of his public statements.
In D.C., the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is the entity responsible for creating the D.C. state plan under ESSA. DCPS is the local public school district for the District of Columbia. DCPS shares NCLB’s goals: academic proficiency for virtually all public school students and closing the achievement gap. But DCPS’s approach is profoundly different.
NCLB - Under NCLB, schools were treated like machines ― a combination of independent parts, e.g., principal, teachers, curriculum, structure, etc. If a school was not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in test scores, it was because one or more of its parts was defective. To “fix” it, the district needed to replace the defective part(s).
Students were essentially treated one dimensionally ― receptacles to be drilled with information to pass State tests.
NCLB implicitly assumed that school staff knew what to do to dramatically increase disadvantaged students’ learning and had the capacity to do it ― they just needed to work harder. School improvement was to result from pressuring staff to satisfy AYP requirements. If that didn’t work, escalating sanctions would improve schools. Accountability consisted essentially of subjecting Title I schools that failed to make AYP to such sanctions, including labeling them as failures, replacing staff or curriculum or converting them to charter schools. Even under ESSA, regrettably, states are apparently still focusing accountability overwhelmingly on measuring school/student performance rather than measuring the extent of schools’ adoption of practices that improve school quality.
DCPS Plan - By contrast, Chancellor Wilson implicitly recognizes that schools generally cannot be improved simply by replacing discrete parts: they are complex, human organizations in which stakeholders’ behaviors are interrelated. As the Chancellor wrote: “Strong school leaders who effectively distribute leadership and who value the involvement of their stakeholders in improving their schools are the key to developing and maintaining quality schools.” FTCD, 4/25/17
As the plan notes: “our greatest asset is our collective vision and ability to work collaboratively [.]” Improving schools requires treating them holistically, engaging stakeholders to buy into a new vision and correspondingly changing their expectations, beliefs and practices to create a new culture.
Wilson implicitly recognizes that widespread low achievement of poor and minority students is not because staff fails to work hard enough. He hugely and publicly appreciates the importance of teachers and principals. FTCD, 4/25/17
Rather, he recognizes that many students have non-academic obstacles to learning, including a need to learn empathy, respect, self-confidence and responsibility. “Embed[ding] social emotional learning in our classrooms” is a high plan priority, part of the great value the plan places on serving “students as whole children [.]“ https://dcps.dc.gov/capitalcommitment As Wilson wrote:
A school focused on social, emotional and academic development looks and feels fundamentally different from one that isn’t. These are places where every student has opportunities to speak and be acknowledged. Where every child has his or her value affirmed every day. Where every staff member and family member who walks through the school doors feels welcomed and supported. Only when we make this vision a reality will we truly be on our way to building districts of both excellence and equity. https://t.e2ma.net/message/5e1reb/527g1m
Further, the plan recognizes the need to: support, guide and train staff to enable them to be more effective leaders and teachers; equitably allocate resources by “[p]rioritiz[ing] budgeting and resources for students who need them most [;]” and “[i]nvolv[ing] families and the community in children’s learning, including through home visits.”
D.C. does not seek to dramatically improve learning and close the achievement gap by concentrating on raising test scores per se. Instead, it seeks to create a joyful, collaborative, and supportive environment for all stakeholders in which all students are effectively taught a challenging, rich and engaging curriculum. When that is done, students will be engaged in learning and test scores will take care of themselves.
As to accountability, the Chancellor, by his actions, manifests that the most powerful way for the schools to be held publicly accountable is for him to frequently inform the stakeholders what he’s thinking, what DCPS is doing, both successes and failures, and to continually solicit and seriously consider stakeholders’ concerns and recommendations. To help formulate the plan, he held open meetings in all eight D.C. wards, visited all 115 DCPS schools, met with 100 representative students, and provided other means for stakeholders to submit their views to him about what DCPS’s priorities should be.
In short, a district’s key role is not to enforce test-driven accountability, but to help schools improve and students learn through a supportive, collaborative and transparent improvement process. If America’s “school reform” is finally to succeed and our millions of disadvantaged students to be adequately educated, the states and localities need to follow D.C.’s new direction.