DC Schools: Crediting Success, Confronting Challenge

In June on this blog I wrote that,

"Chancellor Kaya Henderson is doing all the right things to achieve long-term results; let her do her job without further political follies which only take time away from serious educational reform."

I got some angry calls about that statement demanding to know, "What exactly has Kaya Henderson done to deserve your praise?"

The answers came forth last week when Chancellor Henderson and Mayor Vincent Gray announced the good ("historic") results on the 2013 Comprehensive Assessment System test scores for math and reading.

Aggregate test scores are at the highest level they've ever been in D.C., and the gains from 2012 to 2013 were the largest gains since 2008. The announcement of these very good results brought forth both a great deal of back-slapping among the leaders of school reform in D.C., and an equal amount of suspicion and ongoing criticism of standardized tests from other quarters.

Chancellor Henderson certainly deserves congratulations and recognition for leading this school system forward in a very difficult environment. Any improvement in student learning results is worthy of praise, and all school leaders need these moments of triumph in order to regain the energy necessary for the next phase of the climb up the mountain of educational improvement.

Kaya Henderson, of all people, knows that one year's worth of good test results does not mean victory for the school reform effort. Rather, the stakes are now even higher to demonstrate that this year's results were neither a fluke nor the result of cheating, which diminished the value of prior test scores, but rather, a solid platform on which to build the next phase of achievement.

Even as the chancellor and mayor rightfully celebrated success, I wish that they had spent a bit more time praising the teachers and principals who are the people most responsible for student achievement. Chancellor Henderson has certainly changed much of the tone from the days when Michelle Rhee publicly and ruthlessly trashed teachers at every opportunity. By contrast, I have often heard this chancellor praise and encourage teachers, and they now deserve a share of the headlines for improvement in student achievement.

Teaching is very hard work, especially when children come to school burdened with so many other problems --- poverty, parental illiteracy, violence, hunger, homelessness and untreated illness. When she was chancellor, Rhee often dismissed the conditions of families as "an excuse" when, in fact, these conditions have a clear and direct impact on the ability of children to learn well. Yes, good teachers can help pupils to overcome many of these dysfunctions, but too many good teachers have been punished and driven out of the profession by the egregious lack of sensitivity among school reformers to external conditions that impede learning.

The challenges that remain for D.C. Schools demand excellent, dedicated teachers who are in the profession for the long-haul, and they need active and continuous support from the leadership of the city.

So much remains to be done. Amid the signs of promise, let's not ignore the hard reality that many schools are still lagging badly in overall learning achievement --- most of them, not surprisingly, are schools in the most impoverished places in the city. Paving over the poverty to build stadiums and hip new housing for singles will change nothing in the lives of the children who trudge to school in the morning hungry because there was nobody home to give them breakfast (DC is second only to New Mexico in the rate of childhood food insecurity in the country), or sleepy because of the noise in the household all night long. The painful gap between achievement of black students and white students that these test scores depict is continuing evidence of the astonishing level of chronic poverty in the eastern part of the city.

The test results also show that high school remains a vast wasteland in too many parts of the city. People often ask me if I'm seeing the results of reform in DCPS. I have to reply, sadly, not at all. Trinity is well known for enrolling more DCPS graduate than any other private university in the world. We do this because of the social justice imperative that comes from our religious mission, and also because of our historic mission to educate women because we believe that educating mothers will improve the lives of children. But our commitment to mission for D.C. students also comes with a great risk and high pricetag for Trinity: the majority of these students need extensive academic support, which is expensive to provide, and they also need considerable support in healthcare, counseling, child care, housing and other social needs that neither financial aid nor city services provide completely.

Despite their great desire to earn college, degrees, too many D.C. students arrive in college ill-prepared to succeed at the collegiate level. While some universities, like Trinity, work hard to close that preparation and support gap, others are not so willing to spend the money or take the time to make-up for what the K-12 schools did not do. The urgency of the collegiate preparation issue for low income D.C. students was magnified this week by two reports that studied race and economic levels of college students:

  • A Georgetown study revealed, not surprisingly, that elite colleges and universities enroll comparatively few low income students of color
  • A study from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reveals that students who receive Pell grants are less likely to finish college than others.
  • How are these studies germane to the DCPS test score story? The combined effects of poverty (Pell grant eligibility) and under-preparation for collegiate level academic work means that too many D.C. students who manage to gain entrance to college have a hard time persisting and completing, and many universities simply will not take the risk of enrolling them as a result.

    Chancellor Henderson and her team of teachers and administrators are on the right track, and they deserve as much support as the city and community can muster to stay the course toward improvement. We all wish that improvement would be faster, and perhaps we will see some acceleration as the school system gains confidence in the success of the chosen strategies. Now is hardly the time to destabilize the system once again by forcing a different reform plan.