The next phase of D.C. ed­u­ca­tion re­form

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is an Emer­son Col­lec­tive fel­low and au­thor of “The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Na­tion’s Worst School Dis­trict.”

School re­form in the Dis­trict is look­ing sweet. Public char­ter schools, which now ed­u­cate half of the stu­dents in the Dis­trict, boast a promis­ing track record. And ev­ery­one agrees that things have vastly im­proved in D.C. Public Schools.

That’s not just my opin­ion. A long-awaited re­port re­leased by the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil con­cluded that all stu­dents, in­clud­ing low-in­come mi­nori­ties, are do­ing bet­ter. For an area whose schools were con­sid­ered among the worst in the na­tion not too long ago, that’s re­mark­able.

The rea­son for char­ters’ suc­cess is sim­ple: great lead­er­ship that closes bad char­ters and of­fers a tail­wind to the best ones. And DCPS schools have ben­e­fited from con­sis­tent re­forms over­seen by two chan­cel­lors and three may­ors.

So we should be happy, right? Not re­ally. What worked to make things bet­ter won’t work to make things truly great.

For starters, the Dis­trict’s school lead­ers — Scott Pear­son, who over­sees char­ters, and Kaya Hen­der­son, who runs DCPS— are na­tional ed­u­ca­tion rock stars. They could get snapped up at any mo­ment. What then?

Dis­trict schools have im­proved only be­cause the two chan­cel­lors and three may­ors agreed on what needed to be done. That’s rare, and it won’t last for­ever.

In ad­di­tion, the gov­er­nance over­see­ing schools is an­ti­quated. As the NRC re­port made clear, no one an­tic­i­pated that half of Dis­trict stu­dents would end up in char­ters.

Ed­u­ca­tion re­form ef­forts are at a cross­roads. The crux is this: Dis­trict lead­ers need to be more ag­gres­sive about trans­form­ing un­der­per­form­ing schools, and char­ter schools need to get bet­ter at serv­ing all stu­dents.

One ex­am­ple: Hen­der­son prob­a­bly should turn over Ward 8’s strug­gling Moten Ele­men­tary School — where 15 per­cent of the kids are pro­fi­cient in read­ing and 17 per­cent in math— to a good char­ter. Not Moten? Pick another of the Dis­trict’s low­per­form­ing schools.

One rea­son there’s lit­tle change is that Hen­der­son is judged on met­rics that in­clude only DCPS, such as whether en­roll­ment is grow­ing and aca­demic out­comes are im­prov­ing. If she turns a school over to a char­ter, she is blamed for los­ing en­roll­ment rather than lauded for mak­ing a bold de­ci­sion for stu­dents.

But to en­trust strug­gling schools with char­ters, the or­ga­ni­za­tions need to serve stu­dents with spe­cial needs, en­roll stu­dents midyear and serve ad­ju­di­cated youth.

The NRC re­port rec­om­mends that the Dis­trict de­vise an over­ar­ch­ing au­thor­ity to con­duct “cen­tral­ized, sys­temwide mon­i­tor­ing and over­sight of all public schools and their stu­dents, with par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to high-need stu­dent groups.” That should be the Of­fice of the State Su­per­in­ten­dent of Ed­u­ca­tion. But, as the re­port pointed out, it might not be up to the task. In build­ing a lo­cal so­lu­tion, D.C. lead­ers would be wise to tap into in­no­va­tion hap­pen­ing across the coun­try.

In Ten­nessee, Louisiana and Michigan (and soon in Ne­vada and Ge­or­gia), third-party gov­ern­men­tal en­ti­ties can trans­form any fail­ing school, tra­di­tional or char­ter.

Pa­trick Do­bard, a for­mer public school teacher who over­sees the Re­cov­ery School Dis­trict in Louisiana, cor­rectly sees him­self more as a pro­tec­tor of eq­uity than a tra­di­tional school su­per­in­ten­dent. He’s not wor­ried about who’s up or down in the en­roll­ment com­pe­ti­tion; he wants to trans­form all fail­ing schools and en­sure that all schools are open to ev­ery stu­dent.

Chris Bar­bic, a for­mer char­ter school leader, plays a sim­i­lar role in Ten­nessee. In Michigan, the gover­nor and the mayor of Detroit are ne­go­ti­at­ing an au­thor­ity to over­see all schools in the city for per­for­mance and eq­uity.

Imag­ine if out­stand­ing D.C. char­ters could get quick ac­cess to empty build­ings, if a fail­ing DCPS school could get turned over to a great char­ter or if DCPS could form deep part­ner­ships with char­ters in the city’s at­tempt to serve ev­ery child.

The Dis­trict has the lead­er­ship, ed­u­ca­tors and re­sources to launch the next phase of public school­ing in the United States.

It won’t be easy, but ev­ery time you think it can’t hap­pen, think of the kids stuck at un­der­per­form­ing schools. Andthen think again.

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