DC's Fair Weather Friends

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Okay, I'm on a bit of a rant. I've now written here, here, and here about education advocates doing a rotten job communicating and celebrating successes and sticking to their knitting. In that vein...

Of late I am hearing a lot of noise about how we should steer clear of any mention of DC Public Schools in celebrating our successes. The district is now tainted, damaged goods. 

What accounts for the fall from grace? A bunch of high schools in the District were so intent on raising the graduation rates that there were graduating kids who rarely came to school. It's also because the relatively new superintendent broke some rules trying to get his own daughter transferred to another school.

Neither of those is a good thing. But why do they suddenly disqualify the District's incredible track record, having made more forward progress than any urban district in the United States on student achievement (well, we can argue whether it's Chicago or DC but at least it's a debate). Of course, Valerie Strauss and her colleagues at the Washington Post are having a field day, but the advocates are conceding the ground and making for full retreat.

Neither of these two scandals negates this laundry list of achievements:

  • Getting a teaching job is so competitive in DC that the district hires relatively few new teachers. Three quarters of their new teachers come with classroom experience, a far cry from the days when Teach For America was the district's primary source of teachers and going back even further when they had to hire anyone who applied.
  • The district's evaluation system is doing exactly what was intended, holding on to great teachers with a 92 percent retention rate and motivating low performing teachers to choose to leave.
  • With nine years of service, a great teacher can qualify to earn over $131,000. No other district in the nation comes close. In other large districts, the maximum salary averages well under $100,000 which teachers earn only after teaching for an average of 24 years.
  • The gap between white and black kids' scores on 4th and 8th grade NAEP in both reading and math has shrunk over the last ten years. DC's declines in the achievement gap in all these areas outpace the average among districts with NAEP data.

In any case, the graduation scandal is certainly not unique to DC. There's been some evidence (check out Alabama and California, for instance) that such practices are widespread. Sometimes they're not even done surreptitiously like in DC but officially sanctioned in meetings, wide open to the public. From my own experience on the Maryland State School Board, I can attest that we approved (while claiming it was only a temporary fix, ha ha) a set of faux graduation standards to take care of the sizeable chunk of kids who weren't going to meet Maryland's real graduation standards. DC may have been up to no good, and may need to make some real changes in some of its policies and practices, but let's not pretend high school graduation rates aren't a national scandal.

I am confident that DC's response to these problems will demonstrate their commitment to achieving successes in reality and not just on paper. And I will continue to tout DC as one of the few districts in the nation that has improved the lives of both teachers and students alike. Please join me.