[Ed Note: The education committee of the city council is holding TWO related hearings this Friday, December 15 (one starts at 10 am and will reconvene at 4 pm that same day) on graduation rate accountability, arising from reporting that students at DCPS’s Ballou high school graduated without earning appropriate credit. Below, DC education activist Peter MacPherson puts the official investigation of what happened at Ballou into historical and civic perspective.]
It’s a big deal in a democracy when two branches of a government decide a third just isn’t working well, needs to depart this mortal coil, and then administers the coup de grace. That’s what happened in 2007 when former Mayor Adrian Fenty and every member of the city council—save one—decided to dispatch the elected Board of Education from this realm. It was a decision made by a small number of actors, with the support of elite institutions like the Washington Post and with no meaningful opportunity for District residents to express whether they wanted one of the city’s few vestiges of democratic life to disappear.
The elected Board of Education has now been gone for a decade. Those who eliminated it made the argument that putting the final authority for DCPS under the aegis of a single person, namely the mayor, would be the antidote for what was commonly described as a failing school system. It’s been a popular narrative in our country: that uninhibited executive power is what’s needed to fix the badly broken. Fire the non-performing and eliminate the bickering and the need to build consensus on an elected board. Develop a bold plan for improvement and then implement it without the barriers that an elected board represents.
After a decade of mayoral control, few would say that the city’s schools are actually fixed. Huge improvements have been made in renovating or reconstructing school buildings. But the benefits of the school modernization program have not been experienced equally, with improvements closely tied to race and class. The achievement gap between white and non-white students remains as jarring as ever.
Nonetheless, there is a persistent narrative that our schools have dramatically improved, that DCPS is “the fastest improving urban school district in the United States,” as the mayor and her lieutenants frequently note. These kinds of statistics are often cited by the editorial page of the Washington Post.
Besides scores on standardized tests, significant improvements in high school graduation rates are also mentioned as evidence of improvement. The latter, if the numbers are to be believed, is a success that DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson wishes to build on: In the next 5 years, he wants 85% to graduate from high school within four years and 90% within four to five years.
But it’s difficult to judge that goal, because the current state of achievement in our schools is actually unknown.
For instance, reporting by WAMU and NPR has raised considerable doubt about the actual graduation rate at Ballou in Ward 8. The school had reported an improvement in its graduation rate from 50% in 2012 to 67% in 2017. And the school also reported that all of its 2017 graduating class had been accepted to college. However, the WAMU/NPR reporting makes clear that those numbers are illusory. Evidence of excessive absenteeism on the part of students as well as the massaging of grades indicate that many were allowed to graduate when they in fact were not eligible to do so.
Our mayor and chancellor desperately want this scandal to be isolated to a single school. And if only Ballou is investigated, that’s where it will remain. As it now stands, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education plans to only investigate Ballou.
This is exactly why education reform in the District of Columbia is failing.
Those running education in the District are deeply invested in the reform model adopted a decade ago. Eliminating the elected school board and embracing a high-stakes testing paradigm were supposed to transform our schools. Those brought in to run the schools were sold as pedagogic alchemists who possessed the secret formula.
That narrative is paramount: The political and media class are not invested in all students succeeding academically. Essentially, they care about the perception that students are learning and achieving in our schools. When scandals appear, like the one involving cheating on standardized tests that USA Today uncovered (and even more since then), scenarios have been constructed to give the appearance that what was reported was limited to a few isolated examples. Unlike in Atlanta, where a similar scandal had taken place and a fulsome investigation conducted, much more limited inquiries were conducted in DC. In Atlanta, school system officials went to jail for their role in the cheating scandal.
No such sunlight was brought to bear on events here in DC. Cheating took place that was engineered by adults. And no one in DC went to jail.
District stakeholders have every reason to be skeptical of how city students are faring in our schools. The problem is that the civic bodies in DC that ensure accountability–the mayor, city council, OSSE, the media, the charter board–are so heavily invested in a particular narrative that they have largely forsaken their actual roles.
Before 2007, we had relatively poor oversight, and many schools and educational situations that were demonstrably bad. After the elimination of the democratically elected school board, all that has happened is a continuous story of improvement. Actual and honest assessment has been abandoned. In fact, challenging the current educational orthodoxy seems as perilous as criticizing Joseph Stalin in Russia in the 1930s. Critics are forced from the system or characterized as dead-enders clinging to a sclerotic old order.
Common sense says we should be skeptical about what our city’s educational agencies are telling us about the progress of our students. The PARCC—and the DC-CAS that it replaced–have consistently shown that many District high school students have low scores on these tests. These test results, where some high schools have single digit percentages of students scoring proficient in both reading and math, should make everyone skeptical that 72.4% on average (the current graduation rate for the city) were able to credibly graduate.
We do not need an investigation just of Ballou. We need a comprehensive investigation of high school graduation rates at every high school.
And, as council member Robert White has asked, this investigation needs to be done by an entity that has no direct connection with the District government. The findings should be released independently and not filtered by the mayor, chancellor, charter board, or the state superintendent for education, all of whom have a stake in ensuring a positive narrative emerges no matter how egregious the treatment of students actually is.
During the past decade, those with direct responsibility for education in the city have placed the credit or blame for levels of student achievement on teachers and principals. The current education orthodoxy, which has been relentlessly defended for the past 10 years by city politicians, the media, and the business community with little questioning, has to be abandoned in favor of a far more rigorous assessment of what our students actually need. Their success or failure is not just a function of the schools or programming or personnel. It’s also very much about the context in which many DC children live their lives. Poverty matters. Food insecurity matters. Domestic violence matters. If we can start having reliable information about how students are actually faring in schools, we can start having honest conversations about how to help kids get the education they need.
But doing so requires the grownups–the actual adults in the rooms where these decisions are made every day–to start being honest. It’s hard to imagine anything more pernicious than a willingness to misrepresent what is happening to children in school.