A Memo to the DC Public Schools Chancellor

by Markus Batchelor and Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 8 and Ward 3 members of the DC State Board Of Education

lead article in City Paper, Aug 3, 2017, For the full article, click here

Enough with the mandates and rosy data.  Our recommendations for really raising student achievement. 

Most people don’t realize it, but the high schools in Wards 8 and 3—Anacostia, Ballou, and Wilson—and the elementary and middle schools that “feed their students to these schools enroll a near-majority of all students in DCPS neighborhood schools. In the school year that just ended, there wee 9144 students enrolled in those Ward 8 schools and 9703 in Ward 3’s. Citywide, DCPS neighborhood schools enrolled 43,389. It’s no secret that Ward 8 is the lowest-income ward and Ward 3 the highest. They are two very different communities, with divergent student and family populations. Nonetheless, and perhaps surprisingly to some, our concerns about our schools—in Wards 8 and 3, respectively, where we are the elected State Board of Education members–and for the system as a whole are quite similar.  As Board members, we have a special opportunity to meet, visit, and interact regularly with the families, teachers, principals, and staff who depend on and work in the DCPS schools across the city.     

Solutions to one perceived set of problems have a way of producing a new generation of problems. So it is with our school system. As our new chancellor prepares to release his new strategic plan in the next few weeks, he faces a different set of challenges from his predecessors. And so his agenda must be distinct. We are optimistic about the leadership and ideas that Chancellor Antwan Wilson is bringing to our schools, but we have some advice.

            “The past two chancellors inherited a school system suffering from horribly low student achievement. They were charged with taking urgent action. As they saw it, the core of the problem behind low achievement was inadequate teachers and principals—and, more broadly, a culture of low expectations where poverty was blamed for students’ failure. The reform agenda of these chancellors was clear: There was a laser-focus on identifying and removing inadequate teachers and principals and replacing them with better ones. The relatively lax system was tightened with a stream of mandates from central office. Evaluation criteria emphasized test scores and adherence to particular teaching and operating approaches. For a long time, a high-quality curriculum was an afterthought.

How successful this agenda has been is subject to debate. While average scores have risen, leading the district to be “the fastest growing urban school district in the country,” the rise is at least partly due to gentrification: The 8th grade reading and math scores of our poorest students have hardly budged. After 10 years of aggressive education reform under Mayoral control, the achievement and opportunity gaps across race and wealth have gotten wider.

      “Therefore, the DCPS reform agenda must change. There is consensus that successful schools—especially those with the lowest-income children—have, and depend on strong, supportive, trusting school cultures in which staff members hold high expectations for all students; where all staff are constantly improving and encouraged to recognize, understand and solve problems that are impeding achievement. Such schools can thrive only in districts that give them the autonomy to do what’s needed –and where data and research, good and bad, are transparent and welcome because they show whether progress is actually being made or whether improvement strategies need to be adjusted..….

     For the full article, click herehttp://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/article/20971334/a-memo-to-the-dc-public-schools-chancellor

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