The D.C. charter school experiment is over

Yesterday, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education released the 2019 PARCC standardized test results and the findings could not be more disappointing. Coming off an anemic year in 2018, charters failed miserably in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the traditional schools. We will be concentrating today on the percentage of students that scored a four or above on the examination, meaning that they are judged to be career or college ready, which is a measure of proficiency. Let’s delve into the details.

For all students in English Language Arts, charters saw an increase compared to 2018 going from 31.5 percent to 34.2 percent, a 2.7 percent change. However, DCPS students gained 4.8 percent, increasing from 35.1 percent to 39.9 percent. For black students, charters had 29.2 percent of pupils in the four plus category, a jump of 2.6 percent from last year’s 26.6 percent. DCPS had a slightly lower proportion of students in this group at 26.8 percent but the improvement over last year was larger at 3.9 percent. Hispanic students in charter schools were proficient at a rate of 33.8 percent, 1.5 percent compared to last year, while DCPS experienced a 7.4 percent increase in this subgroup’s results coming in at 39.4 percent.

For at-risk students, the proficiency rate in charters is 22.2 percent, similar to DCPS at 20.6 percent. However, again DCPS gained at a faster clip improving by 3.6 percent compared to 1.9 percent for charters. For English Language Learners, charters actually decreased its score by 1.5 percent to 14.0 while DCPS rose in this category by 2.0 percent to 22.2.

In Math the patterns are basically the same. Overall, charters improved from 2018 by just 0.3 percent to 28.7 percent proficient. DCPS improved to 32.4 percent, going up 1.9 percent from the previous year. Black students scored better in charters in this subject at 24.4 percent, compared to 18.1 percent for the regular schools, but for Hispanic students the trend was reversed with charters at 24.5 percent and DCPS at 33.0 percent. In charters, at-risk students came in at 18.6 percent proficient, an upward change of only 0.1 percent from last year. DCPS scored at 14.6 percent, improving by 1.2 percent from 12 months ago. Interestingly, for homeless students in math, charters actually experienced a 3.9 percent decrease for those recording a four or higher, going from 22.0 percent in 2018 to 18.1 percent, while DCPS increased 2.8 percent in this category to 12.8 percent. Again, for English Language Learners, DCPS tops charters at 25.9 percent versus 15.3 percent, respectively.

In case anyone wants to know, the academic achievement gap in the nation’s capital remained essentially the same as last year at 63.9 percent.

How can we tell just how devastating these results are as a group for the charter sector? We need to look no farther than the comments by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, contained in an article that appeared yesterday by Perry Stein regarding the 2019 PARCC assessment:

“Pearson also noted that English-language learners are performing better in the traditional public school system — a trend that has endured in recent years. He says he has encouraged charter leaders to learn from the traditional public system’s strategies in working with English-language learners.”

Excuse me, charters are supposed to learn from DCPS how to teach English Language Learners? Isn’t this one of the areas where charters are supposed to excel? Is this what we have come to, charters turning to the regular schools to figure out how best to educate its students? It is truly a sad day.

There are many reasons that charters are failing to perform when it comes to the PARCC. The facility issue is still proving to be a significant drain on the attention span of school leaders. The financial challenges, especially around teacher salaries, are not helped by the substantial inequity in funding compared to DCPS. The pressure placed on these schools by the PCSB in the way of accountability through the Performance Management Framework, and other regulatory burdens, makes it almost impossible for them to be the centers of innovative learning envisioned when they were created.

Charter schools have been charged with siphoning students away from the traditional school system, which results in loss of funds for our neighborhood schools. With test results such as these, it is logical to ask whether they should continue to exist.

At-risk student lottery preference in D.C. school lottery is a bad idea

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote a story about the controversy over Washington Latin PCS’s application before the DC Public Charter School Board to replicate next year.

The only problem is that there never should have been controversy over this issue. Latin clearly meets the charter board’s criteria for a ceiling enrollment increase through its consistent attainment of Tier 1 status for both its middle school and high school and due to the fact that its student wait list is around 1,500 pupils. The charter board, under its own rules, should have given the green light to expansion without six pages of conditions imposed on this institution.

The charter school bargain has always been expressed as autonomy in return for accountability. Washington Latin exemplifies this standard.

If there was ever a definition of mission-creep we have found it in the work of the PCSB.

The charter board was highly critical of the low proportion of at-risk student who attend the school. But as they like to say at Latin “words matter.” This is straight from the school’s website:

“Unlike the majority of public schools, Washington Latin serves a diverse student body; our demographics mirror those of the city. We believe that all students can learn and deserve access to a rigorous, quality education. As a public school, we have civic and moral obligations to accept all students who come to us for an education. We consider a truly integrated school community to be the only way to accomplish our classical education model, helping students develop the ability to discuss ideas and make moral decisions within a diverse community.”

The school’s goal has always been to have a diverse student body. If you visit Latin you will see it for yourself; I don’t believe there is a charter in this town that is more of a melting pot of young people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. It works intentionally toward this goal. As a former board member of the school I have lost track of how many bus routes it runs in order to pull students from each Ward of the District.

Scott Pearson, the PSCB’s executive director, believes that the solution to gain even more diversity at Latin is to provide an at-risk student preference in the My School DC Lottery. Ms. Stein quotes him as stating:

“If we are really serious about equity and if we are serious about making sure that our least advantaged families have the ability to go to our high-performing schools, we need to do more.”

I agree, we do need to do more. But the answer is not to discriminate against certain children gaining admission to some of the city’s highest performing schools due to the color of their skin or their economic status.

No, there is a much more superior solution than tinkering with the lottery. We need to open more charter schools. But the charter board, the same one that is so critical of the tremendously difficult work being done at Latin, seems to make it as arduous as possible to replicate or open new schools.

I’ve talked so much about the obstacles that it puts in place that I don’t really want to repeat them here. But I do want for a minute to provide a taste of what I envision for the District’s educational landscape.

For those of us involved in public school reform, we desperately desire a quality seat for every child. Yet, today, we have numerous low performing traditional schools, many with proficiency rates in reading and math in the single or low double digits. These need to be immediately turned over the charters. I don’t care if they are given to our home-grown versions of these schools or we bring in charter school networks from outside of our city. As charters proliferate by taking over the buildings of DCPS sites or by co-locating in the empty hallways of the humongous number of under-utilized regular schools, we will provide a stellar education to all of those beautiful children that we categorize as at-risk.

But doing this will take courage. It will be the political fight of the century. I am optimistic we can get this done in our lifetimes. Perhaps we need to begin with baby steps. One simple way to get started is to have a unanimous unambiguous vote by our charter board to have a school like Latin replicate.

To close the academic achievement gap D.C. charters should follow example of the Denver School of Science and Technology

I cannot believe it has already been three years since I attended the Amplify School Choice conference sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, now the Franklin News Foundation. There, I joined 50 education bloggers as we studied the charter school movement in Denver, Colorado. I came away from the two days of sessions pondering whether Washington D.C. should adopt a charter and traditional school compact like the one in the city I was visiting.

However, a conversation over breakfast last week with a couple of local charter school supporters clarified for me how much my focus has now changed. After years of charters being treated like second-class citizens in the nation’s capital, as demonstrated, for example, by the lack of access to closed DCPS facilities and inequitable funding compared to the regular schools, my interest in the development of a compact has waned. The main takeaway now from my trip was the visit the writers made to one campus of the high-performing charter network of middle and high schools called The Denver School of Science and Technology. At our meal my friends reminded me of a book they had previously provided to me for information on charter schools entitled Reinventing America’s Schools by David Osborne. Therefore, when I returned home, I immediately turned to the index and found the pages about DSST.

My memory of this trip was of being thoroughly impressed with the charter’s chief executive officer Bill Kurtz. The way I recalled it, Mr. Kurtz showed Powerpoint slides that demonstrated his charter school’s narrowing of the academic achievement gap to 12 points when the difference between standardized test scores for affluent children and at-risk pupils for reading and math in the traditional schools was 45 percent. In my mind, I remembered Mr. Kurtz attributing his success to the values his staff instills in his students. Was I correct in my recollection or had time altered my impression of the information that had been shared on that day?

Here’s what Mr. Osborne writes about DSST:

“Bill Kurtz says it all begins with the core values. DSST builds them into everything it does. Staff evaluations focus on how people are living the values. Student report cards give grades on values, triggering conversations with students and parents. Jeff Desserich, then director of Stapleton High School, told me, ‘I had a kid who had all A’s and B’s, and I’m having a conference with his dad, and all the A’s and B’s is good, but we can see that courage is pretty low, like two out of five. So that can really frame our conversation around what should the student’s development plan be – to speak up in class more, or taken on a leadership role or something.’

New students get a home visit, where deans and teachers talk about the values and attend summer school, which is part culture and academics. Every year all students go through a ceremony at which they sign their allegiance to the core values” (pages 172 to 173).

The author quotes Mr. Kurtz as commenting on this subject:

“We’re not just about compliance. We’re actually about building a values-driven culture with all of our students, so that they all understand what it means to live a set of values. They may not choose our values over time, but hopefully they will learn to choose a set of values that will guide them in the way that David Brooks would say are the eulogy values, the values that really mater in how you live your file – what you care about when you look back on your life” (page 173).

The academic results at DSST, in response to this emphasis on values, are simply astounding. According to Mr. Osborne,

“DSST excels even when one only measures proficiency, despite the fact that 69 percent of its students come from poor families. Among students eligible for subsidized meals, DSST had two of the three highest-scoring schools in the state on the ACT test in 2016. In 2014 its low-income tenth-graders had higher proficiency rates in math, reading, and writing than middle-income students in DPS-operated schools (italics in original text). In 2015, with a third high school open, DSST schools outperformed 87, 90, and 96 percent of Colorado’s public high schools, measured by the percentage of students at or above proficiency on the new PARCC tests. These are numbers an expensive private school would be proud to have, yet in the three DSST schools, respectively, 72, 69, and 53 percent of the students were low income” (page 175).

The values that DSST promotes are respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, curiosity, and doing your best. Perhaps D.C.’s charters should follow DSST’s example.