o Additional analysis on these key subjects is contained in NARPAC's 2005 summary and commentary on DC's latest DCPS Strategic Plan

o A new level of discontent with DCPS has emerged during the '30-'04 school year which threatens to generate more turmoil that the system can handle, and for the wrong reasons. This lengthy section describes the problems and the reactions of the major players, and provides a lengthy NARPAC commentary at the end.

o Part of that discontent comes from insufficient familiarity with the "NAEP" scoring system and what it shows about academic failings in other urban school systems as well. This analytical section illustrates which of DC's problems are common in other cities, and which new goals might be totally unattainable.

o A recent report on conditions inside the DCPS high schools, and the minds of the students that attend them, are summarized as one product of the 2002-3 project by the Close Up Foundation. That program encouraged responsible kids to address potential solutions to some of their close-to-school concerns;

There are any number of earlier reports and articles on the condition of DC's Public School System, and of others like it (such as Baltimore). Dating back into the late '90s. Five different views are presented here:

  • School conditions are summarized by the apologies from two members of the Control Board ;
  • And the underlying reports of the Control Board leading to the establishment of the new board of trustees and chief executive officer are summarized here and a summary of the first annual report (January, 1998) of the Emergency Board of Trustees is summarized here . The pervasive aura of utter failure of the DC Public School System--among the families and children most dependent on it--is shocking.
  • A recent in-depth review of current educational problems in the US by TIME magazine included an interesting, albeit discouraging, picture of the Baltimore Public School System , which almost certainly has some parallels in the DC Public School System;
  • more recent series of articles in the Washington Post suggests that similar problems are now seriously degrading the Prince George's School System , and
  • a new poll from New York's Public Agenda project, describing changing racial preferences in public schooling .

And there are other aspects of the DCPS problems that deserve analysis:

  • The real "proof of the pudding" is not in the exceptionally high costs of DC's public schools--which are not unlike those of other inner city school systems--but in the tragically low student test scores right here in the nation's capital. 1998 SAT Scores for DC and the entire region are now tabulated;
  • Urban Institute studies released in 2000 provide dramatic proof of the correlation between household poverty, family turmoil, and student 'engagement', showing the extent to which the deck is stacked against poorer kids;
  • A NARPAC analysis of Maryland school test data shows excellent correlation with parent(s)' educational attainment;
  • DCPS test scores for 1999 and the test scores for 2000 are both noted and analysed;
  • And the new school superintendent Ackerman proposed a new way of allocating funds between the schools on the basis of a Weighted Student Formula ;
  • And by summer of 1999, bickering within the elected school board had cast significant doubt on the wisdom of restoring their oversight powers in Y2000. This led NARPAC to take a strong position on the need to "reinvent the DCPS school system" , starting with the oversight at the very top;
  • NARPAC also feels that it is instructive to look at comparisons with the one real regional school system in the DC Metro area: the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Washington.
  • And in January, 2000, Superintendent Ackerman provided her own informal progress report indicating that substantial progress is being made--even though "many tasks lie ahead before we reach exemplary status"....
  • ...but soon thereafter decided to accept an offer to head the San Francisco Public School System at a substantial increase in pay, and submitted her letter of resignation, which was greeted with consternation from her long-time supporter, Joyce Ladner who, in 1996, had apologized for the condition of the DCPS;
  • Ackerman was replaced in the summer of 2000 by Paul Vance, who had been superintendent of the Montgomery County Public School System for eight years. He has recently published a draft Business Plan for Strategic Reform, which NARPAC feels could provide the foundation for major improvements in the DCPS.

return to the top of the page THE DCPS 2003-4 SCHOOL YEAR: A SEASON OF CITYWIDE DISCONTENT


DC's Government leaders, some if its prominent citizens, and many of its residents are currently engaged in a somewhat panicky re-assessment of the academic performance of its public school system. They appear to be ignoring the good changes already set in place, but not yet mature enough to bear fruit. Instead, without analytical foundation, politicians and activists are at serious risk of making a marginal situation worse, and less stable. They are exaggerating the ability of any one urban school district to correct through narrow school management and policy gimmicks the broader underlying faults that remain in the American socio-economic culture.

If DC sets its revised academic goals somewhere within reach, then creative but practical innovations, such as those discussed later in this analysis, can be tried and adopted within the existing DCPS school framework. If those goals are set too high, if they ignore the depressing but real facts of American student life, and if they are expected to compensate for broader problems both within and beyond the school system, then excessive and unrealistic changes may be prescribed which could reduce the school system to mindless turmoil.

return to the top of the page Summary Example

The essence of NARPAC's concerns expressed in this and the immediately following section on NAEP test scores can be summarized in a simple comparison between two DC elementary schools that might as well be in two different countries, perhaps on two different continents. The Janney school at Tenley Circle on Upper Wisconsin Avenue serves a prosperous, predominantly white neighborhood with just about the city's lowest crime rate (PSA 205). Malcolm X serves a virtually entirely black neighborhood in Congress Heights, just across Alabama Avenue from St. Elizabeth's Hospital, with one of the city's highest crime rates (PSA 706). You can say what you want about "the NIMBYs of Tenleytown" (and NARPAC often does), but they have demanded (and helped fund!) three of DC's best schools: Wilson High, Deal Junior High, and Janney Elementary. Both Janney and Malcolm X, incidentally, are within hop-and-skip distance of Metrorail stations. (see snapshots in NARPAC's "photo album".

The comparative NAEP reading scores tell the grim story of the disparity in kid's education in schools about seven miles apart, and both in the nation's capital city. Janney has a combination of all ethnic groups (because they transfer in from other parts of town). Studying together, almost 60% of all the kids perform at a "proficient" or "advanced" level, but with the white kids reaching almost 90%. Those qualifying for a free lunch (a very small sample) don't do as well as their better off classmates, but they perform way above national averages. Malcolm X, on the other hand, scores 80% "basic" or "below basic", and the large fraction of free-lunch kids score somewhat worse. NARPAC wants to make the point that it will take many years to get Malcolm X's black kids (particularly the boys) to draw even with those black kids lucky enough to attend Janney. To set a goal for them to match the white kids (particularly the girls) would be simply unrealistic, and there is virtually no set of school administrators and teachers who would agree to contracts requiring them to do so.

Other characteristics of the schools and the future plans for them seem equally out of whack. Janney has been squeezing more and more kids into their relatively small 1925 vintage school, and now educate significantly more kids than their neighborhood produces (see chart below). This school is planned to get 5000 square feet larger sometime within the next 10 to 15 years!. Malcolm X has been declining in enrollment as the black baby boom of the '80s "rolls through the system", and educates only about 60% of its own neighborhood kids. It is currently planned to shrink in size from its 1973 size by only 20,000 square feet in the distant future. DC's Facilities Planning leaves much to be desired, and NARPAC asserts that these are poor examples of "right-sizing" or "right-siting". Surely the DCPS should extend the success of Janney, and its dedicated parents, by at least doubling its size on its very valuable site. And surely Malcolm X is a candidate for relocation or closing.

Whatever changes in overall public school management are made as a result of the current flap described below, NARPAC sincerely hopes that more sensible and more flexible facilities planning will be included, as well as attainable academic goals!


One of NARPAC's unusual analytical tools is its 7-year record of Washington Post headlines by each major municipal function (such as education). Compared to a relatively benign school year in 2002-3, DCPS is now getting almost three times as much printer's ink. Its administrative failures run the gamut from multi-million-dollar scandals in the Teachers Union, non-competitive contract awards, payments to non-existent companies, bungled delivery of summer food supplements. and lack of sufficient vegetables in school meals (!), to serious planned budget overruns; failure to spend federal grants; lack of proper educational equipment for a blind student; dubious signing bonuses to senior officials; underestimated student enrollment decline; and by no means least, shootings, some fatal, on/near school property.

On top of this has been a series of personnel changes almost reminiscent of a sinking ship. The chief academic officer resigned after less than a year; the library chief quit for a better job on the West Coast; a top aide to the Superintendent left unexpectedly; teaching positions went vacant; flaps rose and fell over withholding and restoring (union) teachers' pay raises; the umpteenth new chief schools financial officer arrived; and the new school administrator quit over irregularities at prior job. To top it off, the Superintendent quit in disgust in November, and his deputy, with the school system for less than a year, quit her interim chief's appointment in January. School Board bickering became more evident, and open slots on the board remained unfilled by the mayor.

Concurrently, a divisive debate took place over whether DC should accept the first federal vouchers for alternate education opportunities, and whether, in fact, Congress should start down this "slippery slope" of letting students 'escape' failing public school systems. Congress and the White House finally approved them at the urging of DC's mayor (itself a controversial position). In the midst of all this, the latest comparative school scores for the '02-'03 year were published by the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), showing that DC kids' performance was not improving, and that the DC school district ranked at or near the bottom among all "Great" city schools. (see below)

The Mayor and the Council Weigh In

In late September 2003, a badly frustrated mayor, who has little direct control over the school system but pays its bills from general city operating funds, asserted that it was time for the city to take over the school system and integrate it in with other city functions, following the path taken by other major city mayors with similar problems (New York, Chicago, and others). He has made a major thrust to integrate school functions with other neighborhood needs, a direction which NARPAC fully endorses, but which is only now beginning to be implemented.. The mayor declared the situation equivalent to a "natural disaster" (it was hurricane season), and a "slow-moving train wreck". He opined that the functions of the relatively dysfunctional school board should be downgraded, and that all its members be appointed, rather than half-elected.

This brought the DC Council members to their feet, almost all pointing in different directions, but with somewhat similar overtones: that the Mayor has been less than faithful in his follow-up on other such major initiatives. Since then, most of the increasing political controversy has centered on who should provide what level of control and oversight, and this led directly to the resignation of Superintendent Vance who openly declared that "it wasn't worth it" to continue. Little if any attention has been paid to the not-inconsiderable efforts currently underway to improve the circumstances within either the schools or the DCPS central administration. And virtually no recognition has been given to the magnitude of the problems associated with upgrading the school staff of 11,000, or the 65,000 enrolled, but mostly indifferent, students. Certainly no acknowledgment is accorded the NARPAC mantra that the most serious of DC's public education problems lie well beyond the boundaries of school properties.

The Chair of the School Board Weighs In

Perhaps startled by the vehemence of the mayor's remarks, the chair of the DC school board fired back in a Washington Post OpEd claiming that the mayor was distorting the record of DC public schools. In addition to pointing out some statistical errors, she correctly pointed out that DCPS has in fact taken some "extraordinary actions" focused on 15 "transformation schools" which have very recently been almost literally "transformed" from the top down. These schools do not appear to have been scholastically the very worst in the city, but they may well be the lower end of the spectrum of those schools that should be "saved" at all.

Although it is too soon to expect high-confidence results, she asserts that "these schools are exceeding the national standards and are compelling evidence that public schools can educate to high achievement levels students who live in poverty. If we make similar investments in all of our low-performing schools, our progress could be faster." Since that time, these schools have also opened on their premises offices of several city agencies charged with providing assistance of all kinds to the poor.

To NARPAC's knowledge, Chair Caffritz is the only public official to openly relate the school system's basic academic problem to the very large number of "students who live in poverty", with all the baggage that that entails. These transformation schools are as close to fulfilling a 1999 recommendation by NARPAC as we could ever expect. They are tangible long-term steps towards fixing the most disadvantaged kids' ability to learn by alleviating family and neighborhood distractions. These transformation schools are steps commended by the Council of the Great City Schools (see below), although they recommend additional efforts.

The Council of The Great City Schools Weighs In


In the Fall of 2003, after the release of DC's disappointing 2002 NAEP scores, (then) Superintendent Vance and (then) Deputy Superintendent Massie requested that the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) provide its recommendations "for improving student achievements in its public schools". This sterling group, under its motto "the national voice for urban education", put together a "Strategic Support Team" (SST) composed of curriculum and instructional leaders with recent experience in similar situations from Charlotte, Long Beach, Houston, Sacremento, Boston, the state of Pennsylvania, and USDoEd. The team paid a 3-day visit to DC Public Schools in mid-October, conducted interviews, collected and analyzed data, and, in December, 2003, issued a long report explaining "why reading and math achievement in DCPS was not improving", and proposing ways to boost it. "Over 70" SST's have conducted similar studies in "over 22" major cities for CGCS delving into a variety of instructional and management areas. It is worthwhile to understand their own caveats (italics by NARPAC):

In the instructional arena, the Council has been guided by its own research (see below) on why some urban school systems improve and others do not. This research has focused on the key organizational and instructional strategies behind the academic gains of some of the fastest improving urban public school systems in the nation and how those strategies differ from those of districts that are not seeing much traction under their reforms.

Finally, we should point out that we did not examine everything that could possibly be analyzed in the D.C. schools. We did not spend time, for example, looking at non-instructional operations in the D.C. schools. We did not review staffing patterns or personnel credentials. And we did not look at the district's finances or a host of other issues that often find their way into the headlines. Our focus in this report is exclusively on student achievement and how to improve it.

The message for the D.C. Public Schools is that greater payoffs often come from choosing the path of most resistance.

The full report is available on the web, as well as their own supporting research report based on their work with Houston, Charlotte, Sacremento, and New York schools. There are, not surprisingly course great similarities between the two.


The conclusions of the report are quite stark, and the CGCS acknowledges that it takes no pleasure in reaching them, "and even less pleasure in seeing one of our members flounder":

The instructional leaders from cities across the country who worked on this report were asked a simple question when we started our review. "Why is student achievement in the D.C. schools not improving any faster?"

Our answer is also simple. "The (school) district hasn't done anything to improve achievement."

The district did pursue the imperatives that the public seemed to want, however. It paid teachers on time (mostly). It counted, transported, and immunized students. It kept food from spoiling. It quieted the political noise from the school board. It brought in the Army Corps of Engineers to fix some of the buildings. It put into place a universal, full-day kindergarten program. It kept the books balanced (mostly). And it generally ensured that things ran on time.

While the school district was trying to solve the problems it thought the public wanted solving, it delegated the challenge of raising student achievement to the schools and individual principals. The result is a school district where all could claim that their work was consistent with the goals of the organization no matter what they were doing. The district has lost its instructional focus; its efforts have become fractured and incoherent; its instructional moorings have loosened; and its unity of purpose has splintered. To make matters worse, the district has piled one program on top or another for so many years that one cannot tell what the system is trying to do academically or why.

In short, the D.C. school district has abdicated its leadership responsibility for student achievement to the schools and has had trouble hitting its instructional mark over the years because so many people were aiming in different directions.

The result is what one sees today: no plan for improving student performance, low expectations for children, no accountability for results, haphazard instruction, incoherent programming, and dismal outcomes.

positive findings

It is worth noting that the SST did give DCPS credit for some "positive findings" even though each category had a far longer list of "areas of concern" and recommendations (not repeated here):

early childhood and elementary schools

o the district has a universal pre-K and an all-day kindergarten program, something that most other urban school districts across the country do not have;

o the district has expanded and upgraded the operations of its Head Start program over the last several years.

middle and high schools

o The district has formed a high school reform committee and drafted a reform plan. The plan called for the establishment of a series of academies in the district's high schools. Each academy had a proposed sequence of study.

o The district administers the PSAT to all ninth and tenth graders in the school system, although it doesn't actually do anything with the results to improve course-taking patterns.

o Three district high schools provide newcomer programs for students new to the country.

o The district has a goal for each high school to offer at least five AP courses. Approximately 1,400 students take the AP exams each year. (The district's Challenge Index was 0.605)

o The district's leadership has replaced a large number of principals over the last several years, particularly at the secondary grade levels.

o The high schools in the district are small by big city standards, although several are still very large.

o The district has begun a gifted and talented program almost from scratch over the last three years. The district's program staff director is working to create a cohesive program with stronger professional development.

The report goes on to list and elaborate on nine key proposals:

  • Develop a common and coherent vision for where the DC school system wants to go;
  • Set measurable goals for academic improvement;
  • Establish a new accountability system for attaining academic goals;
  • Standardize district-wide instructional strategies and curriculum;
  • Provide focused and sustained district-wide professional development on the implementation of its new curriculum;
  • Ensure that reforms are implemented at the classroom level;
  • Use data to monitor progress and decide on instructional interventions;
  • Begin system reforms at the elementary level, but start reforming high schools; and
  • Focus on the district's lowest performing schools.

NARPAC commentary re CGCS

Added together, the specific proposals offered by the CGCS SST in each of these categories amount to a very major overhaul of the entire DCPS system, and yet they do not address many of the first-order problems which plague a majority of DCPS kids. This will be treated again later in this chapter.

NARPAC finds most of the recommendations to be eminently sensible and is somewhat surprised by how obvious some of them appear if the major (and sole?) objective is to raise academic scores. On the other hand, we do find one concern (C) and recommendation (R) somewhat surprising (NARPAC's italics):

C: "The (high school) plan lacks an academic focus and places undue emphasis on expanding and improving career, vocational, and technical education".

R: Begin de-emphasizing career and vocational education and increase focus on academic rigor. (These programs should remain in place, of course, but it is clear that some staff in the district use these programs to further lower expectations for students in the district.)

If the objective, at least in the near-term, is to help break "the cycle of poverty" and find ways for some fraction of DC's most disadvantaged kids to move towards, rather than away from, the local socio-economic mainstream, then the recommendation appears inappropriate, and perhaps ignorant of just how low the expectations of many DC students are now, particularly among male students.

Then the 'Power Brokers' Weigh In

As the debate over the evident problems in the DC public school system continued to become more strident, seventeen prominent members of the DC business and education community submitted a proposal of their own. Compared to the Council of the Great City Schools, it is far more succinct, but relatively more platitudinous.

First, the proposal establishes that the education system is in crisis, with "too many kids consigned to underperforming and unsafe schools"; "a lack of continuity, coupled with the fragmentation of accountability"; "abysmal student achievement"; "infamous disarray in its administrative and central support systems"; "dysfunctional working conditions"; "deficiencies in the hiring process"; "inadequate supplies"; and the "absence of safe, modern facilities".

Proceeding from this thoroughly catastrophic description of current conditions, the proposal asserts that as a first step, DCPS should adopt the goal of becoming the best urban school system in the United States within five years." This is to be accomplished by five measures: focusing accountability on student achievement; strengthening the authority of DCPS' chief executive; streamlining political accountability; increasing community inputs through the Board of Education; and accelerating reform implementation through a "unified, citywide education plan".

The proposal suggests empowering a strong school CEO, also referred to as Chief Schools Officer (CSO), and Superintendent, who would have the "broadest possible authority", including preparing the annual school budget through an independent CFO (!), enjoying a 5-year contract with top- drawer compensation and never-decreasing weighted-student funding, as well as greater responsibility for the city's independent charter schools. The CEO/CSO/Super would be selected by a seven-member permanent Education Reform Oversight Committee (EROC), comprised of the usual suspects supported by a first-class executive search. The winning candidate could be 'from a non-education background' but would then have a senior deputy with instruction/learning background.

Under this proposal, the Board of Education would be selected as now, but their primary role would be limited to "receiving citizen input on matters affecting the school system" and providing advice and counsel on such matters to the CSO, mayor, and council. And according to the conveniently attached draft resolution, the Council would approve the CSO nomination, the Mayor would negotiate the compensation package, the CSO would establish "education policies", and the EROC would be empowered to can the CSO at any time for cause.

Perhaps the most interesting proposal is that if requested by the new CSO, "a coalition of local and national foundations and representatives of the private sector is prepared to fund a broadly based task force that would be led and directed by the new CSO to develop a Reform Implementation Plan..... to accelerate progress towards the near-term goal of creating the country's best urban school system". How much of the five years would be consumed awaiting the results of the work of this coalition, and just what measures would be used to define the nation's best urban school system, are left undefined. On the other hand, a litany of 20 key areas, among others, is spelled out in substantial detail, where "How to" answers would be provided. These are summarized somewhat simplistically by NARPAC as How To:

  • ensure school safety;
  • lengthen school day and year;
  • incorporate out-of-school programs;
  • turn schools into neighborhood anchors;
  • accelerate facilities modernization, right-sizing, and other uses;
  • focus on lowest-performing schools;
  • attract good principals;
  • attract good teachers;
  • provide professional development opportunities;
  • streamline, standardize curriculum;
  • develop standards for early childhood education;
  • engage parents/families in kids' academics;
  • improve communications between schools and parents;
  • expand and replicate successful schools;
  • reconstitute/close schools that don't improve;
  • develop zero-based budgeting;
  • develop comprehensive, uniform, data-driven spending, and scoring systems;
  • improve efficiency/effectiveness of central administration and back office
  • accelerate special ed reforms; and lastly
  • inform DC residents about new plan.
NARPAC commentary re "Power Brokers"

Clearly, this proposal was intended to look beyond the narrower focus on academics, and wisely suggests that DC's public school system management must involve more than academic improvements. Acceptance of a "non-educator" in the top slot certainly deserves attention, and was, in fact, included in NARPAC's suggestions for "reinventing DCPS" (see below). On the other hand, this proposal seems to ignore the need to integrate school functions and disadvantaged neighborhood functions.

NARPAC Weighs In Again!

public education is a major embarrassment for DC

There is little question but that in addition to the highly publicized crime rates in DC, the poor performance of DC's public schools is the next most embarrassing apparent failing of our nation's capital city. Third in line would be DC's depressing health statistics. NARPAC first presented its recommendations for "Reinventing DCPS" in 1999, and has spent many manhours since then analyzing national, regional, and local statistics to try to illuminate the underlying reasons for the DC school system's highly publicized problems.

It is also crystal clear to NARPAC that all three of these grim realities are related. All three, high crime, poor school performance, and poor health statistics are related to poverty. And household poverty is caused primarily by lack of householder education, and by households with either no breadwinner or only one. These relations are treated in NARPAC's chapters on:

Education, Poverty, and Ignorance
Demographics of Parents; and
DCPS Facilities Modernization and 'Structural Imbalance'

public education is inescapably a major racial issue for DC

. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to discuss issues of crime, education, or health in the nation's capital without acknowledging the vast, as yet unbridged, chasm between the minority of "richer than average" white households, and the majority of "poorer than average" black households. Very little of this body of work would indicate a direct link to race with two possible exceptions: black females tend to have their children at a younger age, and tend to marry less often. However, it is by no means clear that the females deserve the blame for these trends!

But in any event, it is clear that poverty results from poor education, and that poverty generates higher crime rates, poorer health statistics, and poorer performance in school. In DC however, poverty is almost synonymous with "black", and hence, unfortunately, the two terms are used interchangeably. It is also unfortunate that many more official education statistics are generated by race than by household wealth and/or education level. Although there is the occasional reference to the student cohort that receives free or reduced-rate lunches, almost every data set is parsed by race, generally with 'Black' vying with 'Hispanic' for bottom billing. Furthermore, there is even less data presented relating student academic performance with parental academic achievement.

public education is a national tragedy that DC cannot solve alone

The more NARPAC has anguished over DC's educational problems, the more evident it becomes that academic performance comparisons must be related to the facts of American life, and that DC cannot be expected to solve all the common nation-wide disparities. It appears quite well accepted that urban schools cannot be rationally compared with the little red school houses of deeply rural districts. But there is virtually no acceptance of the fact that schools in starkly different urban environments cannot rationally be compared either. The superficially appealing notion that DC should embrace a (near-term) goal of being better than any other urban school district is, under closer inspection, preposterous.

As is analyzed in the following new and separate section of this chapter, Exploring the Scoring, there are presently very large differences between white student achievement and black student achievement in all US urban schools. The single major determinant in how well a school district rates is its student demographic. There are significant differences among white student achievements, as well as among black student achievements in different districts, but the ranges do not overlap. The differences in (total) household education, and thus in aggregate household wealth, and thus again in student extra- curricular environment, outweigh the differences between good and poor school system educational performance.

It may come as a surprise to many interested observers that at the 4th grade reading level, DC's white kids exceed the Great City average white score by a very substantial 12% (the variation in scores is quite small), while DC's black kids fall short of the Great City average black score by less than 10%. The primary reason that the 4th grade readers in the first-place Charlotte, NC, urban school system "outscore" the 4th grade readers in the last-place Washington, DC urban school system by 14%, is that Charlotte's 4th Grade is 45% white, and the DC's 4th grade is only 6% white. If those white student shares were reversed between the cities, DC would be the top- ranking urban school system in the US! Given the present white shares, however, DC's black kids would have to improve their overall reading scores by a full 18% to match Charlotte, and that would require higher black reading scores than are achieved in any urban school! In short, the only "first order" term in setting urban scores is the black/white mix of their students.

lack of education persists a lifetime

For years, DC has essentially turned its back on under-educated kids once they leave the public school system. Many studies have made it abundantly clear that lack of education results in a lifetime of real costs to the community, from crime and unemployment to premature babies and more under-educated kids. It is ironic that jurisdictional responsibilities for coping with this perennial fallout are transferred from the independent educational agency that causes it, to ther other municipal agencies charged with administering to it. Neither is charged with eliminating it! This may be the DC mayor's strongest argument for adding the Superintendent to his cabinet.

It is also clear to NARPAC that the "cycle of poverty" is very difficult to break, and the more so when the poor are concentrated in blighted neighborhoods, cycling through their own blighted schools, and with little access to modern health facilities. But the equally troubling aspect of the lost opportunities for school education, is the continuing production of adults who spend a lifetime ill-equipped to participate fully in the American lifestyle or the American work force. According to the Urban Institute, only 56% of black girls and 43% of black boys graduate from high schools all across the US. As NARPAC has philosophized many times, if these poorly educated young souls were poorly manufactured appliances, they would have been recalled by law at the producer's expense!

Such marginal preparation for adulthood cannot help but reflect in workforce performance and attitudes among those fortunate enough to find jobs, and those jobs are very frequently in government, at the local, regional, or federal level. The final statistic in many school performance reports is the drop-out rate, as though it were the final chapter. It may well be the last chapter in a child's career, but it is only the opening chapter of a far longer and more torturous adult career, often very closely related to the workings of, or the services provided by, local government. NARPAC has estimated in its briefing on budgetary demands that as much as 75% of DC's annual operating budget devoted to DC residents is directed towards individuals and households near or below the poverty line.

poor academic performance did not cause the current crisis alone

The critical elements in DC's "slow-moving train wreck" are not limited to, and are perhaps not driven by, the school system's inability to teach the kids that arrive unannounced and un-screened on its doorsteps. It is very doubtful that this current hullabaloo would have reached its current crescendo were it not for a litany of other failings, such as:

o the bickering over who should "control" the policy and budgetary decisions that reflect eventually in the visible problems of the school system.

o the regularly demonstrated failings of a mediocre, but well unionized administrative work force which, NARPAC dares say, would probably not do too well on it's own NAEP tests. Nevertheless, there are very few higher-competence workers waiting around in DC to take over the jobs of lower-competence workers presently employed.

o 30 to 40% more special ed kids than the national or urban averages, which drain an extraordinary share of DCPS's total budget. Equally important, however, the disruptive kids assigned to regular classrooms must also extract a measurable price on the ability of highly frustrated teachers to instruct, and of marginally motivated kids to learn. Many special ed problems can be directly related to parental poverty and stress, and as charter schools and voucher programs draw away some of the system's more inspired and stable kids, the remainder will become even more vulnerable to the special ed kids left behind.

o the strong, and inevitable, association between the poor kids' neighborhood environment and their ability to concentrate on, or reach out for, a real educational involvement. NARPAC has long urged the amalgamation of local schools into the other needs of disadvantaged communities, and takes considerable pride in the school system's establishment of "transformation schools". These 'tschools' are intended not only to transform school administrators, educators, and curriculum, but to transform the role of the school in its neighborhood for kids and grown-ups alike. The tschools will, incidentally, include opportunities for adult education, in an attempt to finish the job they (jointly) failed the first time.

o Clearly, the schools must either stay in troubled areas and help "de-blight" the neighborhoods, or move to more prosperous locations, and hopefully help "de-concentrate" the poverty. It is interesting to note that within the DCPS system, which allows parents to send their kids to any DC school of their choice, only 53% chose the appropriate school closest to them. Another 38% goes outside their own local areas and another 9% don't use the public school system (see the summary of the latest DCPS facilities plan). Still, it will require a cultural change for local school activists and to walk away from their failing units, or for more successful local activists to adopt those migrating students and accept responsibility for their education.

o the truly disgraceful, and flagrantly wasteful, refusal to streamline and "right-size" (as the "power brokers" say) the vastly oversized school infrastructure is becoming more obvious, although it was recognized in the 1997 report of the DC Control Board. NARPAC now calculates that the DCPS is operating almost one-third too many schools, on at least 200 acres of valuable, potentially revenue-productive DC land. The tendency of school system officials to hoard surplus schools, (some for less than academic reasons), together with the possessiveness of local school activists (some with less than academic motivations) are causing the diversion of large sums that could be better utilized to fund a much smaller, much more modern, set of schools.

The most recent update to the DCPS facilities plan still significantly overestimates the likely enrollment over the next decade. After all, over 60% of them have already been born (or not born). Not only is the number of live births in DC continuing to decline (slowly), but the share of those births to black mothers, the more likely future DCPS students, is declining. Added to the salaries of an inefficient workforce, and the demands of thousands of disadvantaged special ed kids, the costs of under-utilized school facilities have a real impact on what's left over to develop both better teachers and better learners.

and there are many other creative solutions to improving student performance

There also appear to be several unexploited options to develop greater focus on learning within facilities that may now appear inefficient For instance:

o local education activists are strongly opposed to using larger-enrollment schools, despite their increased efficiency. At the present time, the average DC school has only 415 students, less than 60% as large as the average for all the Great City Schools (708). The result is that there are at least 40% more "overhead" and "administrative burden" costs in DC schools than in all the other urban school districts that perform somewhat better! New York has recently demonstrated that it can achieve a "small-school feel" by simply separating larger schools into smaller, self-contained units within common existing facilities.

o it is also generally acknowledged that learning concentration can be improved in middle and high schools by separating the genders at least for many of the serious classes. Girls are inevitably distracted by the presence of some of the boys (though they generally seek out older boys). Boys are not only distracted, but find themselves humiliated if they appear dumber that their female counterparts (as is often reflected in the scores), and become prone to resorting to counter-cultural behavior.

o it seems evident that in a neighborhood environment often lacking in male parents and equivalent role models, there will be a lack of discipline within the schools and classrooms, particularly for the aimless young males. NARPAC believes it would be beneficial for DC Schools to actively seek retired military personnel as teachers who might excel in getting through to, and the respect of, such boys, particularly in classes where there are only boys. To carry this a step further, it might be beneficial to turn perhaps two of DC's high schools into military schools, as has been done recently at the Forestville High School in neighboring Prince George's County.

o in earlier days, individual DC schools were "adopted" by federal agencies that provided not only mentors and school-room instruction, but relevant vocation training for subsequent employment by those agencies. At a time when DC is fretting about its highly-hyped financial "structural imbalance", it might be more appropriate to again seek such assistance in kind rather than some fuzzy, open-ended "payment in lieu of taxes" (!) from the federal government.

o finally, as NARPAC stressed in its original proposal for re- inventing the DCPS school system, there must be opportunities for DCPS to avail itself of the competence and success of its neighboring school districts including some of this nation's finest. While some aspects of suburban school practices may be simply too far removed from urban practice, it should be possible to find common ground in such areas as special ed, where DC per student costs are vastly higher than theirs. This is developed in a separate NARPAC analysis comparing local jurisdiction school systems.


DC's Government leaders, some if its prominent citizens, and many of its residents are currently engaged in a somewhat panicky re-assessment of the academic performance of its public school system. They appear to be ignoring the good changes already set in place, but not yet mature enough to bear fruit. Instead, without analytical foundation, politicians and activists are at serious risk of making a marginal situation worse, and less stable. They are exaggerating the ability of any one urban school district to correct through narrow school management and policy gimmicks the broader underlying faults that remain in the American socio-economic culture.

If DC sets its revised academic goals somewhere within reach, then creative but practical innovations, such as those listed in the two sections above, can be tried and adopted within the existing DCPS school framework. If those goals are set too high, if they ignore the depressing but real facts of American student life, and if they are expected to compensate for broader problems both within and beyond the school system, then excessive and unrealistic changes may be prescribed which could reduce the school system to mindless turmoil.

return to the top of the page EXPLORING THE NAEP PERFORMANCE SCORES


Two new reports critical of DCPS's educational achievements point to poor "NAEP scores" relative to other big city schools as justification for making sweeping changes. From closer inspection, NARPAC feels that a fuller understanding of these scores will produce more modest expectations, and less dramatic overhauls of the system and its management. These reports are summarized in the prior section, and include the following introductory comments on scores:

The introduction to the "power brokers" proposal for the taking over the DC public schools sets the stage for its recommendations by asserting that:

Student Achievement is Abysmal

In the 2003 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 90% of D.C.'s fourth graders and eighth graders scored below proficient in reading. Regrettably, there has been little improvement on the reading tests over the past 10 years.

In mathematics, 93% of fourth graders and 94% of eighth graders scored below proficient. The comparable figures for students in major urban school districts are 80% and 83 %, respectively. The comparable national figures are 69% and 72%.

Despite this dismal aggregate performance, the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) does include a small number of high-performing schools and students. Their success shows that high achievement can happen although, to date, it hasn' t for the vast majority of students. Moreover, DCPS has provided little support to these exemplary schools and has demonstrated no ability to build upon their successes.

Management Failures Are a Critical Element in Lack of Student Achievement.....

Despite this incriminating assessment, the power brokers suggest that:

As a first step, DCPS should adopt a goal of becoming the best urban school system in the United States within five years. To reach this goal......

In a somewhat more general condemnation, the summary of the report of the Council of the Great City Schools states that:

In many ways, the city's public schools have made substantial progress since 1996. It has substantially reduced the sized of its central office. It has improved many of its operations. And it has built a stronger cadre of senior staff than it had before.

Yet, the academic performance of the children in the district's charge is only marginally better than it was when the 1996 report was written. Some evidence, in fact, suggests that it may be one of the lowest performing big city school districts in the nation.

Neither report suggests any qualifications on these assessments of comparative scores. As a result, they are likely to encourage recommendations for changes that are either inappropriate, ineffective, or impossible. NARPAC believes it may be edifying to take a look at these comparative scores, and break them down into relevant subsets.

the NAEP scores

With the advent of the federal "No Child Left Behind" program, standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are becoming a standard measure of relative performance between school districts, schools, and classes. The simplest form of the score is a number in the low hundreds (viz., '231') and it is applied to different grades and to both math and reading. For each grade and subject there is a dividing line value between "below-basic" and "basic", between "basic" and "proficient", and between "proficient" and "advanced". The more detailed scoring alternative provides the fraction of the total that falls into each of these four basic categories. NARPAC has not delved into how the scores are assembled, or how these all- important dividing lines are set.

In keeping with these recent reports criticizing DC public school performance, NARPAC will show and manipulate scoring data in both formats for a variety of excursions. For brevity, we will treat only reading scores, the one rudimentary requirement for all. The first pair of charts to the right (click on them for enlargement), shows the overall scores (green bars) separately for 4th and 8th grade reading for each of the ten key "great city schools" including DC (as treated in the CGCS reports), plus an overall cities average; and the national average. The data are broken out beyond "total students" to show white and black kids' performance separately. In the background of each chart are shown the realms of "below-basic" (which NARPAC abbreviates to "sub-basic") in pink, "basic" in yellow, and "proficient" in light green. Anything above the light green band is, of course, "advanced".

Several things of interest are apparent. First, the scores are higher for the 8th grade than for the 4th grade. Second, although the "basic" and "proficient" bands seem quite narrow, the spread amongst all the green bars shown is even less. Can 8th graders in Atlanta really be troubled by being labeled "sub-basic" when their counterparts in Houston are declared "basic"? Third, there is a substantial difference between black students and white students in every instance. In fact, the range of variation for the white students does not overlap the range of variation for the black students. Additionally, the Charlotte (NC) school district has the highest overall score amongst the ten city sample, although the (relatively small) white 4th grade cohort of both Atlanta and DC are significantly ahead of Charlotte's, and black Los Angeles 8th graders also beat out Charlotte by a substantial amount.

The careful observer will note that the ranking order of the cities are slightly different between 4th and 8th grades, which reflects a gradual change in the demographics of many public schools, where the younger classes are more predominantly minorities than their predecessors. The chart to left here shows the relative demographics of the 12 samples for each grade, with the "blackest" schools at the right end of each set. And that honor falls to DC, which has too small a number of white 8th graders to make a meaningful sample (!). It should also be of note, and of concern, that public schools are generally considerably "blacker" than the overall demographic of their school district. This difference is not fully explained away by the black tendency towards more kids per parent in residence, but also suggests richer parents shift their kids toward private/alternative schools as more poorer kids come into the public schools. This is expanded in another analysis of DCPS's 'structural imbalance'.

In this next (Click-up) set of bar charts to the right, the four levels are broken out for the same subdivisions in the same orders as in the prior chart. From here on, "sub-basic" is in red and "basic" is in yellow, both below the reference (norm?) line, with green for "proficient" and blue for "advanced" above the reference line. (Most readers are probably more familiar with this graphic rotated 90 degrees so each bar reads from left to right rather than bottom to top.) With these sub-groupings added, the seemingly small differences in total scores are magnified. But most troubling is the very large share of kids who are "sub-basic" in the eighth grade, and many of them are only one or two grades away from dropping out of school. In fact, according to the Urban Institute, across the US, only 68% of American high school students now graduate combining a 75% rate among whites and a 50% rate among blacks!

Furthermore, if the reference line bwetween "basic" and "proficient" is also the dividing line for going on to post-high school education, and the prospects of higher paying "white-collar" jobs, then there is reason for national concern, not just concern in the nation's capital city. The stark difference between black and white scoring is even more troubling. If the red segments also indicate the likelihood of not escaping the cycle of poverty, more crime, and more unhealthy families, then the public schools can only look forward to "more of the same" as far as the eye can see. At the other end of the bars, NARPAC has no reason for the significant drop in the numbers of "advanced" white/asian kids between 4th and 8th grades. It could mean the budding teenagers are goofing off, and it could also mean there are inconsistencies in "setting the bar" for the older kids.

NARPAC never tires of repeating that "black" is very often synonymous with "poor", and "poor" is the direct result of insufficient parental education (and presence!). In fact, there is an undeniable correlation between parental education score and their kids' education scores, though the data are seldom collected in this manner. New data collected in a recent Urban Institute study entitled "Losing Our Future: How Minority Youths are being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis", does make it possible to chart some new information correlating graduation rates and dependence on lunch subsidies. As the share of kids from poor (i.e., less educated) households increases in any school district, the share of graduates appears to decrease proportionately. The scatter may indicate varying individual school district performance, but the underlying trend is clearly beyond the control of the school district:

NARPAC now turns to the narrower issue of dissecting the DC scores and judging whether or not it is realistic to set a binding goal of making DC's school system "the best urban school system in the US within 5 years". To the extent that such a goal is unrealistic, it may set in motion turmoil within the school system which is significantly counterproductive.

This first pair of charts breaks out three subdivisions of DC school kids at each the 4th and 8th grade levels. The difference by racial (and hence economic) background is very large indeed, and is worse at the higher grade. Female students do better than males, and end up with significantly fewer kids in the "sub-basic" area. This is consistent with the Urban Institute's research showing that across the US, 72% of high school girls graduate, but only 64% of boys make it out the front door. Finally, the significantly higher fraction of "sub-basic" students among those who get full lunch subsidies demonstrates quite directly that family poverty is an important player in student school performance, as indicated above.

The next chart shows how the stark racial differences reflect in individual school scores. That the "power brokers" concluded from this that all schools should be able to do as well as the few good schools shows a troubling level of naivete. The chart below pairs an elementary, middle, and high school in DC's "whitest" Ward 3, with an equivalent school in DC's "blackest" (and poorest) Ward 8. As a secondary issue, it also shows the modestly (and inconsistently) different performance of the boys and girls.

While NARPAC has no statistical background for the following assertions, it seems very likely that the vast difference in performance among the younger kids is very likely attributable to differences in learning receptivity provided by the home environment from which the kids emerge. On the other hand, the slip in scores for both the richer and poorer school kids as they mature may be somewhat more symptomatic of lack of challenges presented within the school environment. The former problem may be ameliorated, but not eliminated within the school system. The latter problem may be susceptible to improved school management.

These charts then lead to exploring what it would take to transform DC into the best US urban school, of which (from the sample available) Charlotte, NC provides the goal. The chart to the right is somewhat different than the preceding ones in that it shows the contribution to the total score of each the white and black components. The two middle charts show the total bars, the outer ones show the stark racial components. While the white component of Charlotte's score is a significant portion of the resulting total, the white component of the DC total is almost irrelevant, except that it helps the sparse "advanced" category. For DC's public schools to match Charlotte, they would have to: 1) bring over half of their "sub-basic" black students up to "basic"; 2) advance virtually all of their current "basic" black students into the "proficient" category; and 3) raise all of the "proficient" blacks to "advanced". NARPAC does not believe this will be possible in the next 30 years, and that it would be an incredibly stupid goal.

As an alternative, NARPAC has compared the total and racial components of DC's 4th and 8th Grade students to the average of the available 2003 city average on an apples-to-apples basis. This is shown on the chart below. At the 4th Grade level, DC's outstanding white cohort somewhat offsets the less pronounced (but much larger) deficit of its black cohort. At the 8th Grade level, DC's white students have dwindled to insignificance, and DC's almost all black kids are not quite a match for the all-city black average, let alone its combined average.

This leads directly to a comparison of the "black apples", if you will. This next chart compares at 4th and 8th grade levels, DC's black kids' performance against that of the all-city average, the national average, and yes, Charlotte's black contingent. Not surprisingly, these comparisons are not as daunting, though the challenges to DC to match them would remain substantial.

NARPAC believes it would be realistic to try to match the all-city black average within five years, the national black average within ten, and the then-best city's black average within 15 years. To indicate the magnitude of this task, NARPAC has taken the current enrollment in the 4th (5100) and 8th (4100) grades, and simply calculated how many real world black kids would have to be permanently raised one-notch in their NAEP scores. For instance, to bring DC's black 4th Grade score up to the all-cities average, 408 kids would have to smarten up from "sub-basic" to "basic", and another 153 would have to jump the barrier from "basic" to "proficient". To get to the national black 4th Grade goal, 612 would have to step up from "sub-basic"; 255 more from "basic" to proficient", as well as 55 kids moving up one step into "advanced". And so on.....

It is also instructive to look at the arithmetic implications of these composite scores and the importance of their black/white proportions. The final chart below performs "what if" excursions on the reading score data provided for DC and Charlotte 4th Graders. Changes are made in the percentage of white kids in both schools, and in some cases, to assumed percent improvements in DC black kids' reading skills. The base case is shown on the darker red (second) row of the table. It can be read as follows: with DC's white kids representing 6% of its 4th Grade, and Charlotte's white kids representing 45% of its 4th Grade, and with no improvement in DC's black student reading scores, then the composite DC score is 14% lower than Charlotte's. That is the status quo. The line above indicates that if Charlotte's black/white demographic were the same as DC's, then their score would be only 9% above DC's. Conversely, if DC's more proficient white readers were increased to 45% of DC's total, then DC's overall score would only be 2% short (effectively disguising the plight of the black kids). Comparing extremes (green row), if the Charlotte and DC demographic shares are reversed, then DC goes to the top rank among urban schools, and 4% above Charlotte: not a practical option for CGCS or the 'power brokers' to propose.

Three more excursions are shown in yellow (above) which illustrate how much DC's black reading achievement would have to be raised in combination with modest differences in the percentage of white kids to achieve parity with Charlotte. In short, if DC had 30% white kids (vice 6%), then DC could match Charlotte by improving DC black readers' scores by 11%. With only 15% white, the black 85% would have to raise their scores 15%. And at the current low level of white students, the black kids must improve by a rather daunting 18%.

NARPAC concludes that it is far more important for DC to focus on improving the lot of its large number of limited-future poor black kids than to worry about matching or exceeding the far greater talents of the nation's much better off white kids at this time. Such realistic goals seem eminently achievable and do not risk traumatizing the entire DCPS organization..

return to the top of the pageOUT OF THE MOUTHS OF DCPS JUNIORS and SENIORS
The Close-Up Foundation Comes to Washington

In the Winter of 2002, Spring 2003, the Close-Up Foundation came to Washington, DC to introduce DC's high school students to participation in grass-roots activism. The subjects picked by the students is clearly indicative of what's on their minds. In the words of the organization itself:

"The Close Up Foundation is the nation's largest nonprofit, nonpartisan citizenship education organization working to promote responsible and informed participation in the democratic process through a variety of educational programs. Close Up is built on the belief that textbooks and lectures alone are not enough to help students understand the democratic process and make it work. Students need a close up experience in government. Close Up's interactive, experiential curricula motivate participants to become actively involved in their government, strengthen their knowledge of the political process, and increase their awareness of national and international issues.

This past winter over six-hundred D.C. public school students and teachers participated in Close Up's Capital Connection program. This is a unique program that offers students in the DCPS system to get a close up look at their federal and local governments. Students study the structure of the District's institutions, as well as begin to gain an understanding of their ability to influence government and make change. Part of the students' week s identifying a problem in their community and beginning to formulate a plan of action to change that problem. The idea is to arm students with the tools for affecting change in their communities through political action. "
The students were exposed to a variety of views from local celebrities who have made professional names for themselves as well as other willing to offer advice on how the students can have an impact. Such advice ranged from "take to the streets and force the system to accept your needs" to "don't become part of the problem: get an education, a good job, figure out what the real problem is, and work within the system for change" (the stodgy NARPAC advice). Then the selected group within each high school developed their own "Community Action Plan", complete with posters and visual aids, and presented them in a downtown auditorium .The enthusiasm was readily apparent, but the subject matter chosen by the kids is what interested NARPAC most. The topics (some school groups had several) are presented below without comment and in no particular order:

  • how to avoid the perils of gentrification
  • keeping our school clean
  • serving senior citizens
  • getting rid of abandoned cars
  • trying to get more development in Anacostia around the metro station
  • addressing the teenage issues of teen pregnancy and HlV ("our future, our choice")
  • adopting a school recycling project
  • instilling school pride
  • the need for vocational courses
  • correcting the poor community perceptions of students
  • getting clean water and water fountains to work in the school
  • addressing the key issues in changing school hours
  • improving community safety, traffic, cleanliness
  • increasing voter turnout to develop "power in numbers"

VIEWS OF DCFRA ON DC PUBLIC EDUCATION This article, and the two that follow, form the basic rationale for the total rebuilding of the DC Public School System. They are an important part of the recent history.

This item has been 'archived'
Click Here to Retrieve it

(Summarized from November, 1996 Reports)

This item has been 'archived'
Click Here to Retrieve it

return to the

This item has been 'archived'
Click Here to Retrieve it

return to the

The October 27th issue of TIME magazine devoted a good portion of its space to a "special report" entitled "What Makes a Good School", and included an article by Erik Larson from Baltimore entitled "Where Does the Money Go?", but it might as well have been entitled "What Makes a Bad School?". Baltimore City (the inner city county) spent $5873 on each of the 110,000 students in its district whereas the DCPS spent $7230 on each of theirs--IF you believe that there are 78,000 students signed up for school.

While that level of spending was near the Maryland state average, Baltimore City's student body "failed to meet the most rudimentary state standards, as measured by a battery of tests that gauge functional skills in reading, math, writing and citizenship ". The system's interim CEO has called the city's schools "academically bankrupt". Some of the reasons for higher spending include:

o Baltimore spends $125 million on 18,000 students identified as "disabled" (i.e., $6945 per student), though many observers believe that about a third of these are not disabled--or at least wouldn't be if the school system had done its job properly in the first place.

o Because so many of Baltimore City's schools are in high crime areas, they spend some $5 million on 112 police personnel, including enough overtime to pay the starting wages of 12 teachers.

o WW II brought a large number of relatively poor workers to the City to work in the shipyards and aircraft plants. After the war, the more affluent residents moved to the suburbs (confusingly called Baltimore County), particularly after school desegregation became the law of the land. The school system soon became populated with kids below the poverty line (as in Washington).

Though the student enrollment had dropped 7% from its 1950 levels, school employment had risen 94% from 5463 to 10,622. Apparently, " a kind of black aristocracy bloomed within the central office", and most of the personnel have now been with the school system for many years and have formed a "bond of personalism" that largely explains why the system resists reform and fires few poor performers. According to Marion Orr, a black Duke University professor, a tacit agreement was made in the 70s to make the school district a "black agency of government". That school aristocracy, some claim, came to view the black underclass as beyond help. According to another court appointed school overseer familiar with Baltimore's schools, "What you have here is a black middle class being created on the backs of their own failure to educate the city's kids".

One suspected by-product of this alleged culture followed the passage of federal legislation requiring public schools to provide disabled children with a free, appropriate education designed to meet their unique needs. This Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 , after a series of lawsuits confirmed its legality, became another way to increase school personnel and spending on related facilities. Despite outside pressures, complacency has continued, with many inept personnel still on the payrolls--some for ten years after their departure.

TIME found it interesting to note that despite declining school performance, none of the 175 principals or other school officials was given an unsatisfactory rating in several 1994 evaluations. The school system has lost millions of dollars in federal assistance by failing to pursue Medicaid reimbursement, and revisions to the dated curriculum have been "resisted to the death". At the present time, the system is in the first phase of a major reorganization. This includes replacing the current job of superintendent with a new "chief executive officer" whose continued employment will depend on demonstrable and continuous improvement of the overall system.

One might note that these problems have grown and continued in Baltimore despite the existence of a Maryland State School Board--and a full compliment of legislators in Congress. Clearly, Baltimore City's problems are of their own making, and they need look no further than their own local government to find a solution.

The seemingly conspiratorial notion that blacks might take over a school system becomes far more understandable in the context of the confrontational race relations of the '70s and '80s in much of the US. In Jacoby's unusually blunt, but factual, book Someone Else's House , the school takeovers in New York, Detroit, and Atlanta are detailed over scores of carefully documented pages. In discussing the more recent advent of a black- championed Afro-centric "infusion curriculum" in the Atlanta schools, Jacoby summarizes the situation:

It was the old pattern all over again. Just as McGeorge Bundy in New York, and Max Fisher in Detroit had acceded in their day to the demands of the angriest and most radical black leaders in the field, so now the Atlanta public acquiesced in Asa Hilliard's separatist curriculum. Some whites, like those on the approving (Atlanta newspaper) Constitution editorial board, seemed driven mainly by guilt. The unsigned editorial welcoming the new lesson plans talked of "embarrassment" that there had been nothing like them before--nothing but conventional Georgia history books paying unseemly attention to "early white settlers with European backgrounds." Still other Atlanta whites were simply indifferent to what happened in the overwhelmingly black schools. "It was part of the old deal", the newspaper's education director explained, "the 1973 Atlanta Compromise. It was then that we gave up on desegregation--nobody wanted that. And in exchange, the city's whites told the black leadership, 'you can have the schools, and we won't say anything' ". By the early nineties, when the infusion curriculum was introduced, it was hard to say which was more damaging: the liberals' well- intentioned but unthinking assent, or the rest of the public's sheer indifference.

return to the

A recent (June, 1998) series of four in-depth articles in the Washington Post takes a critical, but sympathetic, look at the growing problems of the Prince George's (PG) School System (See daily headlines concerning public education). The newspaper--perhaps wisely--avoids reaching conclusions or forming suppositions. But NARPAC, Inc. finds several issues which directly impact on the future of the DC metro area, while also appearing to provide on-going replication of what has happened in the DC and Baltimore school systems. It is as instructive for "urbanologists" to watch as the formation of a new island volcano from the seabed for geologists.

First, the county has undergone a remarkably swift demographic change--due in large measure to the influx of disgruntled inner city families seeking a better life for themselves and their children. In the last twenty-five years, PG County has gone from a 75% (rural?) white population to a 75% (suburban?) black population, even though the average household income has continued to increase. Many metro area suburbanites see this migration from the inner city as very threatening, citing both increasing crime rates and decreasing school performance.

The 1970 student population of almost 160,000 has changed accordingly. The white student population of 130,000 dropped by more than half in the eight years following the federal court-ordered busing laws of 1972, while the black student population doubled to match it in 1980. By 1997, the total school population had grown back from a low of 100,000 to over 125,000, but now with less than 20,000 white kids and more than 90,000 blacks.

And now PG County schools have the lowest test scores in Maryland, other than Baltimore, and some of PGC's 181 schools are in the process of state-mandated reorganization. It remains to be seen whether the intervention of the state school board (a "luxury" DC does not have) will be able to arrest the decline of the school system. Most of the nine schools now under state control are almost entirely black, with a high poverty level, and "inside the beltway"--i.e., close to DC's Northeast and Southeast borders.

The problems in these schools appear typical: a rapid outflux of seasoned teachers and school administrators, with far less skilled, high turn-over, and sometimes uncertified, replacements. Quotes in the articles refer to school overcrowding; aging and temporary facilities; less leadership among school principals; less parental involvement; less teacher dedication to education--and more focus on self- aggrandizement; and less self-discipline amongst the students--making them far less willing to learn. In fact, some principals claim to be so overwhelmed by disciplinary problems that they cannot focus on their growing academic and administrative problems. It is also of some interest to NARPAC, Inc. to note that one of the beleaguered PG school superintendent's closest colleagues is his counterpart in the highly praised neighboring Montgomery County. Voluntary cooperation between these major Maryland jurisdictions is a very healthy sign for the future.

PG's school dilemma is made worse by the growing income disparity between the more and less successful families and communities. At the same time that median county incomes are rising, the number of kids below poverty level in the school system is also rising. NARPAC, Inc. has shown elsewhere the strong correlation between poor kids and poor test scores .

Furthermore, this issue of declining performance in the public school systems is clearly not one of racial distinctions, but of class distinctions. The last Post article in the series dwells on the divided views of the richest majority-black ZIP Code (20721) in the Washington metro area. Here the average household income of the more than 70% black and minority population has reached $95,700, with 86% home ownership, 75% with two or three vehicles; 45% with college degrees, 61% married and 46% with kids. These upwardly mobile, predominantly young, families are clearly torn between allegiance to their local schools and less fortunate neighbors, and pursuit of the American dream with lower risk to their kids--in private and parochial schools. Many of these are former DC residents, and they are in the main making the same decisions as any other suburbanites faced with the same problems. And the less fortunate class is generally left to fend for itself.

Finally, there are interesting comparisons between the composition of the growing PG school system and that of the shrinking DC system. While PG has 125,600 students and a near 90% attendance rate, DC has an official student population of 77,100 and a somewhat lower attendance rate. PG uses a total of 181 schools and an instructional staff of about 9000, while DC uses 146 schools and an instructional staff of about 6500. The "emptier" DC system has 25% fewer students per school, and 15% fewer students per teacher, making the DC system inherently more expensive on a per-student basis.

A July 1998 Post article reports on a recent analysis by the Prince George's County school officials, pointing out that African American students throughout Maryland are performing much worse than their white peers. They are asking the State to explore "the possibility that the test may be culturally biased". Apparently "no matter what county, black children ad poor children are at the bottom" in scores of the standardized Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. Whereas 42% of all Maryland students score "satisfactory", only 25% of black kids made the grade. In Montgomery County, only 21% of black kids pass while 52% of whites do, and in Howard County, it is 26% to 51%. Apparently Prince George's blacks do somewhat better than either, but due to the larger black population, end up with a second-to-the-worst (Baltimore) combined score.

While some school board members are looking for lack of "cultural sensitivity" and "cultural bias" in the testing, NARPAC suspects the answer lies closer to the problem of economic standing (See school scores vs neighborhood poverty . Otherwise, white parents should be questioning whether the tests are biased towards Asian cultures whose offspring often score better than whites.

It remains to be seen whether the PG Public School System can be pulled out of its downward spiral caused at least in part by continued migration out of DC's poorer neighborhoods, and whether a dedicated State School Board; cooperative neighboring jurisdictions; and the more affluent sectors of the county can bring about the desired recovery.

return to the

According to a recent Neal Peirce article in the Washington Post, "the abandonment of school busing to achieve racial integration is clearly accelerating". Recent decisions in Prince George's County to give up busing in the now-predominantly black school system--and to build new local schools instead--confirm this trend. But possibly most interesting is what appears to be changing preferences in the black community. A recent national poll by a New York based Public Agenda addresses many aspects of this crucial issue (and we quote from the Peirce article):

None of this means black parents wouldn't still prefer, all things considered, racially mixed schools. 80%, in a national survey released last month by the New York-based Public Agenda, said integration in their children's school was "very" or "somewhat" important. 66% of white parents said the same.

But ask black parents whether academic excellence or racial diversity should be the top concern for their own children's schools, and there's no doubt where they stand. A stunning 82%, in the Public Agenda poll, pick raising academic standards and achievement, just 8% racial diversity.

What's more, blacks told the pollsters by overwhelmingly margins that race shouldn't be a factor in hiring administrators or teachers, even for overwhelmingly black districts.

So what about Ebonics-- the California-centered debate about "black English"? The Public Agenda didn't ask specifically. But 86% of the black parents polled agreed it's "absolutely essential" for all students to speak and write standard English, with proper pronunciation and grammar.

What we're seeing is a surge of black parental concern, seeking the quality education for their children that integration promised -- but often failed to deliver. It's all about a return to basics, teachers and staff of any color as long as they're good, neighborhood schools especially in the elementary grades, and no messing around with a form of language that will hobble their kids in the world of work.

Home support for kids is critical too. 72% of black parents agreed, in the Public Agenda survey, with the statement: "Too many black parents neglect to push their kids to work hard in school."

Peirce concludes that "the growing cry for education reform in the African-American community, with Hispanics and other urban minorities starting to join the chorus, is virtually certain to alter politics, alliances, and the schools themselves, as profoundly as the busing era now winding down".

return to the

SAT Scores and Education Quotients

Public school spending must eventually be related to the city's professionalism and success in educating our children. Results of these high DC expenditures were clearly not encouraging in terms of 1994 Scholastic Aptitude Test Scores SATS or "Education Quotient" data copied from local school board reports for that same year. Nor has been the continuing resistance of the DC teacher's union to accepting a rating system for their classroom performance.

SATS scores are tabulated below from tests run in the spring of 1998, and the results--not surprisingly--do not yet show any improvement for the District. DC still lags a full 20% behind the rest of the students in this area from Maryland and Virginia--both of whom score somewhat higher than the national average. It should also be noted that these tests are voluntary, and that in general, the lower the average scores for any jurisdiction, the lower the number of students that participate: hence DC's poor showing is almost certainly optimistic. Meanwhile, the suburbs continue to grope with trying to raise the score of their minorities.


Source: Washington Post

County/State Verbal Math Total
District of Columbia 410 400 810
. . . .
Alexandria 475 478 953
Arlington 523 525 1048
Fairfax 540 555 1095
Loudon 523 513 1036
Manassas 519 522 1041
Manassas Park 489 471 960
Prince William 516 507 1023
Stafford 520 504 1024
VIRGINIA Avg 513 509 1023
. . . .
Ann Arundel 513 533 1046
Calvert 524 518 1042
Charles 495 501 996
Howard 535 549 1084
Montgomery 537 555 1094
Prince George's 446 442 888
St. Mary's 510 514 1024
MARYLAND Avg 509 516 1025
. . . .
UNITED STATES Avg 505 512 1017

(student participation varies by locale)
(state averages not weighted by population)

Math and Reading Scores in DC Schools

NARPAC, Inc. has also analysed the public school achievement scores of May 1997 published in the Washington Post January 8, 1998. For all intents and purposes, these scores set the initial bench mark for the new public school management. NARPAC has sorted the schools by ward, zip code, and census tract, and combined the reading and math scores into a single value representing the share of each school's enrollment performing above "basic" in reading or math.

Many urbanologists believe that performance in school is closely related to the students' neighborhood environment. This is confirmed by reports released in 2000 indicating the relationships between income levels, family turmoil and school 'engagement'. Using percent of enrolled students receiving free or reduced price lunches as a simple indicator of economic level, it is possible to draw up a graph of scores vs. poverty level, as is shown here. Note that it is necessary to sort out elementary schools from junior/middle schools and from high schools, since the scores are progressively worse at higher grades in all wards .

Using the elementary school reading tests for 1-6th grades, and math scores for 3rd and 6th grades, a significant pattern emerges. As student aid approaches zero, DC schools can expect to generate 60-80% of their students scoring "proficient" or "advanced". These scores then drop along a relatively smooth band, so that for schools in which 70-100% of the students are from poorer neighborhoods, only 5%-30% of their students will perform above the "basic" level.

However, that 25% is a substantial spread, and there are clearly other forces at work between "well-run" schools and "poorly" run schools. Nonetheless, the average performance for all schools in Wards 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are almost identical (at 20% performing at or above "basics"). The "silk stocking" Ward 3 is in a class by itself at the top (with a few schools from Wards 2,4,5,and 6) averaging 66% above basics, and Wards 1 and 8, with average student aid at 92-95% of the students, 86 to 90% of their elementary students are performing at or below "basic" level. And it gets worse in junior/middle schools-- and even worse in high schools (for which the poverty indices do not apply). For those who suspect these scores are unrealistically lower, it should be noted that about 4000 math tests in DC in 1998 were so incomplete that they couldn't be graded. According to the Post's Milloy, these were not counted as 'zeros', they were excluded.

Furthermore, there are a few "outriders" performing better or worse than "the norm". NARPAC, Inc. has no idea why Hyde, Oyster, Stevens, Burville, Patterson, and Cleveland are as good as they are, or why Key, Hardy, LaSalle and West are as bad as they are (compared to the norm).

It is also possible to compare separate maps of the District in which individual census tracts have high crime rates, high illiteracy rates, high welfare payments, or large public housing tracts, or in which low household income, low adult education levels, low rates of working parent(s)--and low school performance--are concentrated. There is, not surprisingly, a "significant" correlation in all of these factors. These are shown as part of NARPAC, Inc.'s exposition of DC's Economic Landscape.

Further insights into the causes for these test score trends are also analyzed using Maryland public school test scores and Census 2000 data on parental status and education level. The importance of the householders' educational achievements may have been underestimated in explaining kids' willingness to learn..

return to the
top of the page 1999 DCPS TEST SCORES

NARPAC has looked at the 1999 DCPS Test Scores reported in the Washington Post to see if there are discernible trends. Percentages seem somewhat sterile, so we converted selected data for high and junior/middle schools into approximate numbers of individual students shifting from one category to another (using scaled- down '95 per-school enrollment data). One can be appalled by the lousy baseline, or encouraged by these first two years' improvements:

About 11,000 kids attend DCPS middle/junior schools: some 2800 of them read "below basic" level, and over 6400 test "below basic" in math. However, almost 900 kids have climbed out of this bottom category in reading, and 1100 in math since '97. Further up the scale, nearly 2300 kids test "proficient" in reading but only about 1000 in math. But these include 340 newly proficient readers, and 220 new good math students.

Progress is slower for the 12,000 or so high school students: over 6650 test "below basic" in reading, about 9750, in math. These are fewer (better) than two years prior by some 200 in reading, and almost 1600 in math. At the "proficient" level, there are roughly 1000 good readers and 550 good math students--an insignificant change in good readers from '97, but almost 400 more kids good at math.

Unfortunately, DC's (many) poorer schools are improving more slowly than the (fewer) better schools. Altogether, over half of DC's school kids are being left behind--many for reasons beyond their control (see prior section). But a finite number--as many as 1000--already have a significantly better chance to find jobs, and several hundred more might try for college. The trend is right and the progress seems real--albeit frustratingly slow.

return to the
top of the pageDCPS TEST SCORES FOR 1999- 2000

Although the public school system does not take part in the Mayor's new "scorecard system", DCPS has a built-in scorecard in the form of its annual Stanford 9 Achievement test scores, which have recently become available for the 1999-2000 school year. There are continuing improvements in these test scores--as mentioned in the Superintendent's letter of resignation and former Control Board member Joyce Ladner's reaction (above).

NARPAC has done its own brief analysis of these test scores in both math and reading for each of the DCPS grades from 1 through 11, and concludes that the progress is probably better than presented by the overall school-wide results. The more aggregate scores indicate that for the entire school system, the percentage of students ranked "below basic" has fallen from 57% to 37% in the past four school years in mathematics, and from 34% to 26% in basic reading skills.

These are important summary findings but they tend to hide several factors:

a) First Grade testing seems to be in a world of its own that does not track well with the following Grades;

b) the early impact of school reforms is almost certain to be greater on the lower Grades than on High School Grades 9-12--where much of the damage is already irreparable;

c) the most important improvements must be the reduction of students "below basic" who are least likely to be able to join adult Mainstream America; and

d) aggregate statistics could reward big improvements in some grades even though they don't persist to graduation. And it is, after all, the capabilities of graduates to participate in the American socioeconomic milieu that is the objective. This means that it will take years more to judge the success of the school reforms now begun.

NARPAC's conclusions, then, are somewhat different than the straight vanilla interpretations of the test scores for the past four years in the following respects: (they also use equal-averaging by Grade, rather than weighted averages by Grade size, which are not readily available)

o In reading skills, the aggregate reduction in those "below basic" has dropped 24% (36% to 27%), but in Grades 2-8, it is a far more impressive 37% (from 53% to 22%) while only 12% (from 51% to 44%) in Grades 9-11;

o In math skills, the aggregate reduction in those "below basic" has dropped 33% (from 62% to 42%), while in Grades 2-8, it has also dropped 32% (but from 53% to 36%), whereas Grades 9-11 improved only 25% (from 89% to 67%).

It is also possible to track continuing improvements in a given Class Year of students as they proceed upward through their Grades. While this may appear a bit more fanciful, it is not unreasonable to look for trends in a particular cohort year after year. NARPAC finds that:

In reading skills at the "basic" and "proficient" levels together, from '97 to '00,:

  • The Class of '07 has improved 30% (from 56% to 73%);
  • The Class of '06 has improved 46% (from 56% to 82%);
  • The Class of '05 has improved 38% (from 53% to 73%); and
  • The Class of '04 has improved 18% (from 66% to 78%).

In math skills at the "basic" and "proficient" levels together, from '97 to '00,:

  • The Class of '06 has improved 5% (from 60% to 63%); and
  • The Class of '03 has improved 2% (from 45% to 46%).
  • For other years, scores actually declined over 3 years from 10% to 22%

NARPAC concludes from this that there is unmistakable progress in reading skills which seems quite likely to persist over the years until graduation. In math skills, however, the progress appears much more fragile, and we cannot conclude from the existing data that 12th Grade performance will improve much in the near future. Upper Grade backsliding may become a topic of increasing concern.

return to the

Superintendent Ackerman Moves to Shift School Funding Allocations

In a move certain to cause controversy, Superintendent Ackerman unveiled a new funding plan in early 1999 to allocate funds spent at the school level (only some 60% of the total school budget of $545M). On the plus side, it is an approach adopted in several other cities, and apparently successfully in Seattle (a much smaller, less minority-overwhelmed school system) where Ackerman was deputy superintendent. On the minus side, this approach is not used by any of the very good school systems in the Washington metro area (Neighboring Montgomery County recently produced six of the 40 high school finalists in a 1999 national science contest, while Fairfax produced a seventh). The net impact will be to shift a significantly larger share to larger schools, while forcing the smaller schools to find ways to economize.

From available statistics, some realignment appears in order. At the elementary school level, funds per student range from $2900 to $5300 , and at high school level, from $3200 to $5500, with smaller schools always receiving the higher amounts. Even acknowledging the real impact of economy of scale, and of under- utilized schools, these disparities appear considerably wider than can be justified. On the contentious side, many of the smaller schools favor the richer, "whiter", easier-to-teach kids, while the larger, much "blacker" schools have an alarming rate of kids and parent(s) needing welfare assistance. Surely top priority must go to those without alternatives.

According to the several-factor formula (school level, poverty level, and special ed needs), funding will rise for about 100 of the city's schools, while declining--not more than 10% apparently--for 20-30 schools. Hence the per-capita decline will hit some schools (and their kids and families) harder than the rest will benefit. Nevertheless, the overriding consideration is that many of DC's poorer schools have a deplorable record of producing unemployable "graduates". To the extent this shameful problem can be solved with more funding, NARPAC, Inc. believes the Superintendent should be given a chance to prove it.

Some neighboring school systems enjoy the luxury of favoring gifted students, but DCPS has no choice but to focus on those who, by circumstance, are virtually giftless. This is particularly true since so many other alternatives exist for better- off families. They can look to: developing new charter schools; or converting the existing smaller schools to charter schools; shifting their kids to larger public schools; agitating for the amalgamation of smaller schools into larger ones; donating services to the smaller schools to supplement public funding; placing their kids in private schools; or as last resorts, either moving to the suburbs; or paying to send their kids to suburban schools.

This said, NARPAC retains some basic concerns in a system known in recent years to be rife with personnel more interested in their own futures than their students', and in neighborhoods in which education is not prized:

All formulas can be gamed by those given to gaming: The formula inherently rewards increased attendance (at the beginning of the year?) and the addition of disadvantaged kids (more disruptive, harder to teach?), but will to some degree penalize success. Surely the principals and staffs of the benefitting schools must be obliged to show meaningfully improved test scores and promotion/graduation rates. Perhaps the management performance incentive curve (plus and minus) should be steeper for school administrators gaining the highest per-student allocations.

(Too much?) freedom in spending the extra funds could result in spending that does little to improve the lot of the students. NARPAC cannot judge whether the incentives to bring in more funding for funding's sake will outweigh the benefits of improving learning. The Superintendent would do well to make sure that her internal DCPS Inspector General's office is charged with--and fully capable of--monitoring WSF compliance and results. The recent DCPS decision to publish statistical "profiles" on each school (as in Maryland and Virginia) may make it harder to ignore school goals.

No amount of increased school funding can improve the student's home and neighborhood environment: As NARPAC never fails to point out, it is almost impossible for an individual school to be better than the neighborhood that spawns its students. A school cannot cure its neighborhood ills, but the neighborhood can surely invest the school with the equivalent of a "Lifelong Educational Deficiency Syndrome", a serious and persistent educational deficiency endemic to seriously blighted neighborhoods. The WSF formula needs to be matched by some sort of Weighted Neighborhood Formula for the elimination of infectious blight.

Consistency with school modernization plans: this change in funding and incentives is bound to have significant effects on the distribution of students within the various schools. In the longer run, NARPAC fully supports the move towards larger, more modern schools, and taking advantage of the still-sound principles of "economy of scale". DC schools have, on average, 25% less students than suburban schools in this metro area, and an average utilization rate below 60%. But many of these benefits cannot be achieved unless the school modernization program is consistent with this trend towards fewer, larger schools to serve a still-declining student population.

The greatest inefficiencies may well be in the 30-40% of the school budget spent through headquarters (as of FY96) (maintenance, common services and administrative "overhead"), Hopefully, this side of the balance sheet will also receive Ackerman's attention. And schools that work to reduce their need for central funds should hope to be rewarded.

A new cause for the activists: it is virtually inconceivable to NARPAC that the city's public school "hyperactivists" will miss the opportunity to stir this pot, and somehow weaken/delay the Superintendent's objectives. The school system sorely needs a formula to incentivize constructive use of activist energies.

The Superintendent has followed up on this plan by requesting a 15% increase in her FY00 DCPS budget--most of which would go directly to school-level spending. It also includes some $25 million to fix barely functioning bathrooms of two-thirds of the city's schools, plus some $80 million to do major remodeling in eight schools, and construction of one new school. (Nothing has been published yet on closing additional schools in 2000.)

return to the

Little good news in the first half of 1999

The first half of 1999 has produced little reason for optimism of a DCPS turnaround, according to local daily headlines. While DC's Maryland and Virginia suburbs continued to move ahead with their education programs--with Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties hiring new superintendents and many new teachers, and Virginia sticking with their challenging new student performance tests--DC seemed to be still struggling with its old administrative problems. The courts continued to ping on DC's special education problems, which Superintendent Ackerman finally resolved in June, and a new special ed director was finally named--after three year hiatus. The DCPS transportation director was fired, along with 100 administrators.

On the plus side of the ledger, the Control Board has approved a new DCPS contract with the teachers' union which will provide a 4.5% near-term raise, and tie future raises--and firings--to future performance. This is, NARPAC agrees, a very important step with positive long-term implications.

Meanwhile, DC charter schools continued to get mixed reviews, with one school losing its credentials. Residents fretted that 44,000 DC kids wouldl go hungry if the school food program shuts down for 4 weeks during the summer. Prince George's public school budget for 128,000 students will reach $876 million ($6700/kid) while DC seeks $717.5 million for 66,000 students ($10,800/kid). DC test scores edged up 1% for the year, further opening the gap with the suburbs. Ackerman was forced to water down her rating systems for school principals because 46 out of 141 failed to pass the grade!

And DC's elected Board of Education got into a much-publicized squabble over alleged staff misuse by its president, Wilma Harvey. This resulted in her temporary ousting, threats of a lawsuit, and her eventual reinstatement under the eye of a newly appointed "executive committee" composed of her detractors, as mediated by the DC Council Education Committee. (See recent headlines .)

More encouraging, Chairman Chavous of that committee has agreed to entertain hearings on future relignments of that school board in advance of the phasing out of the (very low key) Emergency Board of Trustees in the summer of 2000. More discouraging, Ackerman felt the need to petition for a raise, a bonus, a longer-term contract, and a substantial severance package, at least in part motivated by her distrust of the elected board. This is not the kind of management team that can cure a seriously ailing school system.

The Chavous SmartStart Strategy

In an August, 1999 letter to Washington Post's editors, DC Council Education Committee Chair Kevin Chavous laid out his eight-part strategy to "fix our broken educational system, establish schools that will prepare young people for productive adulthood, and make schools part of a community-wide effort to value children and families." The eight parts are:

  • Support early learning, beginning from age 3;
  • Provide more time for learning to take place;
  • Provide a rigorous curriculum at the elementary level;
  • Implement a rigorous curriculum in all high schools;
  • Create smaller schools;
  • Manage special education for positive results;
  • Respect, train, and reward ourt professional teachers;
  • Collaborate across agency lines to reduce truancy, drug abuse, crime and violence.

Chavous claims to have a blueprint roughed out for each step, and states that it is "the measure I will use to prod our school board and the administration of DC School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to action". With the exception of his call for smaller schools (rather than smaller classrooms, better school design), NARPAC, Inc., supports these goals and wishes the Committee Chairman well. The tricks will lie in how these goals are achieved; how wide he casts the net for professionals who can help achieve those objectives; and whether these goals can be achieved within regionally competitive costs .

The DC Appleseed Center , with great foresight, undertook a study of DCPS governance in the fall of 1998, and its results are to be released in time for the Chavous hearings. NARPAC submitted a discussion paper outline for consideration by that group, and has reproduced it here:

NARPAC's Views on Reinventing the DC Public School System:

Over the past 30 years, the DC Public School System has fallen from arguably two of the nation's best (one black, one white), to arguably one of the nation's worst, even among disadvantaged urban systems (though some exceptional schools remain).

It now suffers from many chronic problems:

  • limited professionalism in school leadership and ranks;
  • lack of parental/home/financial support for many (most?) of the kids;
  • lack of up-to-date facilities sized to dwindling student population, equipped for 21st century, or suited to taking on other civic/neighborhood public functions;
  • continuing losses in public school enrollment, further increasing costs of under-utilization, aging, and staff grade creep;
  • lack of reliable, professional, independent (--and state-level!) oversight;
  • excessive number of kids seemingly requiring special education treatment;
  • isolation of the school system from other relevant municipal functions;
  • limited/non-existent "recycling"/"recall" of failed students (i.e., adult ed);
  • growing pressures to provide alternate systems thru parochial/charter schools;
  • marginal projected city revenues to assure the school system can solve even those problems for which school budget dollars hold the key;

Hence the "output" of the school system will continue to include:

  • too many kids headed for a life of crime/incarceration;
  • too many kids/adults unfit to join today's work force--even vs immigrants;
  • too many kids (without even "home ec" skills) having kids to fill the schools;
  • too many kids permanently alienated from socioeconomic mainstream;
  • few second chances for failed output to escape poverty/welfare/crime cycle;

This tragedy is far more systemic than most observers will acknowledge:

  • NARPAC is not aware of any such failed urban public school system anywhere in the US recovering decisively, even with massive state/federal help;
  • most underlying problems are far beyond the domain of the isolated school system--but must be alleviated before kids can get "valued added" at school;
  • the schools cannot hope to compensate for the deplorable environments that traumatize the kids outside of school (see summary of Urban Institute reports indicating how the deck is stacked against poorer kids by family stress and turmoil) ;
  • possibly well over half of the DC school system personnel were hired for other reasons and lack the requisite skills--and motivations--to teach kids (just as in Baltimore, New York, Detroit, and elsewhere);
  • there is still no functioning Inspector General's office within the DC School system--or branch within the DC Government's IG Office-- working the many school system irregularities;
  • There is no evident large pool of readily available qualified personnel in this metro area either available or willing to work in the DC school system;

The ironies are that:

  • the DCPS is almost completely surrounded by school jurisdictions functioning fully professionally and well above the national norms;
  • the surrounding metro area jurisdictions are some of the nation's wealthiest, and are actually taxed below the national average;
  • all surrounding school systems are expanding, and reaping added cost benefits from: improving economies of scale; operations at/above normal capacity; and employing relatively young (and thus lower cost) staffs and facilities;
  • there are virtually no regional programs sponsored by the school systems themselves, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, or the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments relating directly or indirectly to public education problems (from common standards to joint programs);
  • DC authorities show little or no interest in regional cooperation in any domain;
  • Any of the major surrounding county school systems could almost surely accept contracts to educate DC's kids better--and at lower than current DC costs.
  • 21st Century school systems and facilities may look very different than those built 50 years ago: salvaging the old assets may be an exercise in futility.

Bold steps are needed to reinvent DCPS:

This litany leads to suggestions for major and bold steps to reinvent the DC school system over a substantial period of time. Partial steps and partial solutions (such as realigning school governance before it reverts to the newly elected school board) should be designed to acknowledge and accept suitable "interfaces" consistent with the broader systems redesign potentially needed. Such planning might well provide for some transitional period during which the "dysfunctional" DC school system is being rebuilt. These bold new steps fall into three general categories:

1. A new vision of the full utilization of school facilities:

  • Primary schools may become more closely aligned with specific neighborhood preferences, and may serve other neighborhood functions (from day care and medical clinics to after-hours senior citizen and ANC functions);
  • Middle schools must become substantially more high-tech, and benefit from the new "information revolution". They may need special education adjuncts. Again, these school facilities may serve other activities from athletics and (basic level) adult re-education, to seniors' entertainment and volunteer service, citizenship classes, etc. These public buildings (or complexes) could also house other municipal branch functions, from health and welfare offices, to police and emergency services or public works substations (even jails and prisons). They could offer certain limited government employment, training opportunities (similar to those developed at Lorton) for the temporarily unemployed, and summer jobs leading to government employment;
  • High schools might well change the most. They might become regional (metro area) facilities with special focus (music, science, etc.), and become the centers for high-tech vocational retraining, possibly operated by local/regional businesses. They might also offer night school college courses managed and operated by area colleges and universities. Some linkage between high schools and the Metro system would seem to be beyond debate.

2. Amalgamation of the school system with other city agencies/functions:

  • It is conceivable that new-breed schools would become the property and maintenance responsibilities of the city, hoping to achieve greater economies in capital investments and maintenance. This could limit school authorities to the single major function of providing nationally competitive classroom education;
  • It should be possible to devise some "vertical integration" so that high schools and city colleges share land, academic facilities, teaching and support staffs, and possibly college mentors for high schoolers;
  • Many school-related custodial jobs would appear to be good candidates for welfare-to-work opportunities.
  • The needs of the schools can be integrated with other community needs. Plans for major neighborhood revitalization (such as conversion or modernization of public housing units--or metro stations) should be synchronized with school system upgrades.
  • Major economic development projects/zones should include contributions to educational faciltiites: if new businesses are required to provide off-street parking for cars, and meet environmental standards, why shouldn't they help keep kids in school--and reduce crime, for that matter?

3. Greater regional integration/joint-funding of many school- related functions:

  • Jointly developed standards and testing for special education students and development of regional facilities specializing in various disorders;
  • Formation of regional advisory groups to help solve specific problems within any school jurisdiction;
  • Development of regional testing standards for kids and performance standards for teachers; and research into such nagging questions as unintentionally biased student tests; coping with "kids having kids", etc.
  • Creation of a Metro Area Regional School Board, somehow linked to existing state school boards, and serving as a "virtual state school board" for the DC school system;
  • Contracting out regular educational services from one jurisdiction to another to avoid duplicating scarce resources, or to tide over a period of reconstruction;
  • Area contracting authorities to provide common school procurements (supplies, books, uniforms, etc.), and contract services (custodial or emergency repair);
  • Regional IG operations dealing in specialized problems such as computer hacking, certain child-abuse problems, and covert surveillance;
  • Regional school system-based dispute arbitration to resolve certain parent-school, and union-school disagreements;
  • A centralized regional source (or data base) to provide broad range of specialized activities such as guest speakers, lecturers, performers, or trainers at lower cost; etc.

Overseeing a World-class Public School System

NARPAC believes DCPS oversight needs a major overhaul. Restructuring the school system's top leadership needs to take into account four broad issues, previously discussed:

1. future urban schools (all levels) will be very different than those designed--and staffed--in the '60s, and will serve a variety of community functions besides basic education (from child day care to adult night classes);

2. DCPS policy and management should be coordinated with other municipal functions (such as public housing, police, and health services) because the impediments to educating DC's kids-- and drop-outs--go well beyond the school system's purview;

3. DCPS should avail itself of strong cooperative technical assistance from beyond DC's borders: it is surrounded by some of America's finest, fastest growing, most efficient school systems-- right within our metro area;

4. really tough choices are seldom made by local voters, or local unions: DCPS needs the equivalent of a top-notch court-appointed receiver (viz., David Gilmore at DCHA) for day-to-day management, and support from a tough 'virtual' state school board. A recent (8/19/99) editorial in "The Georgetowner" notes that "we don't elect air traffic controllers and brain surgeons....because these jobs require specialized technical training and expertise." NARPAC would add that this is also why we don't elect generals and disaster agency chiefs to mitigate national emergencies.

NARPAC recommends a very small (3-4 person), non-political, very autocratic, executive committee for day-to-day oversight, appointed from a considerably larger, composite, 17-member, policy- oriented advisory school board with a near-balance of elected persons and people with special expertise*. It would include:

8 elected ward members to represent the people--and parents--of DC, and

9 Council-approved, mayoral appointees made up of, say:

  • 1 federal expert (probably from the US Dept of Education);
  • 2 (retired?) regional experts (one from county- or state-level education board in each Maryland and Virginia);
  • 1 local college expert ( from the Consortium of Universities?);
  • 4 members from other DC agencies such as police, health, welfare, and/or economic development); and
  • 1 committee/board chair who is one world-class, uncompromising (ex-receiver?) public school miracle-worker. NARPAC would begin that search by consulting the Catholic parochial school hierarchy.

*(Numbers and allocations are national -the underlying issues are fundamental ).

It should be clearly noted that NARPAC recommends the non-elected members be appointed and approved by democratically elected officials, unless, of course, the democratic process has been temporarily set aside due to the failure of either or both the elected officials and their executive branch to properly carry out their designated functions. (It is of some interest that DC's current charter school board is appointed by the mayor.)

Those who would preach (and there are many in DC) that 'preserving democracy' and 'fighting for statehood' are more sacred--or at least higher priority--than rapidly and thoroughly fixing their broken school system, are in essence enslaving their own offspring (and those of their neighbors) to an indefinitely continuing underclass status in the world's freest, most prosperous, and most democratic country.

Some two years after NARPAC wrote this section, it sees significant hope that some of these suggestions have found their way into Superintendent Vance's new Business Plan for Strategic Reform. While not addressing many of the issues raised here, there is nothing inconsistent between Vance's plan and that which NARPAC suggests here.

return to the

In October of 1999, the Heritage Foundation released a scholarly report comparing the math scores of 4th and 8th grade black students in DC Catholic schools on their NAEP tests to the scores of equivalent blacks in DC's public schools. The results indicate significantly (albeit not hugely) improved performance that is attributable to the Catholic school educational environment. These amounted to a 6.5% higher average grade in 4th Grade, and 8.2% higher average grade in 8th Grade. In short, concludes the report, "the average black eighth-grader in a DC Catholic school performs better in math than 72 percent of his or her public school peers."

Due to the refined nature of the statistical analysis (with data only available, incidentally, for the city of DC, because it is considered a "state" for data gathering purposes), it can compare the importance of the schoolroom to other factors known to impact on kids' learning. In short, the Catholic schoolroom environment turns out to be significantly more influential than: recent school changes; extent of reading materials at home; increase in median family income; college education of the parent(s); or having two parents at home. It also turns out to be more important than classroom size! For those interested in greater detail, the report is available on the extensive Heritage Foundation web site.

Such good news does not come as any surprise to the DC area Catholic "school district", i.e., the Archdiocese of Washington , or the Church's National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) which proudly tracks their own data on comparative performance, particularly with minority students. 40% of the 32,400 kids attending parochial schools in the DC area are minorities, and 26% are non- Catholics. In fact, Catholic schools only educate about 15% of Catholic kids in the US! They also point out that those Catholic kids who attend Catholic schools (compared to those who don't) "attend church more; place a higher value on religion; have a more positive outlook on marriage and the family; express more concern for other people; and more often express a belief that they will graduate from college." In line with the last point, they also like to point out that "98% of Catholic high school students graduate, and 83% of graduates proceed to college" . This is apparently true both nationally and locally. Clearly they must be doing something right: a recent DCPS release indicates that almost 40% of DC high school students drop out.

Equally interesting, of course (at least to the inveterate analyst) is the incontrovertible fact that the Catholic schools achieve their accomplishments one whale of a lot cheaper. They claim, for instance, that their elementary schools "can educate a student at less than one-third the cost of public schools". They claim to save Americans $11 billion in public school expenses nationally by educating some 2 million kids (saving $5500 per student), and some $200 million annually in the DC region alone (or $6150 per student ) across 84 elementary schools, 17 high schools, and 5 specialty schools in this area. The Archdiocese is clearly a successful regional enterprise, encompassing not only DC, but Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's Counties. Even more remarkable, this far flung school district of 32,500 students in 106 schools requires a central office of only nine administrators ! The question from the skeptical analyst, of course, is where is the hooker(s)?

The Catholic school system has several advantages that the broader public school system does not. The first is a far more personal involvement from both the parents and the community ("parish"). The second is the extraordinary motivation of the school staff, for whom teaching is a calling, not a job. Both reflect in lower school system costs. The typical (national) tuition for an Catholic elementary school kid is $1500, with another $900 received from parish donations. For secondary schools, tuition rises to $4100 per student, with another $1400 gleaned from within the parish. Contrary to what some may assume, there is only a very small amount of need-based tuition assistance from the archdiocese level (in the DC area it amounts to about $1.6 million), and nothing from further up the Catholic line.

There are several reasons for the lower costs:

o Direct costs are lower because class size is often larger, requiring fewer teachers (who are allowed to establish much firmer classroom discipline). Lay teachers are paid considerably less--though they are now largely unionized (!). And of course, there is still a substantial number of nuns in the classroom whose direct costs are very low indeed. Furthermore, the number of kids in archdiocese schools is increasing yearly, which tends to make for more productive output.

o Indirect costs are lower because of the extraordinary authority delegated to the individual schools, the dedication of a few central administrators, and the relatively good condition of the Catholic schools. The lesser involvement of the federal government must make an extraordinary difference in the amount of time spent on reports, grant requests, proof of compliance with regulations, and so forth. Finally, the use of a highly professional archdiocese-appointed board of education, all of whom are concerned with the total region, must make for far more efficient--and limited--oversight. That 13-member board is also advised directly by four school principals. Once approved by the Archbishop, school policies promulgated by the board are binding on all subordinate schools.

o Student Profiles , however, may be the biggest single cost saving. Like it or not, the Catholic schools can say to parents: "we simply do not have the facilities that your child needs (or deserves), and we strongly recommend that you avail yourselves of the public school system". With this simple, straightforward approach, a large fraction of public school problems can be avoided. Both special ed kids, and those with other disruptive proclivities not mitigated by discipline, can be sent packing. Since a good 25% of all DC Public School spending is for special ed, the cost differential is large.

Furthermore, the marginal cost of special ed increases as self-sufficient kids gravitate towards private, parochial, or charter schools, leaving in place the less mobile and less independent of their peers. NARPAC estimates that some 15,000 student-aged kids are now outside the DCPS system, leaving at best some 65,000 for Superintendent Ackerman, of which some 7000 have been classified as requiring special ed. Those marginal special ed costs, then, (now reaching nearly $20,000 each ) must be pro-rated (for averaging purposes) over only 58,000 independent kids, rather than 73,000 if the alternate schools did not exist. The 25% higher costs are thus spread across 25% less students.

It would appear to NARPAC that DC's Board of Education might benefit from direct contact with their current (or retired) Catholic counterparts. Promoting the dignity of man through education (parochial or otherwise) is a tenet of the Catholic Church as expressed in the Principles for Educational Reform in the US, from the US Catholic Conference, 1994:

We believe that all persons have an inalienable right to a quality education "in virtue of their dignity as human persons" and that all have a right to an education responsive to their responsibility to "develop harmoniously their physical, moral, and intellectual qualities." (Vatican Council II, Declaration on Christian Education,1--courtesy of NCEA)

Within a four week period in September/October of 1999, the Post has offered three other discouraging stories on the DCPS. First the DC high school drop out rate is close to 40%, compared to a national average of 5%. Second, DC high school students take the challenge of advanced placement courses half as often as the regional average, one-quarter as often as the best local system (Arlington). Third, DC disciplinary suspensions are almost one-third of the average for regional public schools. DCPS should find a way to take advantage of all the help they can get from other local school systems!

return to the
This article presents the Superintendent's own progress report, together with commentary.

This item has been 'archived'
Click Here to Retrieve it

This article presents the superintendent's resignation letter, and reactions to it.

This item has been 'archived'
Click Here to Retrieve it


In mid summer, 2001, the DCPS floated the draft of its ambitious new business plan "for Strategic Reform". Though many pundits have greeted this new outline with skepticism, NARPAC feels the time may at last be right for significant changes in the school system. For whatever reasons, Superintendent Ackerman left for greener pastures in San Francisco in June of 2000, and in July, Paul L. Vance agreed to take on the job as a temporary replacement. With one year under his belt, Superintendent Vance was offered a 3-year contract, unanimously approved by the new School Board, and accepted it in July of 2001. He comes from eight successful years with the Montgomery County school system, one of the finest in the country, on DC's northwest border. He has now been joined by another senior official from that school system as Chief of Staff.

The new business plan had been in work for several months, and its release appears well timed to his commitment to stay through 2004. It might be interesting to note that Vance established such a plan in Montgomery County and stuck with it throughout his eight-year stay there. Vance also made headlines in June for declaring a complete overhaul of nine failing schools, and on July 1 by dismissing 531 teachers and instructors who had failed for one reason or another to achieve their certification. The alignment between the stars in the school system, the 'hybrid' School Board, the disappearing Control Board, the pro-active Williams Administration, the DC Council, and the ever-hovering activists might just be right for important changes. Nevertheless, it takes 12 years or more to educate a child, and there are six years' worth of younger kids, already partly pre-programmed, lining up to enter. Changes in both inputs and processing will be reuired to assure a significantly different output.

The Business Plan will drive towards three specific outcomes (italics added by NARPAC):

o improved student academic and social learning;

o dynamic schools able to provide excellent education to all students ; and

o a reliable and capable organization focused on each student's education.

To accomplish these outcomes, the new management is setting six "transformational goals", including to:

* Develop, attract, and retain excellent principals and teachers;

* Implement first-rate learning environments, rigorous curricula, strong academic programs, and extensive enrichment offerings;

* Develop an excellent, service-oriented central administration to support the schools;

* Maximize the dollars used to improve student achievement;

* Enable and energize community involvement; and

* Strengthen partnerships with city agencies (i.e., special ed; health, family services, early education, recreation, and libraries).

The guiding principles for the transformation will prioritize accountability, focus, and collaboration, and read like a primer for good management:

+ set high expectations; assign performance measures and accountable people; build clear monitoring systems; and take decisive action if those accountable don't deliver;

+ focus on a specific set of reforms for a sustained period; prioritize initiatives; and address problems systemically rather than piecemeal;

+ Expand on DCPS and external best practices;

+ work in partnership with many communities; share accountability for the plan's success;

The students will be expected to live up to substantially improved (quantitative) academic and behavioral performance, with expectations of 75% at or above grade level in reading and math; average SAT scores around 1000 (vice 822); much higher attendance, promotion, and graduation rates, coupled with much lower truancy, dropout, discipline, and expulsion rates.

The principals and teachers will be expected to exhibit excellent skills in everything from instruction and content, to classroom and behavior management and school leadership. They will be responsible for school cleanliness, maintenance, safety, and supplies. Parent and community interest will be scored, and records of performance and behavior will be complete. They will be expected to share budgeting responsibilities.

The school system (central administration) will be held accountable for reliable service delivery; better central administration that puts the schools first; better financial tracking systems; increased transparency and accountability; reliable data and better data analysis that will allow classrooms and schools to be compared across the system.

NARPAC Commentary:

NARPAC, albeit no expert in the subtleties of school management, senses several new thrusts in this plan which are important (and italicized above), including:

o greater emphasis on social behavior as well as academics;

o more rigorous curricula, hopefully on the basics;

o requiring central administration to administer to the schools, not run them;

o more focus on accountability and quantitative performance measures;

o adopting a "systems approach" to problem solution, rather than ad hoc patching;

o greater emphasis on "best practices" from outside DCPS: and

o greater collaboration with other city agencies.

Implicit in this last bullet is what appears to be a new willingness to recognize the interconnectedness of the schools, their neighborhoods, and other government agencies a longtime NARPAC theme which asserts that the schools can't be fixed without fixing the neighborhoods that supply the kids. Also mentioned more directly in the briefings than the text is a willingness to use surplus school space to turn schools into "community service centers" that address other student and neighborhood needs.

On the other side of the coin, NARPAC still found four of its own favorite issues not explicitly addressed, and submitted written comments to the DCPS management to point out that:

o there is no mention of DCPS's unique obligations and opportunities in the nation's capital city;

o there is no direct reference to taking advantage of the expertise of the surrounding jurisdictions most of which have first-class school systems (though it may be implied};

o the pressing need for adult education (many of whom are the parents of current problem kids in the DCPS) appears to have been completely overlooked. NARPAC believes it should be a central focus of community services;

o there is no reference to the possible opportunities or risks associated with the declining enrollment which is almost certain the leave the system with substantial surplus facilities and staff within the decade.

Nevertheless, NARPAC finds the draft business plan be very encouraging and hopes that the reforms started over five years ago will now take shape, accelerate, and produce significant results over the next five to ten years.

return to public education pageReturn to Public Education page

This page was updated on Junr 5, 2005

home issues status analyses email



© copyright 2007 NARPAC, Inc. All rights reserved