Marino: D.C. Public Schools Have Seen a Remarkable Turnaround in the Past Two Decades. Here Are 4 Ways to Keep the Progress Going
In 1996, the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, also known as the D.C. Financial Control Board, which took control of the District’s finances in the mid-1990s, released a report titled "Children in Crisis." The report aimed to document the state of public education in the District.
The report declared that the D.C. Public Schools were failing and that the entire school system was in a state of crisis. It stated that DCPS failed to provide its students with even the most basic education.
This report made it clear that our children in the nation’s capital were attending one of the poorest-managed school systems in America.
However, over the past two decades, there have been significant changes in Washington’s schools. D.C. is now turning around the decline that seemed insurmountable twenty years ago. The District has invested in educators, providing them with higher salaries and more support. Additionally, the public school choice system in D.C. has become more innovative and robust, offering more options than ever before. As a result, more families are choosing to send their children to public schools, leading to an increase in enrollment every year.
D.C.’s public education system is now seen as a national model. A recent report, "State of D.C. Schools," released by the D.C. Policy Center, provides an independent examination of the District’s schools. This report gathers data from various sources to present parents, policymakers, and stakeholders with comprehensive and easy-to-understand information in a single format.
The key takeaway from this report is that D.C. schools have made significant and rapid progress across various metrics. However, there is still much work to be done.
For instance, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released last year showed that while scores across the U.S. declined, D.C. stood out as a remarkable exception. Only D.C. and one other state demonstrated improvement across three out of four grades/subjects assessed. In just four years, D.C. students have improved their math and English test scores by 9 and 12 percentage points, respectively. These improvements have built upon the significant gains made in 2011, 2013, and 2017.
An especially encouraging aspect of D.C.’s progress is its relative improvement compared to other urban school systems. In 2011, the District ranked at or near the bottom of large urban districts in all subjects and grades, as measured by the NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment. But by the 2019 results, D.C. had climbed to the upper half of the list, moving up ten places in just eight years. Furthermore, D.C.’s black and Latino students now outperform their peers from similar demographic backgrounds in urban districts, signifying an important reversal since 2011.
Understandably, parents have gained increasing confidence in the District’s schools. According to recent polling conducted by The Washington Post, 92 percent of parents with a child enrolled in a traditional public or charter school in the District consider the school to be "excellent" or "good." Additionally, 64 percent of parents have a positive view of the District’s public schools as a whole, a significant increase from the 47 percent recorded in 2014.
However, the report highlights that there are still significant gaps, particularly for at-risk students, black and Latino students, and students with disabilities.
The most recent PARCC assessments indicate that only 8 percent of special education students meet or exceed grade-level expectations, which is significantly lower than the 44 percent of general education students who achieve this standard. This disparity demands sustained attention. Additionally, the math achievement gap between white students and their black, at-risk, and English learner peers is widening. Furthermore, at-risk black students are nine times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
So, how do we address these challenges?
Firstly, schools that serve economically disadvantaged children must receive increased resources. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent commitment to a 4 percent increase in per-student funding is an important starting point. Additionally, funding must be distributed equitably to provide the most support to the students who face the greatest obstacles. Specifically, funding for at-risk students must be reinforced to ensure that schools have all the necessary resources to serve them equitably.
Another logical step is to reform the D.C. school lottery to guarantee equitable access for the most vulnerable students. Granting school leaders the flexibility to prioritize at-risk students through an optional lottery preference could enhance these children’s chances of gaining admission to schools that are most suitable for them.
The District should continue to cultivate and expand excellent schools that meet the desires of families and communities, especially in neighborhoods that are lacking in top-notch options that they rightly deserve. A recent investment in Ballou and Anacostia high schools, which were previously among the lowest-performing schools in the city, took into account feedback from thousands of families. The redesigns of these schools should be based on the preferences of students, as well as the expertise of educators. Additionally, schools should strive to invest in teachers and leaders, ensuring that they possess the necessary skills and resources to support all students.
The narrative of D.C. schools has reached a pivotal point. The District must decide whether to continue progressing or regress, potentially undoing the two decades of advancements made.
As parents, educators, advocates, and policymakers deliberate on our future and make this crucial decision, we should reflect on lessons learned from the past. As stated in a 1996 report, "The District must prioritize educational reform if it wishes to salvage itself."
"The future of our children depends on it."
Maura Marino is the co-founder and CEO of Education Forward DC, a non-profit organization established in 2016 with input from community leaders, grantees, and partners. Its mission is to ensure that all students and families in Washington, D.C. have equitable access to high-quality public schools.