What a new report shows about D.C. schools

The Post’s View

What a new report shows about D.C. schools

By The Washington Post Editorial Board June 5

A RECENTLY released assessment of D.C. public schools’ performance under mayoral control pretty much confirms things that already were known. There has been progress in student achievement; formidable challenges remain; change takes time; and stability is important. The report should quiet the lingering grumbling about the reforms launched by former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), while spurring school officials to tackle work that still is desperately needed.

The 340-page report by the National Research Council, which cost about $1.9 million, is the first formal assessment of the effects of the District’s bold efforts to remake public education. The report is a bit dated: It examines the period from 2009 to 2013. As with most academic reports, it is laced with qualifiers. Nonetheless, it paints a picture of an improving system in which student test scores are up, enrollment declines have been reversed and the teaching force has become more effective. Complementing improvements in the traditional school system is the flourishing charter school sector that educates 44 percent of the District’s public school students and offers welcome alternatives to parents.

To be sure, a system in which only 59 percent of traditional school students and 69 percent of public charter school students graduated in 2014 has a long way to go. The report singled out the disparities in resources and academic performance between poor and affluent students. The achievement gap is cause for concern, but disparities born of generations of poverty were never going to be eliminated by schools alone — as reform opponents are usually the first to argue — and certainly not in seven years. What’s striking is that the performance of all students — poor and affluent, black and white — has been lifted. Eliminating poverty is the right goal but not an essential precondition for improving schools, in other words.

The report is critical of the city’s education bureaucracy for unclear lines of authority, lack of transparency and poor coordination between the traditional and charter school sectors. No doubt there are long-standing issues with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education that need to be addressed; Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) made a good start when she streamlined operations under a well-regarded deputy mayor for education, Jennifer C. Niles. But city officials should resist any move to respond to the criticism by creating new levels of bureaucracy or vesting new powers in the State Board of Education. Likewise, any infringement on the autonomy that has been critical to the success of public charter schools would be misguided.

Indeed, if there is an overarching lesson to be gleaned from the report, it is that hard work and smart, steady leadership produce results. The District should stay on course.

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