A Crisis Reveals the Obvious in Washington D.C.

The Washington D.C. public school system (DCPS) has been rocked by crisis over the past year.

First, came the suspension scandal. DCPS schools were lowering their official suspension rates by simply not recording when students were suspended.

Then came the high school graduation scandal. An investigative report showed that at a single school over 30% of the graduates received a high school diploma in violation of district policy. With more honest record keeping, it looks like overall district graduation rates might drop over 10 percentage points, if not more.

Then came the enrollment scandal. An investigative report found that the superintendent, Antwan Wilson, had violated the district’s enrollment policy when enrolling his own daughter in highly sought after school.

Despite these three crises, I don’t think anyone should wave their hands and say nothing good has happened in DCPS over the past 15 years. Things have improved. The gains the city made in NAEP do appear to be real and significant (the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a research study to further examine this question).

But there were always two fatal flaws to the DCPS approach.

The first flaw is that it was obvious that DCPS was never going to be able to turnaround its struggling schools.

The second flaw is that it was obvious that the district was not going to be able to handle leadership succession.

Both of these fatal flaws having nothing to do with any individual leaders in DCPS. Rather, both have to do with the structure DCPS itself.

As I wrote back in 2015, if you don’t fix the structure of DCPS, you’ll never be able to fix DCPS.

The Most Damning Chart on Struggling Schools in Washington D.C.

Recently, I worked with some colleagues to apply the local charter school accountability system to DCPS schools, as we thought the charter system was more rigorous than the DCPS’s system. Here’s what we found for grades pre-K to eight (where publicly available data allows for reasonable apples to apples comparisons).

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 5.53.15 PM

There is a stark difference in the number of children attending Tier 3 schools ( the lowest performing schools) in each sector.

DCPS still has nearly 8,000 students stuck in failing prek-8 schools, despite over 10 years of reform leadership.

The charter sector, on the other hand, has replaced nearly all of its struggling schools with much better schools, having closed or replaced over 21 schools since 2012.

The reason for this is simple and obvious: it’s very hard to turnaround yourself.

The DC Public Charter School Board oversees, but does not operate, the non-profit public schools under its jurisdiction. DCPS, on the other hand, both oversees and operates its own schools.

The structure of the charters system in DC makes it easier to to replace struggling schools with better ones. The structure of DCPS does not.

Political Leaders are Selected for Political Reasons Under Political Circumstances 

The DCPS approach, which consolidates power in a central bureaucracy, relies heavily on strong Chancellor leadership. Leadership is of course important to all organizations: charter school organizations also lean on great leaders.

But there is a difference between how DCPS and charter organizations pick their leaders. The DCPS leadership transitions run through a political process, while charter leadership transitions run through a non-profit board process.

This is why it is often so hard for districts to manage superintendent transitions: it’s rare that a single superintendent lasts numerous political cycles, and it is even rarer that multiple superintendents in a row will share a common strategic vision.

Non-profit boards have it easier. While they are not immune from horse trading and politics, their boards of directors are not elected and are less subject to acute external political pressures.

The charter sector is also composed of dozens of non-profit boards. So even if one leadership succession goes badly, the whole public school system won’t suffer.

Am I surprised that DCPS has had three superintendents in two years? No, the history of urban public school systems made this an obvious eventual outcome.

Creating a Stable, Community Driven Public School System 

Fortunately, Washington D.C. is better positioned than most cities when it comes creating an amazing public education system.

Over the past fifteen years, the city has been home to both improving traditional and public charter sectors.

Moving forward, it should take the best of what the city has seen in both sectors and unify this under one public system.

From the charter sector, the city should take the idea that schools do best when they are operated by non-profit organizations, and, when a school struggles, the best thing to do is to let another non-profit school try and operate the school.

Innovative governance models with real accountability can be applied to traditional public schools. Both Denver and Indianapolis already allow traditional public schools to build non-profit boards that are held accountable through performance contracts.

From the traditional sector, the city should take the idea that Washington D.C. residents value neighborhood schools and expanded pre-k; two areas where the district has made great strides. Giving every public school a non-profit board does not mean every school needs to be a full open-enrollment charter school. Neighborhood schools and community  based early learning centers should be part of the fabric of the pubic school system.

Non-profit public schools can make DCPS better. They can give great educators more autonomy. They can create more accountability within the system. And they are best set-up to manage tough leadership successions.

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