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Conclusion: D.C. Can—and Should—Turn Around Its Low-Achieving Schools

By Gary M. Ratner

November 2, 2016

school bus
This is the conclusion of an education series about how the District of Columbia could become a national model for improving low-achieving schools under a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). D.C. Bar member Gary M. Ratner, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Citizens for Effective Schools, explored key issues at D.C. public schools and the potential effects of the new law.

The opinions expressed are the author's own.
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Nature and Magnitude of the Problem

The D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has serious academic problems that have not been effectively addressed by its strategy of the last nine years. To allow thousands of D.C.’s disadvantaged students to continue to be so inadequately educated not only would be unfair and unequal educationally, but it would be a prescription for students dropping out of school, being unemployed, turning to drugs and crime, and entering the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

As measured by the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the fourth and eighth grade average of DCPS’s black students “Below Basic” in reading was 55 percent and 53 percent in math. In other words, a majority of DCPS black students lack even “partial mastery of [the] knowledge and skills” required for their grade level. Further, there remains an extreme achievement gap between black and white students. On the same assessment, only 14 percent of black students were “Proficient” in reading and 13 percent in math, in comparison to 79 percent of white students who were considered “Proficient” in the two subjects. The disparity is more than five to one.

The Need for Culture Change

There’s no reason to believe that perpetuating the same essentially punitive, test-driven school reform strategy under a new chancellor would lead to significantly better results in the future.

Fortunately, this is not an insoluble dilemma. Research and experience show that it’s possible to turn around low-achieving schools, and that schools that do so typically implement the five common elements of successful school turnarounds, adopting specified common practices under each element.

The five elements are leadership (principal, teachers, and other stakeholders); instructional improvement; curriculum (challenging, rich, culturally relevant, and aligned); school climate (high expectations, respect, support, and safety); and parent and community support and involvement.

The catalyst for school turnaround is normally a skilled and knowledgeable principal who has a vision for how the school could be, who engages the teachers, parents, and other stakeholders in refining and buying into that vision, and who creates a team of stakeholder leaders to implement that vision over multiple years.

What’s needed is changing expectations, beliefs, and practices of the school’s stakeholders from a punitive, competitive, stressful environment to one that is supportive, collaborative, and satisfying for adults and students alike. What’s needed is for all stakeholders to be respected and feel engaged in a cooperative, well-designed undertaking to strengthen teaching and improve learning for all students—in short, to change the school’s culture.

A Shift in Strategy

The ESSA recognizes that to turn around low-achieving schools, the emphasis needs to be not on top-down, rigid directives from the federal government, as under the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, ESSA recognizes that districts need to collaborate with stakeholders in individual low-achieving schools to have them conduct a needs assessment, as well as to develop and implement a comprehensive, holistic plan for improving their own school.

ESSA explicitly authorizes two such programs to help turn around low-achieving schools: the “comprehensive support and improvement” program, especially for the lowest five percent of schools, and the “schoolwide” program,essentially for schools serving 40 percent or more low-income students. Both programs are compatible with the five common elements.

DCPS and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) now need to shift their strategy to concentrate on individually turning around DCPS’s low-achieving schools. They should do this by imaginatively and effectively implementing one of the two ESSA programs intended for this purpose, in conjunction with the common elements.

They should use the School Climate Assessment Instrument (SCAI) from California State University, Los Angeles—the best one for school improvement purposes—as their school climate survey. The SCAI survey includes guiding stakeholders to identify many of the expectations, beliefs, and practices they need to change for their own school to improve.

Investing in Turnaround Leaders

DCPS should apply for a federal grant to train experienced principals as turnaround leaders. It should grant turnaround principals broad authority to lead complex changes in their schools and give them the stability and support they need by providing them contracts for at least five years. Likewise, to promote support from the teachers—critical for any school turnaround to succeed—DCPS should complete a contract with the teachers’ lawful representative, the Washington Teachers Union.

Retention of Prior Improvements

In those areas where D.C. has made improvements in the last nine years, such as in facilities, supplies, payroll, and program offerings, improvements can, and should, be preserved. But that should in no way prevent D.C., and its new chancellor, from shifting its priority for the future to address the city’s fundamental educational obligation: to turn around its low-achieving schools to provide good education for all its students.

How D.C. Could Become a National Model

If DCPS and OSSE were to implement these recommendations, D.C. would be well placed to become a national model for how to improve low-achieving schools under ESSA. Whether D.C. could become such a model will depend on whether Mayor Muriel Bowser adopts this strategy and selects as the new chancellor someone who has the vision, experience, knowledge, skills, and commitment to lead, guide, and support this strategy for DCPS’s low-achieving schools.

Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council sit in the catbird’s seat: she, to choose DCPS’s overall strategy and select the new chancellor, the Council to approve or not the person selected.

Let us hope they make the right decisions. D.C.’s disadvantaged students and their families, especially in Wards 7 and 8, are depending on it.


Gary Ratner has been working to reform U.S. education law and policy for over 40 years, including vigorously advocating for overhauling NCLB since before it became law in 2002 until ESSA was enacted in 2015. He blogs on education in The Huffington Post.

View Ratner's article in its entirety.