School's Back in Session, But Challenges Remain for D.C.'s Poor Minority Students

By Gary M. Ratner

August 30, 2016


This is the first in an education series about how the District of Columbia could become a national model for improving low-achieving schools under a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Each week over the next five weeks, D.C. Bar member Gary M. Ratner, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Citizens for Effective Schools, will explore key issues, from programs that can turn schools around to how to implement ESSA. The opinions expressed are the author's own.


The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is set to get a new leader when Chancellor Kaya Henderson steps down this fall after leading the city's school system since late 2010. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who plans to select a new chancellor in October, announced the formation of a 17-member search committee to aid her in selecting Henderson's replacement.

Starting on August 30, the deputy mayor is convening the first of three community forums to help gather input into the kind of chancellor D.C. residents want to lead the next stage of public education in the city.

This search comes at a crucial moment for the District's disadvantaged public school children. In December 2015, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new name of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESSA shifts federal policy on school improvement and accountability away from the punitive requirements of NCLB and toward a supportive policy of helping low-achieving schools improve by doing what works.

Two critical questions arise: what strategy for implementing ESSA should the new chancellor be hired to lead, and what kind of vision, experience, and skills should the new chancellor have to carry out this strategy?

During the period between 2007 and 2016, when Henderson served as deputy chancellor to Michelle Rhee, and subsequently succeeded Rhee, DCPS made progress in some areas.School system management was stabilized.Test scores went up. Enrollment and graduation rates increased.New courses and extracurricular opportunities were offered, and facilities built or modernized.

But the Rhee–Henderson approach—including teacher and principal evaluations based significantly on students' standardized test scores, removing large numbers of teachers and principals because of low scores, closing many schools in poor neighborhoods, tightening headquarters' control of schools, and not concentrating on turning around the low-achieving schools—has fundamental problems.

DCPS has failed to effectively educate the vast majority of its black students, and there remains a severe achievement gap between black and white students. A recent National Research Council report, requested by the D.C. Council, concluded: "The primary objective of the District of Columbia for its public schools should be to address the serious and persistent disparities in learning opportunities and academic progress across student groups and wards." These students are disproportionately concentrated in schools in Wards 7 and 8 and other neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park.

Magnitude of the Problem

The proficiency level of black DCPS students is low in absolute terms. In 2015 the fourth and eighth grade average percentage of black students who were "Proficient" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was only 14 percent in reading and 13 percent in math.(NAEP is the nation's most reliable K-12 academic assessment.)

Further, there remains an extreme achievement gap between black and white DCPS students. In contrast to the numbers above, 79 percent of white students were "Proficient" in reading and 79 percent in math. So, black DCPS students have less than one-fifth the likelihood of being academically proficient as their white peers.

Even more serious, in 2015 a majority of black DCPS students were "Below Basic" on NAEP"—that is, they didn't have even "partial mastery of [the] knowledge and skills" required for their grade level. The fourth and eighth grade average of black students who were "Below Basic" was 55 percent in reading and 53 percent in math. For white students, only 5 percent were "Below Basic" in reading and 6 percent in math.

Imagine sending these youth into the world to get a decent job and function as productive members of society—a prescription for dropping out of school, unemployment, drugs, crime, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

DCPS has serious problems that have not been effectively addressed by its strategy of the last 10 years, and there's no reason to believe the perpetuation of the same strategy will lead to significantly better results in the future.

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.