04/01/2014 11:59 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Does School 'Reform' Have to Mean Separate and Unequal?

Making test scores too high a priority can ultimately limit students' real potential. A recent report about the success of Alice Deal Middle School in Washington DC, where low-income students enjoy a variety of enrichment options, and a charter school that rejects such enrichment, where they score a bit higher on reading and math tests, highlights that ironic reality. But it doesn't have to be that way. Just across the city line, Maryland's Montgomery County demonstrates that taking a broader perspective enhances not only test scores, but more important predictors of life success.

A DC success story

Deal, located in one of the city's toniest neighborhoods, used to serve mostly low-income, minority students, and its test scores and reputation were poor. Recently, however, DC Public Schools (DCPS) has used a variety of strategies to draw professional families into District schools, transforming schools like Deal. WAMU-FM reporter Kavitha Cardoza depicts an oasis of quality, creativity, and the kinds of offerings normally restricted to expensive private schools.

Students Connor Yu and Charley Mestrich describe Deal's 60-plus clubs -- "from anime to Minecraft to cooking to board games" -- as "fun," and Principal James Albright leverages its resources to help students gain the abstract thinking skills and independence they'll need in high school and beyond. Deal has fantastic test scores, but the school's focus is on getting its students ready for life writ large. And it's doing a great job.

DC's test-oriented focus

Stories like this prompt us to ask how we can replicate Deal in other parts of DCPS -- or in New York City, or Chicago. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that replication may not be possible; demographics and other aspects that work for Deal may not be present elsewhere. Moreover, Deal's few low-income students are outscored by their peers in eight charter schools.

DC Prep Edgewood Middle School in Northeast is one of those schools. It used to have "Shakespeare theatre, baseball, ice skating and golf, a lot of great opportunities," but Principal Cassie Pergament said that such activities spread the school too thin, distracting from its "unapologetic" focus on academics. That focus includes a nine-hour school day, with no break -- recess was eliminated soon after extracurriculars -- followed by two-to-three hours of homework every night. And while Henderson values extracurriculars, DCPS's pressure on test scores crowds out other, important aspects of education.

Pergament asserts that this laser-like focus enables DC Prep students to compete with their higher-income counterparts. If successful competition equals using higher test scores to get into "good" high schools, perhaps that is true. But extensive research documents the importance of nurturing a range of development skills. And lack of exposure to foreign language, art, music and other humanities handicaps low-income students in college, career and life. Too much emphasis on test scores thus establishes separate and unequal benchmarks for what we expect Deal versus DC Prep students to dream, and to achieve. So why can't and shouldn't we offer balance and breadth for all students?

The MCPS model

Just a few miles north in Maryland this is indeed happening. My younger daughter attends Rolling Terrace Elementary School (RTES) in Tacoma Park, one of Montgomery County's lowest-income schools. At RTES, like DC Prep, over 70 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals. The majority do not speak English at home. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Joshua Starr does not suggest, however, that "those" students need more academic drilling. Instead, the school offers scholarships covering fees associated with its many afterschool activities -- chess club, Legos robotics, Indian dance, and drama -- for students whose families cannot afford them. Rather than more math and reading, the new MCPS curriculum emphasizes connections across civics, history, science and creativity. Rolling Terrace has two full-time art, two full-time physical education and three music teachers. Starr's refusal to use test scores to evaluate teachers -- which would undermine morale, collegiality and professionalism -- facilitates this broad perspective.

MCPS recognizes, too, that these students do need extra support during the school day. Higher-poverty schools have smaller classes to increase individualized instruction, and teachers have extra training and certification in special education and English language instruction to meet their students' unique needs. Rolling Terrace has nine English-as-a-second-language specialists. These supports are bolstered by breakfast for every child -- no stigma or inconvenience attached -- and a full-service health clinic that frees parents to work and teachers to teach.

Students at DC Prep do not need something radically different from their counterparts at Deal. In fact, what they really need is exactly what Deal kids are getting, but more of it: Lots of creative, engaging, hands-on academic experiences. Time to play in safe, enriching environments. Teachers and principals who view broadening their worldviews as a core component of education. Indeed, contrasting the huge increase in DCPS achievement gaps in recent years (with patterns similar in charter schools) with gaps that narrowed substantially in MCPS, where low-income students gained major ground in school readiness, test scores, and high school graduation, confirms that this trade-off doesn't work.

It is particularly troubling to contrast Deal's "fun" with the lack of it elsewhere. While DC Prep 14-year-old RuKiyah Mack "loves knowing teachers are there for her anytime and that students are celebrated for being smart ... 'It would be more interesting if we have more clubs and activities to choose from.'" MCPS understands that cutting fun -- and engagement -- out of school is not the route to achievement, and that narrowing gaps requires broadening experiences for all students. It also knows that reducing pressure on test scores makes room for broader interests to thrive. Until urban charters and districts come to that understanding, however, separate and unequal will dominate so-called reform.