How D.C. Could Become National Model For Turning Around Low-achieving Schools Under ESSA

12/01/2016 06:58 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2017

With a new Chancellor soon to be chosen, D.C.'s public schools are at a crossroads. The Michelle Rhee - Kaya Henderson period made improvements in some areas. School system leadership and management were stabilized. Test scores went up modestly. Enrollment and graduation rates increased. New course and extracurricular opportunities were offered, facilities built or modernized.

But the Rhee-Henderson approach ― including significantly test-score based teacher/principal evaluations and widespread removals, closing many schools in poor neighborhoods, tightening headquarters' control of schools, and not concentrating on turning around low-achieving schools ― contains two fundamental problems.

D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has failed to adequately educate the vast majority of its black students and perpetuates a huge black-white achievement gap. In 2015, the 4th and 8th grade average of DCPS black students "Proficient" on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was only 14% in reading, 13% in math, versus 79% for white students in each subject. (NAEP is the nation's most reliable K-12 academic assessment.)

From 2007-2015, the percent of DCPS's black students becoming "Proficient" on NAEP increased less than 0.8%/yr. in both subjects. At these rates, it would take 80 years to close the achievement gap between black students and current white students.

Even worse, in 2015 a majority of DCPS's black students were "Below Basic" on NAEP, i.e., they didn't have even "partial mastery of [the] knowledge and skills" required for their grade level. The 4th and 8th grade average of black students "Below Basic" was 55% in reading, 53% in math; white students, 5% reading, 6% math.

Imagine sending these thousands of 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."

There's no reason to believe that perpetuating the same DCPS strategy would dramatically improve black students' future learning.

Fortunately, there's a way out. First, research and experience show that it is possible to turn around low-achieving schools. There are five common elements such schools typically address, together, to turn themselves around - leadership, instructional improvement, curriculum, school climate, and parent and community involvement. Under each element, there are common practices they typically adopt. These common practices include providing, as the catalyst for turnaround, a leader with vision for school improvement who collaborates with stakeholders, gains buy-in and develops leadership teams. The goal is to holistically change the stakeholders' expectations, beliefs and practices - to dramatically improve the school's culture.

Second, Congress recently replaced No Child Left Behind's test and sanctions-driven strategy with Every Student Succeeds Act's (ESSA) focus on helping schools improve. ESSA, the current name of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, (ESEA) provides two programs specifically to improve low-achieving schools: "comprehensive support and improvement," ESEA, 1111(d)(1)(A)(B), and "schoolwide," ESEA, 1114(a)-(d). The "comprehensive support" program includes requirements that the district collaborate with teachers, parents and other stakeholders to conduct a needs assessment and develop an improvement plan for each participating school. For the "schoolwide" program, these requirements apply to the school itself.

Third, Chancellor Henderson's departure creates the unique opportunity to hire a new Chancellor who knows how to lead and support a new strategy focused on turning around low-achieving schools.

Key actions that DCPS should take under ESSA include: focus DCPS's "local plan" on instituting the two turnaround programs, emphasizing implementing the common elements and practices. Move from top-down, centralized control to collaborating and partnering with stakeholders about each school's needs assessment, improvement plan and implementation.

Apply for a federal "school leader residency" grant to train and support experienced principals to lead turnarounds in "comprehensive support schools," ESEA, 2243(a)(3), or establish such a training program on its own. Provide supplemental staffing, funding, technical assistance and other resources, as necessary, to help turnaround principals and their schools succeed, including mentoring and peer collaboration for turnaround principals. Delegate broad authority to all turnaround principals so they can lead the complex, multi-year changes needed, and extend their contracts to at least 5 years.

Administer the School Climate Assessment Instrument survey to students, teachers and parents as the most revealing and instructive survey for school improvement purposes. And, to promote teachers' support essential for turnaround success, complete a new contract with the Washington Teachers Union.

While future strategy shifts to turning around low-achieving schools, prior DCPS improvements may, and should be, preserved. There would be no inconsistency between DCPS retaining its previous administrative, facility, and programmatic progress and shifting future priority to dramatically improving its low-achieving schools and, thereby, student learning. Similarly, districts nationwide with low-achieving schools should adopt the same approach to ESSA to successfully turn around their schools.

If D.C. effectively implements the above recommendations, it would become a national model for transforming such schools under ESSA.

To do so, Mayor Muriel Bowser would need to select as Chancellor someone with the vision, experience successfully leading turnaround(s), knowledge, skills and commitment to lead and support the new strategy.

It's now up to Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council: she, to choose the new strategy and select a well-qualified Chancellor to implement it; the Council to approve or disapprove the person selected.

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