The New Year: Improving Public Schools

Dr. Ramona Edelin | 12/27/2011, 12:49 p.m.

As 2011 makes way for 2012, I am reminded that Mayor Vincent Gray was sworn into office a year ago, after having placed fairness, high standards and community engagement at the heart of his education plan. One year on, how close has he come to realizing the plan that helped his campaign succeed?

Early last year, the mayor replaced outgoing D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee with her deputy, Kaya Henderson--a move seen by many as underscoring his commitment to education reform. The then-new mayor also pressed ahead with another priority of the previous administration: modernizing and bringing up to code the many often-dilapidated DCPS buildings. Finally, the children are getting the right message when they walk into these renovated and refurbished buildings--that adults care about you and your future.

There have been some other welcome changes under the new mayor. This year, the announcement of the state standardized reading and math test scores took place inside a DCPS school-with students and staff from Hospitality High Public Charter School invited, to recognize its rising scores on the state test.

The mayor's efforts to recognize the contributions of the city's chartered public schools to improvements in educational outcomes were long overdue--but still welcome. The same goes for his acknowledgement of public charter--DCPS cooperation.

Why is this attention to chartered public schools' role so important? Publicly funded, but run independently of the traditional school system, their contributions to improving outcomes for urban youth over the last 15 years have been remarkable. They have increased the numbers of students who are at grade level in reading and math, as well as those who graduate high school and are accepted to college. Charters are an established part of the city's educational landscape, and deserve equal consideration with DCPS, which also has made progress with students' academic success in recent years.

Another defining moment was the mayor's decision to set up a commission to look into public funding inequities between D.C.'s chartered public schools and DCPS. The city's charter school community eagerly awaits progress on equal funding, after years of frustration and unequal funding under previous administrations.

More recently, the mayor was present at Achievement Preparatory Academy PCS for the unveiling of the charter board's 'Performance Management Framework.' This framework measures schools according to various indicators, including: the share of students that score "proficient" or "advanced" on the state test; improvements in student test scores; and attendance and re-enrollment rates. As the framework develops, many D.C. charters hope that they can be measured--and held accountable--for how well they fare in living up to the often-ambitious missions that they have set for themselves.

These changes show that education in the District is headed in the right direction. There are, however, problems that must be addressed, such as the growing achievement gap in our city. According to the widely respected National Assessment of Education Progress, Washington, D.C. schools have the largest achievement gap between white and African-American students in the country. This situation is unacceptable, and threatens the progress we have made. In 2012, Mayor Gray and the City Council need to invest greater resources to help close the gap.