A lot seems to be going right in DC’s K-12 education landscape. DCPS test scores have been going up for four straight years. DC charter schools are among the best in the country at educating low-income minority students. We also know that these gains have more to do with real student improvement rather than gentrification or population shifts.
We hosted three of the city’s top K-12 education professionals—DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, DC Public School Board Executive Director Scott Pearson and State Superintendent Hanseul Kang—for a panel discussion, moderated by FC2 Trustee Katherine Bradley, to discuss why we are seeing these gains and how to keep the positive momentum going.
Dr. Ferebee gave credit to the teachers. DCPS has been working hard to retain the most effective teachers, 90 percent of whom chose to stay on at DCPS last year. They’ve also been training teachers to be more engaged with parents and families. DCPS leads the nation in home visits.
It’s hard to pinpoint what any individual charter is doing right, Scott Pearson said, since each offers its own unique approach. But the Charter School Board aggressively manages it school portfolio. The Board systematically closes the lowest performing schools (35 since 2012) and opens lots of new ones that show promise (31 since 2012). It encourages the successful schools to grow—approving KIPP DC to quadruple in size and DC Prep to more than double.
An extra focus on equity, Hanseul Kang argued, is why the whole system is working better. The District is being more strategic about resource allocation for the most needy students. Indeed low-income, minority students have seen some of the biggest test score gains over the last year.
Everyone acknowledged that progress could be better. More students are homeless today than a few years ago, and there are still pockets of high schools that are severely underperforming. Plus achievement gaps aren’t closing all that much because students at the top are making just as swift gains as those at the bottom.
But more positive policy change is in the works. DC’s public school system already has loads of choice built in, with nearly 75 percent of students choosing a school outside of their neighborhood. The District is making this choice system more efficient. OSSE developed a citywide 1-to-5 school quality rating system to make it easier for parents to compare their options, and DCPS and charters have come together to create a single school lottery system.
We know that labor market success requires more than completing high school. Workforce training should be part of the District’s education ecosystem. For our second panel, moderated by FC2 Trustee Dr. Sheila Brooks, Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn and University of DC President Ronald Mason discussed what can be done to link K-12 and higher education to better job outcomes.
As the District’s only public university, the University of DC is part of the solution. It has been working with the Bowser Administration to identify career pathways, and it is partnering with Amazon to offer a short-term certificate program for cloud-related IT jobs. UDC operates with an equity imperative. “Our vision,” according to President Mason, “is that students who walk through our doors will reach their highest potential.” He wants to make sure that no matter what degree program students enter first, there are on and off ramps so that they can switch to a certificate, bachelors or even a PhD if they want.
Succeeding in the DC labor market requires a postsecondary credential, Paul Kihn said, but not necessarily a college degree. Often a two-year technical degree or certificate is just fine. Right now too many DC high school graduates don’t receive any credential at all. Only 55 percent go to college and of those only 39 percent complete their degree. Setting up DC high school graduates for success in the labor market requires rethinking how the District approaches workforce training.
It can start with shifting the education center of gravity from educators to employers—they should do more of the actual training.
High school students should have the option of learning in the workplace in apprenticeships. Like in the gold-standard Swiss model, students would split their time between high school and work. They earn a credential and some income, all while developing a relationship with an employer. The Federal City Council is partnering with CityBridge to start an apprenticeship pilot program in 2020. Meanwhile, the city government needs to figure out the finer details like how apprenticeships would fit in with graduation and testing requirements.
In all of this, the business community plays a critical role as future employers and also engaged citizens.