Not Losing Sight of Achievement Goals for All

By: Kit Faiella, Policy Fellow

Between 2003 and 2015, the District of Columbia experienced large achievement gains for its students: double-digit gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a growth in attendance and graduation (despite recent setbacks), and more students reported satisfaction in their schooling. For a school district that struggled for so many years, there is so much positive. But during my time as a Policy Fellow for the State Board of Education, I’ve had the chance to absorb the data and hear upfront about some of the challenges families face here in the District. Overall, while there is much to celebrate, there is much more to do.

First, let’s examine the two most recent NAEP scores for the District – 2015 and 2017. Below is a graphic that compares the NAEP results for the District by race.


Overall, there are distinct differences between races when it comes to student achievement. How can we make these equal? What positives can we take from the overall strengthening of scores over time and apply to everyone? How can we ensure that success is shared by all?

Discipline has also been in the news recently. As the “school-to-prison pipeline” has rightfully garnered more mainstream attention, there has been a shift in focus in disciplinary actions to ensure equitable outcomes. Suspensions are less effective than other means of intervention (restorative justice for example), and can lead to potentially harmful outcomes for the student and the broader school community. Suspensions are correlated with almost all negative achievement outcomes: prison, low grades, and lowered job prospects later in life.

To effect better outcomes for these students outside of the classroom, more positive approaches can be leveraged to help students get back on the right disciplinary track. A positive trend that is occurring in DC schools is the implementation of Restorative Justice programs, with these schools seeing a decline in both behavioral issues and suspensions. But there is still more to be done in DC, as we saw during the 2016-17 school year a disproportionate number of students suspended were Black.

What about access to quality alternatives? The DC Public Charter School system has become a model for the country by setting high bars for charters to be established and reaping the benefits for students. But do students and their families have the ability to make a “choice?” Currently, DCPS has over 24,000 students waitlisted for schools, and the DC Public Charter Schools has over 11,000. Is this choice? It seems more like “clambering” to me.

Are all of the choices adequate too? The map below shows all Public and Public Charter schools in DC. All DC Public Schools are black diamonds, and the colored squares indicate the Quality School Ratings of the Charter Schools. At first glance, the large amounts of purple (Tier 2 rating) and a lack of green squares (Tier 1 rating) in Wards 7 and 8 also constitute a lack of choice, in addition to the large waitlists.

Public and Public Charter Schools in DC

Lastly, it’s important to consider how students are travelling to school. Simply having a quality institution isn’t enough. If a student spends a long time commuting, they are forgoing precious extracurricular and development opportunities. A recent report from the Urban Institute investigated this exact question, and found that students from the lowest income neighborhoods in the District experience some of the longest commute times.

These disparities that persist in the District should worry all citizens – by raising all ships we can elevate the District and unlock an even greater potential for our region. My time at the State Board has introduced me to some of the most passionate actors in this fight for equity, from the Board members to task force members, from staff members to citizens. Overall, I’ve learned that we can’t lose sight of what is important – an equal education for all.

Figures cited in this post were obtained from “D.C. Public Schools see large achievement gains, growing inequality” by Nicholas Munyan-Penney at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

All opinions and comments in this post are my own.

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