As Mayor Gray highlighted the importance of continuing to improve public education here in the nation’s capital in his State of the District address, my thoughts turned to recent controversies surrounding our public schools.
First came proposals from D.C.’s Board of Education to increase the graduation requirements for high school students enrolled in public school. Then, a news story about how student suspensions and expulsions are handled by the city’s chartered public schools, which are funded with local taxpayer dollars but are not part of the school system, and the traditional system, D.C. Public Schools.
Behind both there is a mistaken assumption: there is one solution that should be applied to all students. Acknowledging that students learn in different ways means that we have to think much harder about how we serve our students. If we fail to recognize this truth we will continue to fail our children—especially those who are least advantaged.
High-school graduation requirements are at the heart of how we prepare our students for jobs and careers. In the recent past, about half of D.C. public school students dropped out. Today, some 80 percent of District public charter high school students graduate within four years; 56 percent of those at DCPS high schools do.
Given the importance of obtaining a high school diploma, the D.C. State Board of Education’s new proposed graduation requirements may hurt students who need the most help. Under the proposal, students will be forced to take additional P.E. and performing arts classes. These requirements divert resources that could be used [to] help those who have fallen behind.
Instead of more requirements,…the board should look at ways it can give charters more control. One way is to move away from the so-called Carnegie Unit, where students are required to meet a number of seat hours on coursework, to a standards-based system, which is based on students meeting competency levels. This allows students who have fallen behind to catch up and students who are advanced to continue to grow.
Like graduation requirements, student behavioral issues are not a problem that can be solved with a uniform approach. Charter schools are established to fulfill a mission. School culture, the vehicle to achieve that goal, is implemented with standards of behavior and accountability.
One solution that is being used in other states to spur academic success is blended learning programs, technology-based systems that combine traditional classroom methods with computer-run activities. Computer-based work gives teachers constant feedback on student performance. The data can be used to structure lessons that challenge students and allow them to advance at their own pace.
The city also needs to address problems such as gangs, guns, drugs and sex abuse of children. There is no city-wide plan and practice for ameliorating poverty and its pernicious effects.
Our public schools need to learn from the city’s best practices in terms of graduating students, college and career preparation.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is the executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.