While the scandal at Ballou High School has focused on attendance and other unmet graduation requirements, one DC Public School parent’s emotional testimony before members of the DC Council last month got to the heart of the problem: many kids aren’t being taught anything of substance in the crucial elementary years. And officials seem unable or unwilling to do much about it.
In November, NPR and local affiliate WAMU revealed that most of the students who graduated from Ballou last year missed more than six weeks of school and that many were allowed to pass a required course by taking a far less rigorous online version. A recent internal investigation concluded that rampant absenteeism is widespread throughout the system.
But, as DCPS parent Andrea Tucker told members of the DC Council’s Education Committee at a recent hearing, those problems–while significant–are just the tip of a large and dangerous iceberg.
Tucker has three children at J.O. Wilson Elementary in Ward 6 and is an active and engaged parent. Her kids have perfect attendance and are never late, she told council members. Nevertheless, she said as she choked back tears, she had just been told that her fourth-grader is two grade levels behind where he should be, according to diagnostic tests. It’s hard to watch Tucker’s testimony, below, without being moved by her anguish.
Tucker said she had been assured from kindergarten through third grade that her son’s progress was fine. But she had concerns, which led her to press for more information. “Had I not been questioning things,” she asked, “would I have found out before middle school? I doubt it.”
What’s even more troubling about Tucker’s testimony is that her son’s experience is all too common–not just in DCPS, but in traditional public and charter schools throughout the country. As Tucker says, too many kids get passed along from one grade to the next without learning what they need to succeed at the next level. Eventually, they get discouraged and stop coming to school.
“Children now wake up one day in high school,” she said, “and everyone just finds out they could not read or write”–a claim that some Ballou teachers made about some of the school’s seniors.
Tucker–herself a product of DCPS schools, including J.O. Wilson–says that she was required to take remedial courses when she got to college, despite having passed all her high school classes. Her niece, who graduated from Eastern High School last year, had the same experience. No doubt many of the Ballou graduates–all of whom were accepted to college–will do so as well. And according to one estimate, 90% of the 90,000 DC adult residents who are illiterate are DCPS graduates. It’s time to realize that these problems have their roots in elementary school.
Principals can limit the curriculum to reading and math
At J.O. Wilson, Tucker said, the principal has opted to disregard the DCPS curriculum, which calls for 45 minutes of social studies or science a day. According to descriptions on the DCPS website, second-graders become “experts on plants.” Third-graders learn about DC neighborhoods and monuments, and 4th-graders learn about American Indian culture and the evolution of earth’s physical landscape–among many other things. Students are supposed to engage in projects and hands-on learning and go on field trips.
But Tucker says that at J.O. Wilson and many other DCPS schools–especially those serving minority and low-income children–students are getting none of this.
“Nobody’s holding [principals] accountable for teaching our kids everything they’re supposed to be learning in school,” Tucker said–no one is “checking the checkers.”
That led to the following exchange with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, in which Tucker explained what she meant: The principal at J.O. Wilson has decreed that fourth-graders like her son must get two and a half hours of reading every day. And homework? Just more reading.
Through an email from a DCPS spokesperson, J.O. Wilson principal Heidi Haggerty responded that the school is “committed to preparing all students for college, career, and life.” That means, she wrote, “providing opportunities to learn social studies and science as well as the arts, physical education, reading, and math.”
But Tucker says Haggerty has decided students need to spend the time that’s supposed to be devoted to those subjects on reading instead, in order to boost scores on year-end tests.
“They might say they’re doing it,” she says, “but it’s just a lot of reading.” And because students are all reading different books at their own reading levels, it’s hard for teachers to teach anything substantive to the class as a whole. Tucker says that most parents at J.O. Wilson have been “in an uproar” over the narrow curriculum.
Joe Weedon, the State Board of Education representative for Ward 6, agrees with Tucker that the narrow elementary curriculum is “an immense problem” in many schools.
“Ultimately,” he says, “you teach what’s measured. So you often see schools doing a real focus on math and reading. Unfortunately at some schools it comes at the expense of other subjects, especially when there’s immense pressure to raise test scores.”
Weedon has seen this happen at the DCPS schools his own children attend–and, he says, he’s the only elected DC official whose kids are enrolled in their neighborhood schools. While his son’s elementary school, Maury, does provide the requisite 45 minutes a day of social studies and science, students still get three hours a day of reading and math. And for the past two years, his son’s only homework has been in reading and math.
Teaching only reading and math doesn’t work
To be fair, this is far from just a DCPS problem. In the nearly two decades since the advent of high-stakes tests, elementary schools across the country–both traditional public schools and charters–have basically excised everything except reading and math from the curriculum. But that approach is self-defeating.
For one thing, a steady diet of reading and math is mind-numbingly boring. It also fails to provide students with the foundation of vocabulary and knowledge about the world they need to succeed in the upper grades and in life. And, at least in reading, it’s unlikely even to achieve the desired objective of boosting test scores.
Educators have assumed that reading tests measure skills like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences.” So they teach those skills divorced from any particular content, on the theory that if students get good enough at finding the main idea, they’ll be able to apply that skill to any text. But if students don’t have enough background knowledge and vocabulary to understand the passages on a reading test, their supposed skills won’t help them. And the best way to provide them with the knowledge and vocabulary they need is to teach them about history, science, and the arts.
What’s particularly painful about the situation in DCPS is that some of its Central Office personnel fully understand the importance of building students’ knowledge. The fact that DCPS has constructed and promulgated a coherent, knowledge-focused curriculum sets it apart from virtually every other school district in the country, most of which don’t even try to get elementary teachers to focus on content.
The problem is that, apparently, DCPS has no way of ensuring that schools actually implement the curriculum. Tucker says that all she got from Central Office personnel in response to her complaints were vague promises to “support” or “mentor” J.O. Wilson’s principal. (I asked DCPS officials for a response on their ability to get schools to follow the curriculum but did not get one.)
More fundamentally, DCPS has systems in place that actively discourage schools from adopting a broad curriculum, say Weedon and another State Board of Education member, Ruth Wattenberg. Principals are held to goals that include raising reading and math scores. Teachers are evaluated in part on how much they can boost those scores. And the scores shape the perceptions of the public, including most parents, on school quality.
“If you have strong incentives [to raise test scores] and no countervailing forces,” says Wattenberg, “bad things happen.”
Both Tucker and Weedon say that parents who push back against the narrow curriculum–as they have–are labeled troublemakers and generally ignored. Both have brought their concerns to DCPS officials extending up to the Chancellor and gotten no response.
Questions about Ballou could help bring about change
Perhaps that will change. In the education reform world, DCPS has long worn the halo of being “the fastest-improving urban school district in the nation.” Its top officials, satisfied with their apparent success, have been uninterested in probing below its surface.
But the Ballou scandal and its associated fallout have raised questions that may force them to do so. Is the rising graduation rate a sham? Is the increase in test scores an artifact of gentrification, while the gap between white and minority students has grown wider?
And what could DCPS or other local officials do to address the situation, assuming they decide they want to? Both Weedon and Wattenberg say the first step is to bring more public attention to the narrow curriculum that prevails in many elementary and even some middle schools. Weedon suggests making the goals that principals are held to transparent.
Wattenberg hopes that a school “report card” that the State Board is now formulating will include information on how much time students spend on science and social studies and what topics are covered. She says she’s seen significant public support for broadening the curriculum, once parents are made aware of the issue.
In the meantime, children like Andrea Tucker’s will continue to miss out on acquiring the knowledge that could set them up for success. Tucker told me she’s considered moving her kids to another school that does implement the full DCPS curriculum–there’s one not far from J.O. Wilson. There are also some DC charter schools that offer a rich curriculum.
But that, she says, would be “the easy way out.” Children should be able to get what they need no matter what school they’re in, she argues. And if she took her kids out, what about the others who would be left behind?
“This is not just for my kids,” she says, “but for other kids too.”