For more than 70,000 schoolchildren in the nation’s capital, choices exist and progress is evident, but excellence remains troublingly scarce.
Alternatives, especially charter schools and out-of-boundary placements, often offer significant improvements, and there is evidence of progress in schools across the city. But based on current trajectories, they are proving insufficient to bridge the gap between current performance and necessary gains for most children. This places greater urgency on the need for restoring the Opportunity Scholarship program as a crucial implement to deliver more quality choices to District families.
One recent analysis determined that seven of 10 of District of Columbia students attend a public school other than their assigned neighborhood school, including charter schools, magnet schools or out-of-boundary enrollments.
Out-of-boundary applications are up again this year, and a similar jump is expected with the opening of four promising new charter schools. But, according to Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, less than a third of seats are at schools that can be considered high performing, and roughly two-thirds of these are at charter schools.
For children fortunate enough to draw these seats, a world-class education and subsequent opportunities await. For others, worthwhile opportunities exist, but obstacles can prove formidable. While fourth-grade students across the District have made impressive gains in reading and math in the past five years, eighth-grade scores remain stagnant — unchanged in reading with slight gains in math, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among black children in the eighth grade, two out of three score “below basic” in math, as do two out of five in reading. “Below basic” indicates less-than-partial mastery, and for these eighth graders, the odds against graduating high school are steep.
Many D.C. families exercising available choices do so seeking the highest quality of instruction and best learning environment for their children. For others, safety is their biggest concern. More than one-third of children attending D.C. Public Schools’ five largest high schools responded on a survey two years ago that they did not feel safe there, and changes since then, while promising, have been limited.
The charter school sector in particular has taken important strides toward bolstering the quality of education offered on its 99 campuses. In his first 12 months as chairman of the city’s Public Charter School Board, Brian Jones has established a broad commitment to superior performance, with impressive and encouraging results citywide. There are many reasons to be optimistic: The increased, systematic use of data to guide the instruction of individual students is a welcome development. But will even this progress occur too slowly to make enough of a difference for most children currently in the system, or are more choices needed?
Moving forward, both the quality and the number of available choices will be critical. Strategies should include tapping the most effective and most transformative examples of what is working in other school districts around the country.
For instance, blended instruction classrooms, which combine face-to-face teaching with online content with a remarkable efficiency in learning, are an example proven to succeed in environments where circumstances and alternatives are comparable to the District’s. Both U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and new D.C. Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley Johnson have advocated this model with enthusiasm, but it remains one which the District has yet to offer in its portfolio of schools.
More than half of the D.C. Council is on record in support of continuing Opportunity Scholarships. Chairman Kwame Brown has been outspoken in championing the need for providing more high-quality choices for families.
Amid the urgency of the challenge and the stakes for the future, the popular refrain that, “We cannot afford to wait any longer” seems fully appropriate.
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