DC graduation scandal shows how an uncritical gaze leads reformers astray

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A January audit of the D.C. Public Schools reported that more than 900 students — or one-third of the system’s high school graduates last year — should not have received their diplomas, due to truancy and other problems. It turns out that corner-cutting and gamesmanship were largely responsible for record-setting DCPS graduation rates.

{mosads}Indeed, the true DCPS graduation rate actually dropped two percentage points since 2011. These findings are a huge blow to a school system that reformers, reporters, and pundits have touted as a poster child for 21st century school reform. And while the city’s municipal and educational leaders should face the music, those fans and followers also need to reflect on their role in all of this.

After all, as blogger Alexander Russo observed last week, the scandal is partly a product of inattention and rank boosterism by the capital’s preeminent news outlet — the Washington Post. As Russo writes:

“Positive press dominated the Post’s coverage. D.C. schools were so good that nearby suburban parents were faking residence in order to get their kids into District schools. The new professional development program for teachers was really good! The District was sending every student to study abroad! It was teaching every kid how to ride a bike!”

The Post’s giddy coverage is emblematic of a larger problem — the way in which so many in the world of school reform tend to clamber aboard the bandwagon of the moment while parking their skepticism. This is a problem not only for the education media, which has a long history of championing the latest fad, but especially for education advocates and funders.

In the case of the Post, Russo identifies the rapid turnover of local education reporters — five in six years — as one big factor impacting coverage of DCPS. The Post’s failure to prioritize local news coverage worsened the problem. As Russo notes, “Asked recently if she could recall any education reporters asking tough questions about the district’s reported graduation rates, former DCPS head (Kaya) Henderson said, ‘I don’t.’”

But inattention to potential DCPS shortcomings was an issue far beyond the Post newsroom.

Lots of self-styled “reformers” had good reason to observe DCPS through rose-tinted glasses. A wealth of advocates, funders, consultants, researchers, and friends had a rooting interest in DCPS’s success — and had every incentive to focus on the good news. This includes the senior author of this piece, who counted many DCPS leaders as friends of long standing — and who wrote admiringly about some of their efforts.

After all, Washington, D.C., as much as any city over the past decade, served as a laboratory where philanthropists, policy analysts, and high profile media outlets converge. Philanthropists have poured more than $120 million into the school system since 2007. By 2010, the nation’s largest 15 philanthropies were spending more on K-12 education in D.C. than in any other school district in America.

In 2010, DCPS rolled out a new teacher contract, built atop its pioneering teacher evaluation model and breakthrough salary schedule. This was all made possible by more than $60 million in dedicated foundation support. All of this was good and noteworthy, but it also meant that harsh words, or even tough questions, about DCPS were likely to be seen as “unhelpful” by major foundations and as evidence of “anti-reform” tendencies by reformers eager to celebrate DCPS as a roaring success.

All of this means there was plenty of cause to search for, and celebrate, good news. Praise was omnipresent, and critiques were few and far between. In 2016, President Obama said, somewhat ironically in retrospect:

“Right here in D.C., in just five years, the graduation rate in the District of Columbia public schools went from just 53 percent to 69 percent. So D.C.’s graduation rates grew faster than any other place in the country this year — this past year. That’s something to be really proud of.”  

A quick scan of think tank analyses of DCPS suggests just how enthusiastically the analysts jumped on the bandwagon. A 2013 New America publication called D.C.’s teacher evaluation reform “as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation gets.” A 2014 AEI report (issued by our education policy program) hailed DCPS’s efforts with technology; it was glowingly titled, “Blended Learning in D.C. Public Schools: How One District is Reinventing Its Classrooms.” In 2017, Georgetown’s FutureEd published, “How D.C. Schools Are Revolutionizing Teaching.” This parade of good cheer might help explain why, as Russo notes, “D.C. public schools started calling itself the fastest-improving big-city school district in the nation, and nobody in a position to inform the public about nagging questions seems to have raised the alarm.”

Now, anyone who follows the education debates knows there’s no lack of criticism directed at school reform and school reformers. Well-meaning educators and system leaders have been subjected to vitriolic and ad hominem attacks from ideologues, leather-lunged union leaders, and all manner of “anti-reformers.” It’s understandable why leaders seek to build teams of loyalists and why, outside of their organization, there emerges a doughty group of earnest allies and true-believers. When you’re part of a small band fighting to change a big, powerful, recalcitrant system, tribalism can seem like a virtue.

But that’s part of the problem. Faced with a constant drumbeat of invective, “reformers” have tended to circle their wagons, fueling a “with-us-or-against-us” dynamic. That leaves little ground for friends to offer tough-minded public appraisal without being labeled an enemy of the movement.

Russo is right to call out the Post’s coverage, but the issue he identifies is just one facet of a school reform culture that has frequently been too clubby, chummy, and tribal for its own good.

If we are serious about tackling the issues that arose in Washington, D.C., and not just in pointing fingers, it’s time for the reformers, funders, and pundits to ask ourselves how we’ve contributed to a culture that’s heavy on cheerleading and light on skepticism — and how to find a better balance going forward.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Letters to a Young Education Reformer.” Brendan Bell is a research assistant at AEI.

Tags American Enterprise Institute dc graduation rate dc graduation rate scandal DCPS District of Columbia Public Schools Education Education in the United States Education in Washington, D.C. Education reform Frederick M. Hess graduation rate School choice

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