Politicians and bureaucrats generally engage in feel-good packaging. Any step forward is amplified, treated as worthy of a gala. They are motivated often by the possibility of reelection, reappointment or promotion. But their brand of marketing can be dangerous, creating misperceptions and inviting complacency when just the opposite is needed.
That’s the case with the 2013 public school test scores released last month. District leaders launched a celebration that included a commentary by Mayor Vincent C. Gray published by The Post two weeks ago. It’s true that many public schools — traditional ones and charters — showed improvement. Math proficiency for D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) Bruce Monroe Elementary, for example, went from 40.6 percent in 2012 to 56.5 percent in 2013. Reading rose from 27.9 percent to 40.5 percent. That kind of growth deserves acknowledgment.
Don’t start dancing yet. The truth is this: After six years of education reform and billions of dollars in investments, many schools continue to struggle. The math proficiency rate at Ballou High School in Southeast, for example, was 18.7 percent in 2013 — down from 22.8 percent in 2012. Reading scores took an even bigger dive: from 20 percent in 2012 to 13.4 percent in 2013.
The new $122 million Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School may gleam, but student achievement doesn’t. Only 16.8 percent of students tested in 2013 demonstrated proficiency in math — down from the 19.7 percent in 2012. Reading scores dropped from 27.7 percent to 17.9 percent.
“The reality is that we have 64 DCPS and charter schools [or nearly one-third of the 195 participating institutions] that continue to warrant the label of Priority or Focus schools — schools with unacceptably low performance in both math and reading, and distressingly low graduation rates,” said Ward 6 Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D). Further, Wells noted, 46 schools saw drops of 5 percentage points or greater in either math, reading or composite scores; 32 of those schools were in Wards 5, 7 and 8.
Gray has said the improved test scores demonstrate that school reforms are working and the city should stay the course. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has yet to indicate what action she will take in the schools cited by Wells, other than perhaps extend the school day.
“We need to see true entrepreneurial leadership at those schools,” said Wells, citing the public education turnaround in his ward as an indication of what is possible.
Wells said that many of the low-performing institutions are in communities that have witnessed significant school closures. Losing neighborhood facilities will force children to be bused outside of their communities. “That disenfranchises families in terms of their involvement in their child’s education.”
Interestingly, in 1943, John P. Davis, a Brookland resident, sued the board of education over that very thing. He complained that his son had to travel miles outside his community, including a “circuitous bus route,” to reach the “colored” school when there was a “white” one just across the street from their home.
Then, leaders were outraged by such treatment of the city’s children. Today, few people seem to care. Low-income families frequently lack the political or economic muscle to effect change.
The District’s public education system, as in most urban areas, particularly with large African American populations, serves as indisputable evidence of the failure of black leadership. It is also a testament to the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.
Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. That event allowed African Americans and others to articulate their hopes and dreams for themselves and the nation. Most commemorative events have highlighted jobs and social justice as key issues. The District’s flyer promoting its segment of a rally this Saturday focuses on statehood, jobs, voting rights, immigration reform, women’s rights, gun violence and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
What about education? It is the linchpin in any program for economic or social advancement. Why hasn’t there been any major protest march over the fact that the academic proficiency rate for black DCPS students trails that of their white counterparts by nearly 50 percent?
In some cities, including parts of the District, the quality of public education may be worse than it was during the days when African Americans battled segregation and faced limited opportunities. Consider that Dunbar High School was one of the city’s premier academic institutions, graduating the crème de la crème. When it was called the M Street School, nearly all of its teachers had degrees from prestigious colleges or universities. “M Street High student body outperformed its white counterparts at other high schools in the District,” according to Richard Kluger, author of “Simple Justice.” Today, test scores indicate that few Dunbar students can even read at grade level.
What would the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. do about that?
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