A major new report on education (“Quality Schools: Every Child, Every School, Every Neighborhood”) in the District of Columbia by the IFF Consulting Group paints a dismal picture of schools here in the Brookland/Brentwood/Langdon/Ivy City/Trinidad part of the city, as well as neighborhoods in Adams Morgan/Mt. Pleasant and most neighborhoods east of the river. There’s no real news in this new report — the maps of “Tier 4” schools that are failing have appeared before in different guises, and the failing school maps track those overlays of poverty, adult illiteracy and chronic health problems. The graphic below is from the report and was also carried in the Washington Post:
At a meeting of educational and business leaders the other day at the Federal City Council, Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright asked for support for the initiatives that will emanate from this new report, including helping neighborhoods and families to come together around solutions. As the largest private provider of higher education for DC residents, Trinity has a large stake in fostering a progressive, productive outcome of this effort.
I fully support Deputy Mayor Wright’s efforts to focus attention on educational improvements, and I applaud Mayor Vincent Gray’s longstanding commitment to educational attainment for the children of the District. As discussions around this new report move forward, I hope that we can keep these sensitivities in mind so that the process leads to results, not more acrimony over school reform:
1. Offer Hope, Reduce Negativity: Unfortunately, the children and parents in the neighborhoods where the “Tier 4” schools of this report live have suffered repeated bad news about their educational, economic and social conditions. They don’t need one more group of well-meaning wonks to heap more data on their heads about how dysfunctional their schools really are. Nor do they need the implied criticism that comes from well-meaning-but-clueless over-educated policy mavens that suggests that somehow the families are really wrong to send their children to these deficient schools. We need to take three giant steps back to observe, listen and understand the values, relationships and motivations of parents and families in the targeted neighborhoods. We need to honor their desires and offer hope for a future that is not harshly disruptive (e.g., closing more schools with no input) but rather, positively affirming about the opportunities that can come from effective neighborhood collaboration.
2. Educate Parents: parents who read to their children and take an active interest in their kids’ educational success may well be the biggest sustained factor in learning achievement. In D.C., with an adult illiteracy rate of about 35%, the need for broad-based, effective adult education programs is huge. Yet, to date, all school reform efforts seem to focus almost exclusively on K-12 teachers. I continue to insist in every forum I attend that if we want to see real results, we must bring parents into their own classrooms to improve literacy, attain high school diplomas, and start on the pathway to postsecondary and lifelong learning.
3. Effective Learning is an Integrated Life Experience: school reformers keep talking about schools as if they are objective entities completely divorced from the student’s other life experiences. Effective teaching and learning is a real art, not just a science, and real academic success emanates from communities that fully integrate classroom-based learning with co-curricular opportunities, church and social engagements, volunteer activism, sports and recreation, arts and culture. No surprises there — neighborhoods like Chevy Chase or Georgetown or Takoma have high academic success rates because well-educated parents have the money and motivation to create holistic learning communities for their children. Just “fixing the schools” in Langdon or Congress Heights or Ivy City without also revitalizing the neighborhoods and communities will result in continuing shortfalls in academic attainment.
We must improve learning outcomes for all citizens of our city, young and old, that’s for sure. The work is hard, the trajectory for real change will be long. Mayor Gray and Deputy Mayor Wright have long records of commitment to educational change and student success. Trinity will work with them to do what we can to support effective initiatives to improve learning throughout the city.