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What D.C. schools could learn from the suburbs

I have been arguing with readers on this blog about how to improve the D.C. public schools. It may sound like the same old fight over D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, which should be resolved soon. (This column’s deadline for the Local Living section was Tuesday, before the polls closed on the mayoral race. But by the time this blog went up, I knew Fenty had lost and Rhee was likely to be gone soon.)

Our online quarrel has evolved into something deeper.

All of us want to help low-income kids. Readers say Rhee is too aggressive and uncompromising. I say other school leaders around the country have been similarly pushy, with good results in raising standards, removing low-performing teachers and fighting the apathy that has led many school systems to assume disadvantaged children can’t learn much. Readers, not believing me, have asked for examples.

My first instinct is to mention independent charter schools around the country that have shown great gains with low income children by refusing to compromise. But those aren’t school systems. They don’t have large headquarters staffs used to doing things their way. They don’t provide much of a model for D.C.

Better answers, I realize, are found right here in the Washington area. Some of our suburban districts have made great strides with energetic policies that had to overcome resistance.

People in the District tend to dismiss places like Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties as atypical, since they are among the wealthiest school districts in the country. But they don’t spend much more, and often less, per child than the District does. According to fiscal 2007 figures compiled by Mary Levy of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the D.C. schools had an operating budget of $14,405 per pupil compared to $17,958 for Arlington, $12, 853 for Fairfax and $13,446 for Montgomery. Our suburban counties, like the city, have large pockets of poverty where test scores have been low. But they have had more success dealing with that.

The Foundation for Child Development and Pre-K Now, a campaign funded by the Pew Center on the States, has released a report saying Montgomery County’s programs for disadvantaged children in early grades are a national model. “Almost 90 percent of kindergartners enter first grade with essential early literacy skills,” the Foundation said in a statement. “Nearly 88 percent of third graders read proficiently.” The county succeeded despite criticism that it was putting too much stress on kids.

Fairfax County was the first district in the area, and one of the first in the country, to open Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses to all students, another program that challenged old habits. From 1997 to 2008 Arlington raised the percentage of black students passing the Virginia Standards of Learning exams from 37 to 74 percent and Hispanic students from 47 to 82 percent, by making minority improvement its priority despite some predictions of failure.

To me, these programs succeeded because the suburban districts, unlike the D.C. schools, had a critical mass of involved families, most but not all middle class, who supported better teaching for all students, rich and poor. That same dynamic has worked in certain parts of the District, particularly in the Northwest, where families from other parts of the city, some middle class, some not, transferred their children to join the affluent children already attending public schools there.

They were willing to sanction tougher principals, more homework and careful documentation of progress through standardized tests. If standards slipped, they got mad.

We seem to have more parents like that in other parts of the District these days, if you count those flocking to high performing charter schools. They form a base of support for more determined school improvement, if the chancellor, whoever that may be, takes advantage of it.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | September 15, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Arlington focus on black and Hispanic student achievement, D.C. suburbs have success in raising low income student achievement, Fairfax AP and IB programs, Montgomery County reading program  
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" Readers say Rhee is too aggressive and uncompromising. "

No, we say she incompetent and has problems, like Lillian Hellman, with the truth.

Posted by: edlharris | September 15, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

"...independent charter schools around the country that have shown great gains with low income children by refusing to compromise."

This is just idiotic. Don't you know Stanford University studies have shown only 1/3 of charter schools perform better than public schools? Those that perform better increase test scores by enrolling fewer immigrant students and fewer special education students. Also, those who apply to charter schools are more committed to education. Moreover, charter schools can set up their own rules. Students who are not willing to cooperate can be kicked out by charter schools. Then where do these students go? Yes...public schools. Public schools have to educate anyone and everyone...gangsters, criminals, drug dealers, kids whose parents don't care.....

And you say charter schools have shown great gains? Please..... that's pathetic.

Posted by: salukiindc | September 15, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

"All of us want to help low-income kids." Nice sentiment but precious little evidence to suggest there is much will to get this done. In the final analysis did the Mathews' Obamas' or Clintons' make a personal investment in the D.C. public schools by sending their kids there?

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | September 16, 2010 12:42 AM | Report abuse

A reader could get mental whiplash reading this after the previous entry on super supers. Interesting, too, that the only educator mentioned (once again) is Michelle Rhee. The suburban educators are nameless and faceless.
Since you mentioned the costs Mary Levy monitors for the local council that has done so for years, you could also have usefully mentioned the high fractions of the suburban counties that are NELB, low income, and disadvantaged minority. The achievements in these systems are not from making small, affordable investments in a few non-advantaged students but by taking seriously very large segments of their student bodies and electorate that are not well-off and WASP.

And, Jay, those school systems do NOT have the disgracefully low fractions of AP students earning 1s on the AP tests, the score achieveable by just showing up, the score earned in DCPS increasingly for just that action, sufficient for the student passing the course and earning necessary credit for graduation. I regret dragging this in, but some of me feels compelled to answer, again, the hobby horse you bring on stage unnecessarily.

Posted by: incredulous | September 16, 2010 12:52 AM | Report abuse

I think the suburban schools support their teachers for the most part. Montgomery County schools have a lot of parent involvement, but they have also made a point of paying high salaries to teachers to keep the best teachers.

Also, I still believe many people move to Montgomery County for the schools. That matters also.

I am not impressed with the way our city schools (all over the country) are allowed to fail due to lack of funding and lack of preschool education. I don't think much attention has been paid at all to helping out the city schools. Testing more is not a solution.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 16, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Why do students from poor families do less well in school? Jay would have us believe that it is because their parents are less engaged, less caring, less competent. To a certain extent that may be true, but research from around the world indicates something quite different. Studies in Britain and elsewhere indicate that it is attitudes towards education in the home and in the local community that matter a great deal. If a child grows up in an environment where education is not valued, he/she is not likely to do well in school. Some would see this as only more evidence that the poor and unemployed are stupid, that they don't understand the value of education. The evidence indicates otherwise, however. For many communities, education has been of little value, even in industrialized countries. In many inner city and rural areas in the US, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has benefitted from education or to put it more precisely that education has been worth the time and effort required. Placing little value on schooling is, in fact, a rational decision by such people.
Furthermore, this is not a problem the schools can solve. It is a wider social problem that has to do with job creation, labor laws, anti-discrimination measures, social services and so on.

Posted by: Jphubba | September 16, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

mcstowy wrote:
As the father of a former FCPS student, before I moved to the District, I would not hold up Fairfax as a positive example of public education, ESPECIALLY when it comes to educating poor and minority students. In fact Fairfax is one of the worst school systems in Virginia on that count. If you seek a nearby example of success in urban education, the place to look is a little farther south, Richmond.

According to 2007 SOL results from the Virginia DOE, the most recent available, Richmond, with 74% of its students in federal free-lunch programs, outperformed Fairfax, with 25% of its students in free-lunch programs, on all SOL test comparisons. In 3rd grade reading, math, science and social studies tests, Richmond's white students outperformed Fairfax' white students, and Richmond's Black students outperformed Fairfax' black students by an even greater margin. In fact, in 5th grade reading, math and science, and 3rd grade Social studies, Richmond’s black students' pass rates (all above 85%) were within 10 percentage points of the pass rates for white Fairfax students.

How is this possible? The area most ignored by phony school reformers, like Rhee and TFA: Curriculum. In 2001, Richmond adopted the NIH recommendations for reading and math curriculum reform. Although Richmond is 90% high-poverty and 90% African-American, their pass rate on the 3rd grade SOL was 76%, compared to wealthy Fairfax, which managed a pass rate of 79%. Of the 10 Virginia districts with the largest African-American populations, Fairfax ranks LAST in pass rates in 7 of the 8 SOL tests given to 3rd and 5th graders, and they were 2nd to last in the other test; 5th grade reading. One more point in Richmond's favor, by all availabe evidence, they do not employ TFA cultists. Probably because their successful curriculum runs counter to the TFA preferrence for "whole language" and "fuzzy math" that is easier to teachwith a script.

I mentioned that my oldest son went to FCPS. We pulled him out after 6th grade and moved him to a private school in DC because he could not read. The reason he could not read was BECAUSE of the FCPS reading curriculum. Within 2 years, and with proper reading instruction, he went from being completely illiterate to a 4th grade reading level. Not great for 8th grade, but functional. Unfortunately, he will never fully recover from the failures of the Fairfax County School System. Let me emphasize: his "dyslexia" is a "learning disability" that was created by a faulty reading curriculum. Fairfax as a model school system? To quote Jack: “Sell crazy someplace else, we're all stocked up here.” After all, we’ve already had 3 years of Rhee.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 16, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Instead of looking at individual successful charter schools, you should take a look at some of the charter management organizations that are re-defining the way a "school system" can work. Take, for instance, Green Dot (which runs unionized charter schools in LA and NYC) or Uncommon Schools (which runs charter schools in MA, NY, NJ and CT). They have brought to scale a system of schools which share resources but leave important decision-making at the school level. They have so far avoided the bureaucratic bloat of the traditional school district central office while serving some of the neediest kids in the country. While the debate seems to center on the merits of individual charter schools, it is these systems of schools that have the potential to truly influence the larger public school sector.

KIPP is also an interesting model. It's essentially a freedom franchise, with each school following some basic principles but free to operate on its own. Some KIPP schools have joined forces, like those in New York City, while others participate in national conference and trainings but operate independently.

Posted by: gideon4ed | September 16, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

good points. For jhubba, I think your point is exactly right, and I did not mean to imply otherwise. Inner city parents are as smart as we parents in the burbs are at judging the world around them. Their schools failed them, and so on that good evidence they have concluded that the same schools are likely to fail their kids. There is a federal study showing that they have thus reduced their expectations. To them a good school is one where their child will not likely be beaten up and where the teachers will, mostly, be nice.
For salukindc, your figures are right. If you quote the whole sentence I think it is clear that I was about to cite a few charters who have done well, not all charters.

For mcstowy, I appreciate your concrete examples, and grant you that Fairfax is not perfect by any stretch. But I think it does much better in this regard than most districts. Richmond is a very special case of a district that has smart people making good progress. It makes most other districts look bad. My impressions of Fairfax and its treatment of low income kids are based on my two years hanging around Mt Vernon High for the IB book, and my visits to and regular contacts with teachers at places like Annandale and JEB Stuart highs.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 16, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse


You miss my point. DC cannot replicate what is done in wealthy suburban districts because their income advantages create educational advantages both before kids start school and throughout K-12 education. Richmond, however, is an urban environment much like the District and their success can be replicated, but only if the educational fads foisted on cities by NCLB and RTTT are ignored in favor of what works:

First: Hire a qualified SUPERINTENDENT like Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who left Richmond to take a position at Harvard. Of course, the reform cult will not hear of that. Someone with years of experience and a background in educational research is disqualified by definition, as he or she might not hew to their core belief system.

Second: Focus on Curriculum. The excellent curriculum adopted in Richmond in 2001 has allowed there poor, inner-city students to outperform their peers in wealthy Fairfax on all SOL tests, and the advantage increases as the students continue into high school. In 2000, Richmond ranked 125th out of 132 Virginia school districts in 3rd grade reading. By 2005, they had climbed to 50th and have continued to climb since. This is a direct result of the right curriculum, which, as Russ Whitehust at Brookings has demonstrated, is THE MOST important factor in student achievement that is within the control of the schools.

Finally: The school leadership in Richmond did this by using its experience and understanding of education research and issues to make the right choices. No teacher scape-goating, no magazine covers, no self-promotion. Improving inner-city schools is not going to work by following the latest fad endorsed self-promoters like Rhee, Klein and Wendy Kopp. It must be based on evidence gained through research, and it requires leadership by someone who has actually READ the research and has the capacity to understand it. In other words; someone who is not part of the Gates-Walton-Broad, anti-teacher, “reform” cult.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 16, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Correction: Disgracefully HIGH fractions of students earning / scoring a 1 on the AP tests.

Jay: Will we find in archives attached to your name some greater expression of interest in the Richmond case? Only in reply to a cogent readers summary of the change there do you acknowledge it as a " very special case of a district that has smart people making good progress. It makes most other districts look bad."
Most of us would agree that the two hour drive on I95 to Richmond is boring. But, that's what is sometimes required of reporters to fracture prejudice about center-cities that are not DC and bring back a good story.

Posted by: incredulous | September 16, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

These conversations often miss one major difference between high-performing suburban schools and their urban counterparts: the way that both schools deal with student behavior.

Jay, unlike you, I've actually taught in an urban school (middle school science at a Kansas City school that was roughly 10% proficient). I watched as students were allowed to do and say whatever they desired without fear of punishment or consequence. Though the district had a Student Code of Conduct, it was rarely if ever enforced. Even when students would physically assault teachers, destroy equipment, stand in the hall and repeatedly kick classroom doors, and threaten teachers with violence, the principal would just talk with them instead of engaging in discipline. We weren't even allowed to send students to the office.

As a result, my school was an environment where it was nearly impossible for teachers to teach and for good students to learn.

In comparison, I received my K-12 education at a top-performing suburban school in Iowa. Discipline at that district was handled swiftly, and teachers were never required to manage it in the classroom. Any problems resulted in students being sent to the office and there were always harsh consequences for bad behavior. I have no memory of being unable to learn due to classroom disruptions.

And this gets to a point that I think is almost always overlooked or ignored in discussions of urban schools: many urban schools do not hold students accountable for their behavior.

While it's not politically correct to say so, I firmly believe that students should not be allowed to stay in a normal classroom setting if they prove unwilling to behave. Sacrificing the futures of the many brilliant, capable students in urban schools to the "All Children" mantra is not the best course of action.

It's unfortunate, really, that urban schools are often the recipients of bizarre solutions designed to "inspire" students and trick them into learning, as well as those which seek to force higher test scores from teachers by holding them responsible for factors outside of their control. If these children are truly our futures, than I shudder to think what kind of citizens we're producing when they are never taught that actions have consequences, when they're never held accountable for their own academics and behavior.

I, for one, cannot work in such an environment. I'm an educator, not a missionary, and I choose to be where I can provide students with rigorous instruction and help them to find a love of learning. Unfortunately, today's urban school environment is not such a place, and that's why I no longer work in one. If these current "reform" efforts continue, I'm sure many other skilled educators will leave as well.

Posted by: william85 | September 16, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for the support. The problem with jay and the media, is they like the "superman" school reform story:
Simple answers to complex problems and immediate gratification. Unfortunately, real improvement takes time AND expertise, something lacking in the current fads promoted by NCLB and RTTT. (I refuse to use "reform", as it has ceased to have any meaning because of its theft by charlatans like Rhee, Klein and Kopp.)

Examples: The last 2 superintendents in Richmond began their teaching careers in the 1970's and had gone on to earn PhD's, requiring significant educational research. By contrast, DC hired a 30-something whose sole experience in education was 3 years teaching 3rd grade with dubious results. While she had a master's degree, it was not related to education and, from her statements, it appears hse has never read any education research, never mind written any.

Richmond; the superintendent always credits teacher first for their success and profession development is at a premium. In DC Rhee always blames teachers first and thinks any 21 year-old with no understanding of education is, by definition, better that an experienced teacher with extensive degrees in education. Richmond has no TFA recruits, while they are the backbone of Rhee's DCPS.

In 2001, led by a fully-qualified superintendent, Richmond adopted a research-based curriculum, recommended by cognitive psychologists and a NIH study. By 2005 their test pass-rates had improved to rival those in the wealthy suburbs and they are widely recognized as one of the best school districts in the country. In 2007, DC hired a recruiter with no real background in education, who ignored curriculum, surrounded herself with people who understood education as little as she did, when on a national media campaign to disparage teachers and promote bad education policy, created an unreliable, untested "evaluation" tool as an excuse to fire teachers without cause. By 2010, test scores stopped their upward trend and began to fall.

What would have happened if DC had hired a qualified, experienced education expert and adopted a curriculum similar to Richmond, instead of a political hack? Another question: What if Jay and the rest of the media took a look at a real, sustained, urban education success story; one based on smart choices by knowledgeable professionals, instead of wasting time and space promoting faddists like Kopp, KIPP, Rhee Klein and Duncan who prefer conflict and sound-bites to results.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 16, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Mathews: "Richmond is a very special case of a district that has smart people .... "
That apparently explains the difference between Richmond and DC schools leadership.

Posted by: achachi | September 16, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Gee Jay are you editing comments to the blog that are not inflammatory but somewhat pointed in their analysis and disagreement with you. One that I posted yesterday is missing where I took offense as a long term DC parent as is on that another comment made regarding the flow of your argument?

Posted by: rastajan | September 16, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

I tend to recoil when people prescribe best practices in the suburbs for the inner city. But we should all be able to agree on the following:

"The Foundation for Child Development and Pre-K Now, a campaign funded by the Pew Center on the States, has released a report saying Montgomery County’s programs for disadvantaged children in early grades are a national model. “Almost 90 percent of kindergartners enter first grade with essential early literacy skills,” the Foundation said in a statement. “Nearly 88 percent of third graders read proficiently.”

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 16, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

No, Jay, it is not the schools that have failed poor people but society as a whole. The poor and unemployed don't believe in education, because they sense that no matter how good an education they get, they will not succeed. And if you look at the recent poverty numbers you realize that they are right. Even in an allegedly good economy there are not enough jobs, much less well-paying jobs in the US for everyone able to work. Folks in SW Virginia and across rural America understand this and would rather expend their time and effort somewhere other than in schools.

Posted by: Jphubba | September 17, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Teachers and child development specialists have been saying for a long time that the emphasis should be on pre-kindergarten health, social services and education, because that's where the achievement gap first manifests itself. It looks as though the Obama administration might be listening to educators at last:

Listening to teachers should bring authentic help to our poorest children as well as some votes for Mr. Obama.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 20, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

mcstowy and William85:
Thank you.
I have been teaching in DCPS for many years. There is NO curriculum. I have found what really works (72% advanced readers in second grade last year) and gotten training on my own. Since Rhee arrived, there has been NO professional development other than IMPACT and TLF -- NOTHING about TEACHING reading, writing, math, etc.

Posted by: wakeupfolks99 | September 22, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

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