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Schools Monday: Cardozo's Lost Kids

For decades, the D.C. school system has sought to wall itself off against criticism by claiming that it simply doesn't keep the records that are a commonplace in almost any other system in the land. So if you want to know what really happens to kids who enter the District's high schools, well, sorry, buddy, but we don't keep those records. If you want to figure out what the real graduation rate is, or determine what happens to a particular class's reading and math scores over a period of years, or see if it really is true that the boys in the high schools tend to vanish long before they complete four years, the answer is always conveniently "Sorry, but we don't have the slightest idea."

So the latest installment in The Post's series on Fixing D.C.'s Schools is a welcome injection of data, a result of many months of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting by Dion Haynes and Aruna Jain, who managed to locate and interview 127 of the 243 students who entered Cardozo High's Class of 2005 back in 2001. That may not sound like much of an achievement, but in a system in which students drift from one school to another like autumn leaves floating on a cool breeze, in a city in which students legendarily vanish without a trace, this is something to admire.

And the results of those interviews present a picture of the devastation wrought by the District system that is, if anything, a bit generous. Cardozo was chosen as the focus of this story because its test scores fall more or less in the middle of the pack among D.C. high schools. But the school's population is unlike that of any other city high school, with vastly more Hispanics and a lower percentage of black students than other schools. That makes for a different kind of ethnic tension and pattern of confrontations than are found in other schools--and Cardozo's kids talk about this quite frankly in the compelling video pieces that accompany the story.

My Sunday column looked at the students who emerge from the low expectations and lax standards of the D.C. system and try to make a go of college at the city's public university. Students at UDC have a rough time adjusting even to the forgiving standards of a college that devotes much of its resources to remedial education. The ultimate tragedy is that when the college's professor intervene and invite some of those students to an intensive summer program that starts with the most elementary level of math, the students respond as if they were sponges that had never before come close to liquid nourishment--they blossom, almost instantly. The UDC summer program is a great success, so why is it also a tragedy? Because it reveals once more just how egregiously the D.C. schools' lack of ambition has failed these kids.

Two years after their original class was to have been graduated from Cardozo, only a little more than three in ten are still in any kind of educational setting, and only a portion of those are in college.

There's more than a little griping among the students interviewed by The Post--about the pathetic facilities they suffered through at Cardozo, about teachers who didn't care and didn't push their students, about the woefully low esteem in which students were held by the adults at the school, even as the system force-fed them a bunch of hopped-up nonsense about what wonderful kids they are ("I believe in me!" and other such chanted bromides left over from the 1980s.)

It would be lovely to be able to say that this is all changing under the new administration, but as yet, there's little evidence that the reforms being pushed by the new mayor and chancellor have had a chance to seep into the classrooms. It's enough in these early weeks that the physical plants of many schools are finally being fixed up. But there is never any excuse to let another year of non- and mis-education flow by.

The big questions for me coming out of the Cardozo story were:

--Do the low expectations in the classrooms stem more from the system's lax standards and willingness to accept mediocrity, or has the system adapted to the refusal of so many teachers to insist that kids do the hard work of learning?

-- Does the appalling physical condition of the schools really have much of an impact on the ability of students to learn? And if so, will we therefore see an immediate boost in student performance this year, as the repairs that are so welcome at many D.C. schools spread all around the system?

-- Does the new chancellor have a strategy for dealing with a quarter-century-old problem in the D.C. schools, the pervasive peer pressure not to achieve? Students in this weekend's story and in many previous reports often speak of the ragging and ostracism that face kids who seek to work hard.

Please come ahead with your own questions, answers or conclusions drawn from the Cardozo stories.

PS--That's a really good conversation that's developing on the comments board. Here's some additional fodder for discussion, courtesy of Erich Martel, a teacher at Wilson High School in Northwest who is a longtime and close analyst of D.C. school test scores.

Martel looked back at the test scores of the Class of 2005 at Cardozo and found that not a single member of that class scored in the Advanced category in either reading or math in the District's standardized test program from 2002 to 2005. Indeed, in keeping with a massively disturbing trend seen in many D.C. schools, the longer kids stayed in school, the worse they performed, as the number of students landing in the bottom Below Basic pool of test scores actually increased from the kids' freshman to sophomore years.

The scores at Cardozo suggest, Martel says, "that many students were given passing grades in advanced subjects despite failure to meet minimum requirements. Thus, it should surprise no one that students who received passing or even high grades in English and Math subjects were required to take remedial (non-credit) courses in these areas when they arrived in college.

Here are those scores--the performance categories are Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. Only students scoring Advanced or Proficient can be considered to be performing at grade level.

Tested Adv Pr Bas BB
Gr 9: Spring 2002 135 0 2 53 80
Gr 10: Spring 2003 183 0 6 45 132
Gr 11: Spring 2004 149 0 4 31 114


Tested Adv Prof Bas BB
Gr 9: Spring 2002 135 0 2 34 99
Gr 10: Spring 2003 183 0 1 17 161
Gr 11: Spring 2004 149 0 3 11 133

By Marc Fisher |  October 8, 2007; 7:36 AM ET
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I was a volunteer in the DC schools for 5 years during the 1990s, when I ran a writing program that I established in an elementary school. Many of the kids I worked with were bright, yet the system was failing them dismally, in ways that mirror the experience of Cardozo's "lost" students. Like so many DC schools, ours was in appalling condition: on rainy days, water poured into our classroom through a leaky roof. At the same time, the squandering of resources was breathtaking. Our school had a fully equipped computer lab that was never used because no one on the staff knew how to operate a computer. Even worse was the total breakdown of standards and accountability. Teachers who were chronically absent, or who let their kids run amok, were treated no differently from those who made herculean efforts to teach. Administrators who were ineffective, or worse (among other things, I observed drunkenness on the job and theft of school property) were promoted and praised. As at Cardozo, kids got A's just for showing up. Most cruelly ironic were the frequent ceremonies and awards presentations, often at considerable expense, to honor the supposed "excellence" of staff and students, when by any objective measure they were failing.

Posted by: cmfriedland | October 8, 2007 9:13 AM

I honestly do not understand why we let this happen for so long. Have we all become so apathetic and consumed with our lives that we just stopped caring?

It saddens me to see these "lost" kids. We have failed them miserably. We let the unions tell us all these years that they were doing the best they could and we kept giving them more money whenever they asked without asking questions and without demanding results. And here we are.

Let's hope Rhee and Fenty are going to FINALLY do something after all those before them promised and never delivered. We as parents need to take back our schools and demand results. We cannot afford to ruin the lives of any more kids. We have all failed them.

Posted by: takebackourschools | October 8, 2007 9:40 AM

Re: the question "Does the appalling physical condition of the schools really have much of an impact on the ability of students to learn?" NO, it does not. While it is unfair, and comparisons to better-appointed schools are a slap in the face of the students, look to third-world countries where students don't even have furniture in their classrooms, or must share a single outdated textbook. Those children often outperform our own because they have a thirst to learn and their teachers - who also must make do with almost no resources - demand high standards. The key to a strong education is a teacher who can communicate concepts and who demands that the students learn them.

Posted by: milka | October 8, 2007 10:03 AM

I have been teaching for almost 35 years at the university level. During this time, I have regularly taught physics, computer science, and math. I have co-authored two books in pedagogy, the art or science of teaching. My co-author and I have been looking for answers for the very subjects mentioned in this column for decades. Based on our research, demonstration models, and research studies, the conclusion seems to be that it is all about teaching, teaching, and teaching. A cleaner environment, textbooks, working fountains, etc. all help, but the bottom line is the teacher in the classroom. By teacher, I mean a person in whom the content, the pedagogy, and the classroom management rules, the basic three components of teaching, are fused into one and the same person. For the immediate future, I suggest the following approach, at least in the math area.

Students at the end of the eleventh grade during their summer holidays need to take an intensive eight-week summer program modeled after the UDC's "Gateway Algebra Program". Only a "master" professor or teacher must teach this program. During students' 12th grade, a master teacher or professor should teach algebra again. Then, let the SAT scores speak for itself. My personal feelings are that the SAT scores would increase significantly, thereby, lifting DCPS rating to a respectable level and reduce the dropout rate of these students.

Posted by: Daryao Khatri | October 8, 2007 10:15 AM

Mr. Fisher

Good morning.

My name is John Muller.

Upon graduating from a District University this May I went to teach at a public charter school in East Washington - East of the Anacostia.

I will not name the school, but it is a large charter school that has campuses in Capitol Hill and in NW.

I was hired to teach 9th grade English. Some of the students I was already familiar with, and had taught as a result of my work with the Ward 7 Higher Achievement Program.

I made connections with my students instantly by speaking to them in terms that they understand. I took it upon myself to save the world and correct basic errors in subject verb or pronoun-antecedent agreement so that my students could see -- when written on the board how broken their language is. Not to "devalue" as the liberals say but to show them - you know better - do better - you are better.

They know their language use is wrong. The reason they speak in this broken language is because "the man" has forced them to speak this way. I don't think so big slim -- people who are arm-chair intellectuals taking about issues of the concrete. They speak this way, because nobody has told them otherwise in a real way. Teaching in East Washington is not a job for ordinary men.

Example --- last week, the lesson plan as outlined by our masterful and true rockstar -- Ivy League educated department mentor -- called for Friday going over pronoun-antecedent agreement.

OK. The Weekly Lesson Plan calls for me to introduce this concept -- using the orange book pages 23 - 34. Use Examples.

No. I am a city kid teaching city kids. These examples won't work.

Before the bell rings, I hear out of the mouths of my scholars.

"Where was you at?" and "It do work."

The first ten minutes of class were spent dissecting why these were incorrect.

The same student that said, "Where was you at?" explained to the class that the appropriate way to express that idea or what she was trying or had intended to say under different circumstances , correctly, was "Where were you last period?"

Same thing with, "It do work." The same student who said it knew that the right way to say it -- express the idea in the King's English is "It does work."

OK. Look folks. We have to stop being punks and being so soft.

Marc Fisher goes too HARD and is not a punk.

He speaks truth to power. Truth that we don't want to hear or even listen to, because we don't want the next generation getting the power.

With all that said.

I am leaving my teaching position after the 1st quarter not because of my inability to manage the genius and potential of scholars who have never been challenged but because the administration of the school has already reprimanded me and staff, not all, is largely unsupportive of using unconventional methods to not just teach our young folk but show them how to learn. Yes - that is a run-on.

I will be leaving to fully pursue building my non-profit organization.

As long as Marc Fisher is writing -- the truth is not concealed.

Thank you again for bringing into the public sphere ideas and generating or rather promoting solutions.

Marc Fisher is the voice of the DC streets!

Posted by: DreamCity4Life | October 8, 2007 10:32 AM

I think the ultimate solution is focusing on elementary school and working from the ground up.

The sad but true fact is if a student arrives in high school and can't read, write, or do basic arithmetic there is almost no point of them even attending.

If over 50% of students are failing in the fourth grade why would anyone expect them to improve in the eleventh grade

So the solution is early intervention and action, not being afraid of failing children in K-3 and focusing on the basic skills that are the fundamental and necessary building blocks for further educational success.

I will note that the hispanic community is a unique challenge with the language barrier. For the hispanic community I would have appropriate grade level classes in Spanish and then basic English classes. Otherwise the students will fall behind as they face a double whammy of challenging subjects in a language they are unfamiliar with.

Finally, there needs to be an end to fighting and other violence in the schools. Prince Georges county has a fairly good model for keeping the school environment safe.

Posted by: Start earlier | October 8, 2007 10:43 AM

I do think "the appalling physical condition of the schools" has some impact on learning but teachers have more, both positive and negative. Uncaring teachers produce nothing of value to our society.

My wife and I left DC many years ago because we knew we were going to have children and didn't want them to go to the District schools. I felt bad about this because I enjoyed the city in the '60s.

We now live in Fairfax and my children went through the schools here. They thrived in an atmosphere that challenged their intellect and potential. I know that the Fairfax County Public Schools is top heavy with administrators, both in the "out of school" sense as well as in school. In the high schools we have assistant principals with almost every conceivable title. Things such as general services and building use should be brought together with other functions, thus eliminating many positions and freeing funds for the classroom.

My point is that I am sure that this is happening in DC too. I know that the teachers are paid handsomely for producing an inferior product. Throwing money at teachers in not the solution. There are probably too many administrators in each building also.

Students that disrupt classes should be dealt with immediately and those that commit far more serious offenses should be expelled and, if possible, arrested. These kids don't want to be in school anyway and make it impossible for those that really want to learn or might want to if the situation was safe. Learning should not be called "being white" it should be called "being smart."

Rhee and Fenty have to quit with the rhetoric and get their hands dirty. For forty years I have been hearing about making DC schools accountable. Why don't they stop talking and get to work?

Posted by: Fairfax Resident | October 8, 2007 11:27 AM

I really think the main issue here is the teachers and the principals not teaching or worst of all not knowing how to teach.

My son is in elementary school. We are giving the DC Schools a chance, but I can't imagine we're going to last into second grade. The school facilities are not in great shape. The parents come in and paint, they come in and replace lightbulbs, they clean the facilities. The parents are out on school grounds chasing away drug dealers and trespassers. The parents definitely are doing the jobs that the administration refuses to do. I see administration people out on the playground before the bell rings, meeting and talking with parents. This seemed great at first until I realized that they weren't at their desks doing their real jobs. I remembered my elementary school where the head of the PTA used to corral kids into school in the morning while the principal was meeting with architects on the gym that was being built. The principal wants to know people and be friendly, but that means other work isn't getting done.

There are several major major problems I have with the school. My son's class has 18 children. 12 are white, 1 is black, 5 are Latin. I can't tell by looking but every parent I talked to was middle or upper class. 3 fathers own their own business. 1 mom is a doctor. 2 moms are lawyers. These are people driving Acuras and Priuses, Subarus and Volvos. The principal met with us and launched into this same-old same-old discussion about treating the "lower class" children the same as the "middle class" children and how they were dealing with the majority of their students as Spanish speakers. In my son's class there were doctors and lawyers. These people are NOT "middle class" they are "upper class" people who can afford a $400k condo or a $800k house. I can't even afford a Volvo. Yet the principal's head was so far up you-know-where she kept calling these parents "middle class." I WISH the middle income for DC was $200k but it's not. Then came the Spanish-speaking issue. Only one of the kids in the class appears to not speak English. The teacher talks about many people speaking Spanish, yes, in the 1980s and 1990s, but they've moved. They don't go to this school anymore. You can see this split in the school- older grades are majority Latin and African-American, younger classes are majority white. It reflects the new dynamics of the school system- much more of a plurality than before. The principal just cannot get her head around these changes and expresses surprise about the changes. Get used to it!

Her constant refrain was that she couldn't get the right support from the central office. But then, I demanded, why didn't she do the work herself with parent volunteers! Oh. Well. She said she couldn't ask the parents to do all that painting and stuff. So the PTA did and the painting got done. Period. End of story. Principal is an idiot who is probably fit to be a manager in the government, but not an entrepreneur like a principal should be.

Here's a classic example. At my nephew's school the custodians got gas trimmers but no gasoline. They asked the school system for gasoline but were told they had no requisition for gasoline in the school district. So the custodians left the equipment untouched! Idiots! A parent heard about this, drove 4 blocks to the gas station. Bought a gas can and $7 worth of gas and drove it back to the custodians who now use the gas-powered trimmers. What kind of a FOOL blames the school district system for buying gas-powered trimmers instead of just walking 4 blocks and buying $7 worth of gas! I mean, it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness, right? Well then light the dang candle. I can't blame the custodians too much, they're borderline mentally handicapped, but can you really be so stupid you don't go buy their own gas and ask the PTA to reimburse them? I guess the answer is yes, you can be just that ignorant.

Then come the teachers. My son had one teaching assistant who was transferred, but when she came back as a sub she cried on my shoulder! Uh, hell no! Do NOT touch me! If you can't keep it together, you're going to have to leave! I wrote up a formal complaint that this woman didn't have it together enough to teach a class, I couldn't imagine my son being upset if she freaked out during class. This woman bragged that she was a product of the DC School System and now a teacher. Danger Signal! She had no idea how much work teachers do in other districts. NO IDEA! She would read like one book each day and then act out parts from the book. Her replacement was a teacher who made popsicle stick puppets for EVERY SINGLE BOOK THEY READ IN CLASS, so the kids would make puppets or some other art project for EVERY book and then bring those home to tell us about the book. I mean, really, THAT'S TEACHING! My son has popsicle stick puppets everywhere! The first teacher was a complete LOSER! I've met a handful of complete losers at my son's school. People who didn't work over the summer vacation, people who can't afford to drive a car to school (uhhh... it's called a night job, get one), people who didn't have graduate degrees yet- People who have no idea what it means to be a teacher. How many of my friends who went into teaching still worked as waitresses to make enough money to buy that house and car and keep up the yuppioe dream? The LOSERS need to be fired, completely fired and let go and replaced by real teachers who know that you need to send home handouts with the curriculum for the entire month so the parents can plan ahead. The teachers, though, blame the principal. The principal blames the district.

Then there are the parents. The parents of the older kids are uniformly jackasses. I talked to one about the horrible flaking paint at the school and that loser said that he "liked" the school and I shouldn't be so critical of it and TAKE PRIDE IN IT IN THE DILLAPIDATED STATE IT'S IN! NO, when you see a problem you fix the problem! Some parents seem to be happy that their kids are happy even if they aren't learning enough. I know parents who are so excited their children learned Spanish by the fourth grade. Well, I learned Spanish and French in the sixth grade and took Spanish throughout high school and I speak Spanish just fine and French passably, it's not like you NEED to learn it in elementary school, but you NEED to learn how to write a research paper in the fourth grade, you know! And these kids are NOT doing research papers yet! Half the parents want to be the teacher's friend and they pity these teachers. Seriously, one parent told me how sorry she felt for these poor teachers and HOW WE SHOULDN'T MAKE THEM WORK HARDER!!! Argh! If you had someone repairing your kitchen you'd make them work harder than these teachers. The parents enable the teachers, the teachers blame the principals, the principals blame the district.

The kids lose out.

If my son stays in public school after second grade I'd be shocked.

Posted by: Columbia Heights | October 8, 2007 11:32 AM

Do I think that the DC schools are in trouble? YES. Do I think that they can be improved? YES. Do I think I can see this improvement in my lifetime? I hope so.
As has been mentioned time and time again by various students, dedicated teachers, and parents, one of the largest obstacles the DC schools face is low standards. When the bar the students must pass is barely above sea level, what incentive is there to do well? When a student gets an "A" simply for showing up and not causing too much of a disruption, there is NO incentive for that child to try hard. Further by not pushing the students harder it continuously feeds into the culture of, "you're a nerd and unwelcome if you succeed and do well in school." Although this attitude is not unique to The District's schools alone, DC doesn't really seem to be doing anything to fix it. Standards remain low, children are not engaged in learning, and success equals being ostracized by their peers.
How do you improve standards? Raise them across the board starting in elementary school. There is NO reason a child should get to high school and Not be able to read at a minimum of a 7th grade level. Granted, one of the best ways to get the standards higher is to get good and dedicated teachers into the classroom. This is easier said than done. But, there are programs that can help. I have several friends who are participating in Teach for America in urban areas throughout the U.S. They are dedicated servants of their cause and each of them Prays for the success of each student. Currently, how many Teach for America teachers are employed by the District and at what levels? Why aren't there more. Further, why can't the District adopt programs similar to other big cities where they pay a portion of college tuition back to those teachers who give the DCPS 5 or so years. I know that money is tight and that there are issues with funding. But I have a hard time believing that the DC mayor, council, and Congress would be against such a program that could help children and perhaps make the District an example of how to turn a failing school system into a system of success.
There is NO easy fix for DC's schools. But, with a dedicated Mayor, City Council, and School Administration, Hope is not lost. I firmly believe that the public school system here can be made better. It will take time, effort, money, and dedication by the teachers. The first step though, is to raise standards. By raising standards and forcing lackluster teachers to TEACH and meet said standards, the District can improve its schools and hopefully foster a culture where success is valued over failure.

Posted by: HopeIsNotLost | October 8, 2007 11:41 AM

Advice to tutors of DC schoolchildren: make sure the child lets his or her teacher know you are tutoring. Do not contact the teacher personally, as this would require consent of a parent or guardian and might put you between them in case of a conflict.

Just knowing the child has a tutor will make the classroom teacher feel that you are reviewing his or her work with the child -- which is true -- and the teacher will be more diligent with the child in class, expecting more.

Perhaps one day all DC teachers will treat every child this way as a matter of course, without this gentle external pressure, and DCPS will recognize the teachers who do this and eliminate those who do not. Until then, let School Board and DC officials know you are also reviewing their work through the child you tutor, but save your time and energy for tutoring.

Posted by: Mike Licht | October 8, 2007 12:51 PM

I think that fixing the building problems will have a greater influence on the teachers than the student and that this influence on the teachers will be what impacts students. It will eliminate one time-consuming irritant for the teachers who are working to make the schools better and let them work more with students instead of worrying about the power going out or the roof leaking. But the core problem is that there are not enough of those teachers.

Posted by: bluemeanies | October 8, 2007 5:09 PM

It's easy to pile on the school system for these kids' lack of achievement. Where are the parents!!?? Schools can never be a substitute for a home environment where education is not valued. If parents care about their kids' education, they, like Ms. Johns-Toussaint in the article, will push their kids to succeed no matter what the environment. Why is this factor so rarely mentioned when talking about "failing" school systems? The basic problem will not be fixed by simply throwing more money at teachers and capital improvements. It will be addressed only when the vicious cycle of teen pregnancy, absentee parents, and dropping out is somehow slowed down or stopped. Until then, it's just a band aid approach.

Posted by: Al Czervik | October 8, 2007 5:43 PM

Fairfax Resident said:
"Rhee and Fenty have to quit with the rhetoric and get their hands dirty. For forty years I have been hearing about making DC schools accountable. Why don't they stop talking and get to work?"

But from what I've seen and read, Rhee is doing a great job. A certain amt of talking is required to do what she's trying to do.

Posted by: Nick | October 8, 2007 9:50 PM

13 comments over thirty or so hours is a "pretty good conversation?" Maybe for this group you should only write about the opening or closing of something like, oh coffee shops.....

Posted by: CW | October 9, 2007 1:31 PM

"No child left behind" = social promotion

Posted by: amy_e | October 10, 2007 10:41 AM

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