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Schools Monday: Everybody Loves Report Cards

Ok, they make some kids groan, but somewhere deep inside, many of us crave report cards. How else to explain the penchant adults have for issuing report cards in nearly every aspect of life? Long after we've left school for the last time, we're busy concocting report cards to measure how our employees and managers are doing at work, how our politicians rate, how good local restaurants and shops are at their chosen tasks, and, of course, whether our local schools are up to snuff.

Other than schools themselves, nobody churns out more report cards than the vast industry of analysts, reformers, watchdogs and consultants who hover around the nation's schools like flies on waste. Do such report cards dispense revelatory truths about how our schools are doing? Not really--most often, they confirm what we already know, and yet they are often useful for the same reason that school report cards are such an enduring aspect of education: Give something a grade and suddenly, the institution or individual has a basis for comparison, an incentive to improve, and something to gripe about--all good things.

So, without further ado, today's report cards:

A new study by the D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education tells us that just 15 percent of U.S. high schools are responsible for nearly half of the nation's dropouts. The group dubs these troubled schools "dropout factories," which is a nifty device for winning a bunch of press coverage, and indeed that's what's happening here.

The District of Columbia's public schools, it will shock no one to learn, fare poorly by this measure. A depressing three of the 12 high schools the study measured in the District fall into the lowest possible category--schools in which the number of seniors is 60 percent or fewer than the number of freshmen four years earlier. This, according to a Johns Hopkins University study on which the report card is based, is a powerful indicator that these schools will have painfully bad graduation rates. (By comparison, nationwide, about 70 percent of students graduate from high school; for black and Hispanic students, that drops to about 50 percent.)

Be slightly wary of the D.C. numbers because so many kids in inner-city schools move around so often that enrollment figures aren't to be trusted. But the bottom line is nonetheless clear: The schools in question (in Washington, that's Ballou, Woodson and Bell Multicultural high schools) are simply not retaining enough students to even have a shot at graduating an acceptable portion of their kids. And several other D.C. schools are just barely above that very low minimum number.

Over at Education Week, another study assigns grades to the nation's states and the District on everything from teacher accountability to early childhood education, and, once again, as you'd predict, the District comes out at the bottom. Indeed, at the very bottom, scoring a D+. The very best grade in this accounting went to New York state, followed by Massachusetts and then Maryland. Virginia was just a few spots below Maryland, well into the top quarter of states.

In the various sub-categories in this report card, the D.C. schools do almost universally poorly, scoring an F in K-12 achievement, F in college readiness, D+ in keeping kids in school. But wait, there are a couple of bits of light, including a B+ for our relatively stable economy and workforce, and an A for the system's standards. (The study says the D.C. schools are no good at assessing how kids meet those standards, but at least the standards themselves are ok.)

Yet another study, by Achieve Inc., affirms that finding, noting that while the District started later than many other places and has a very long way to go, the D.C. schools are starting to align their high school standards with the expectations colleges and employers have for young people who come their way, and the city is planning to hold high schools responsible for producing graduates who are ready to work in college or at a job.

What these report cards don't show is whether the District's schools are making progress on all these goals at the classroom level, or only in the ambitious plans that tend to fill the shelves in administrators' offices. And all such education studies lag reality by quite some time, so none of these reports take into account whatever changes--good or bad--the new Fenty-Rhee team has produced in their short tenure at the helm.

So, what good are such grades? Again, just like the report cards on which my teachers used to try to get away with a single sentence of comments (do we all show great promise if only we would apply ourselves?), what's important here is incentive--the power of public shaming.

Coming soon to a blog near you: Report cards on the report cards.

By Marc Fisher |  April 21, 2008; 7:57 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

These are sad statistics indeed. But add to them that the District is now leaving millions of federal dollars on the table in tutoring money and that is really sad.

I think rather than a new COO for the schools at $200,000 we should be hiring a chief academic officer and making sure our children are getting everything they need in the way of an education.

I agree that we need pretty schools with bathrooms that work and in the summer our schools need airconditioning. But the reality is that children have learnt in crumbling buildings, one room school houses, and un airconditioned buildings for many years. Good teachers and good curriculum and parents and a community that placed the highest value on learning is what makes the difference.

Tutoring money going back to the feds is a tradgedy when so many of our kids are falling behind.

Why don't we set up tutoring programs in every after school center, every library and every recreation center in the District. The State Education Office should be signing contracts with tutoring companies and making these programs actually mandatory for all kids that are not at grade level.

Posted by: peter DC | April 21, 2008 9:24 AM

Seems PeterDC said all that needs to be said. though I oppose rhee, i will say she deserves time. but why all the failed approaches when you need to get down to basics.

Posted by: OKNow101 | April 21, 2008 10:06 AM

Basics is a canard.

I don't remember the basics from school, I
was inspired to achieve by the special. By the teacher who made us learn 500 greek and latin roots that aren't part of the curriculum, by the spelling bee, by the art teacher who survived the holocaust and while we were painting told us stories of selling the guards portraits of themselves in exchange for bread crusts...

DC needs real teachers to inspire troubled students and right now they have teachers who think it's still ok to blame the parents like it's 1989 and there's a crack war.

Posted by: DCer | April 21, 2008 10:13 AM

It is not clear to me that they have any good way of differentiating between schools that are "dropout factories" because they are bad schools and those that merely have a lot of "troubled" children, who would drop out of any school. It seems pretty ridiculous to expect DCPS to have the same dropout rate as, say, Fairfax County, and then to blame the teachers when it doesn't.

Posted by: qaz1231 | April 21, 2008 10:38 AM

In deed this information is startling. However, if you know this city's history of academic success stories, we should be ashamed. Clearly, the administrators and elected officials have failed our children, and continue to support them per election year. Even now, the focus is NOT learing. The children are not mastering anything. The teachers are not real teachers, the younger ones at least. When we allow the teachers to teach, the more experirenced ones 15yr or more, and invest in our children instead of sport entertainment complexes, we will see a definite change within our learning institutuions. For the record, I graduated from Ballou HS and earned a college degree. Thanks DCPS!!!!! I know it works because my teachers cared. Trust me, these young teachers from Teach For America do not care.

Posted by: Keon | April 21, 2008 10:48 AM

"Basics is a canard. I don't remember the basics from school . . ."

Then you're not educated. I recognize that you were trying to make a rhetorical point about the importance of inspiration and other life lessons - and those things are valuable. But there are a few simple things that adults in our society must be able to do to function effectively. Reading is one. Basic arithmetic is another. Understanding some simple scientific concepts, and some basic principles about our political system. "The basics." The term "education" can encompass many things - but in today's world a school fails if it doesn't successfully teach those basics, because adults can't function effectively in our society without them.

I strongly suspect you did, in fact, learn and retain those basic skills and knowledge. Otherwise, you'd have a difficult time posting a coherent comment in response to an on-line newspaper article. But if you didn't, you simply wouldn't be considered "educated" by any potential employer or secondary school. You'd have a difficult time holding down a job, or understanding the current political debates well enough to make an informed choice in a voting both (or even understanding the ballot).

Schools that leave our kids in that sort of ignorance are failing - and we shouldn't put up with it. Should they do more than the basics? Absolutely - we want kids well educated, not just minimally educated.

But if children leave school unable to read, write and do simple arithmetic, then they aren't educated - and the school didn't do its job. We're kidding ourselves when we try and make excuses for it.

Posted by: Demos | April 21, 2008 11:08 AM

No, trust ME, the Teach for America teachers MUST care. They're is no other reason for them to take a job that they are barely trained for. Almost every ToA teacher I've known is capable of making more money in a far safer and less depressing environment. They may not be able to do the job or stick with the job, but they certainly do care.

Regardless, the answer for the students and the entire teaching corps is to train the teachers better and give them more support and merit pay. Then, the good teachers will stay longer and the students will learn more. Teach for America won't be relevant.

Posted by: david | April 21, 2008 11:36 AM

Sorry Demos, I cannot possibly agree with your statement. I believe that focusing on "The basics" IS a canard. It allows teachers to claim they're doing something good as student after student loses interest in uninspiring classes. What I say about my life IS true, I remember studying to memorize the state capitals more than I remember studying trigonometry. Sure, I can manage a group of engineers and deal with their focus on heady math concepts, but that never inspired me and that never ignited within me the yearning for knowledge. I stand by my statement that teachers are using "The basics" as a canard and an excuse for their sub-standard effort in inspiring kids who need to be inspired.

One of my son's teacher's cousins died and she took three days off from school for it. Those three days were incredibly chaotic and she made it clear to me, despite her protestations, that she cared more about her cousin(!) than her class and that simply is unacceptable and unprofessional.

I mean, I never took more than a day off for a funeral, including my grandmother's. Because I believe in success over excuses. Trust me, knowing the teachers I've talked to, they provide excuses first, second and third and innovative teaching is far below that.

Posted by: DCer | April 21, 2008 11:38 AM

Gosh, I hope Marc takes the buyout from the Post. I'm sick of his face and his opinions.

When is John Kelly coming back?

Posted by: you can sit down, sir | April 21, 2008 11:55 AM


Why are you so outraged about a teacher taking leave to grieve for a cousin (!) ? Having no siblings myself, my cousins are the relatives I have the closest emotional connection to. I'm not sure you have anything to brag about when you say that you have never taken more than a day off for a funeral, because it sounds like you care more about your job than your family. If that's the case, I sincerely question your definition of success.

Posted by: annapolis | April 21, 2008 12:06 PM

I fo one am delighted that we now have all these report cards on these schools. Parents need as much information as possible about the quality of their schools. School districts are scrambling to improve their scores and raise achievement levels. NCLB is the only tool we have to fight the unions that have destroyed education in this country.

We need to run our schools like a business where we fire lousy performers and we are always evaluating the quality of the end product. Our kids deserve it.

Posted by: takebackourschools | April 21, 2008 1:19 PM

DCer - I can't tell if your post is sarcastic. Taking 3 days off for a funeral is not excessive, especially since you don't know the extent of the relationship between the teacher and the cousin. If this was a recurring theme than I can understand a level of frustration, but if this is a one-time event than you need to take a deep breath. Some of us do value our family life more than our professional life.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 21, 2008 1:20 PM

DC public schools face a number of daunting external challenges, but those should not be an excuse for the horrific dropout rate. The absurd bureaucracy, the crumbling infrastructure, and the entrenched mindset of entitlement among many teachers and administrators (NOT ALL) need to be corrected. I believe Fenty/Rhee are moving in the right direction. Those who criticize their approach should be asked what should be done differently. It should be obvious by now that the status quo is not the answer, at a minimum.

I would add that a big problem is what to do with children who fail? Social promotion is not the answer, but you shouldn't have 16 year olds in 8th grade, either. I think the answer is to put children who fail in special remedial schools.

Posted by: JH | April 21, 2008 1:44 PM

Yes, we need report cards. However, lets use the right lens to evaluate the numbers. I don't care how much you spend per kid, a new school building, and you have the best teachers. If a child has no one to push them along, it's not going to work. People are always surprised that private schools are successful, I'm not. Private and charter schools work better most of the time because parents have made a strategic decision to be involved in their childrens education. A stronger social network of parents, or other family that care is the only way to truly address the problem of low scores and drop outs. I'm not a teacher. But you can't put the entire blame for all of this on the backs of teachers or school administrators. What about parents? Fathers? You know what that means, you have to face the unpleasant truth.

Posted by: Product of DCPS | April 21, 2008 2:12 PM

Well DCer, I hope you're not expecting too big of a turnout for your funeral, either.

While you clearly have a limited emotional intelligence, you seem to have a fundamental (or would that be canard-inal?) grasp of how to write. Isn't possible that your teachers had something to do with this?

Posted by: $0.02 | April 21, 2008 3:01 PM

Product of DCPS;

I believe you've hit the nail on the head. The sociology of the family and the community is key to whether students do well in school. When the family and the community do not adequately value education (as demonstrated many times per day in the lives of the students), those subtle, subliminal many-times-per-day messages are received and assimilated by the students. The totality of the message is what affects the outcome. Yes, on some occasions children have learned under adverse conditions, but there were off-setting positives somewhere else in their environment. Somewhere else in their lives they were getting the consistent message that education matters, and is vital to success.

Posted by: citizenw | April 21, 2008 5:55 PM


I think you're missing my point - you're equating trigonometry with "the basics." We should be so lucky! Our problem isn't that kids don't know the difference between a cosine and a tangent, it's that they can't read, or figure out that a "buy 4 and get the fifth one free" deal is just a 20% discount for volume purchases.

I don't see how I can back down on this one. If you were unable to read well enought to handle a daily newspaper, unable to write well enough to put together a resume and fill out a job application, and unable to handle enough simple arithmetic to make change at a yard sale, then you would be uneducated.

Those are basic skills that any adult needs as a bare minimum to function effectively. If a school can't get them right, then it has failed, and all the rest is just bluster.

Posted by: Demos | April 21, 2008 6:03 PM

I'm with Demo.

The basics are not a canard if they are properly defined and properly addressed. By basics, I don't mean the facts they measure in the standards of learning tests so favored by NCLB. I'm talking about the basic ability of a child to learn.

Kids are not cookies. They are individuals and each has strengths and weaknesses. Reading, writing and math literacy are more complicated tasks for some children and they require more creative and structured approaches. Yes, children are being left behind--or medicated--or worse--prosecuted!--when they do not get the evaluations and interventions they need to learn.

Let's say 10% of children have a learning disability like dyslexia, attention deficit, or some other problem. At a class size of 20, that means two kids are interrupting the learning for the other 18. None of the schools are holding kids back anymore, two kids per class continue on, getting further and further behind. By middle school, they've found other things to do. By high school, they're lost.

And how many other borderline or otherwise distracted kids have they taken with them?

Even in Montgomery County, PG and Fairfax, there are not enough psychologists to do learning evaluations on kids. You don't see the problemmatic numbers as in DC because suburban parents are better able to shell out cash to get their kids tested and tutored.

I doubt DC has enough psychologists and tutors. And DC has a lot of parents who can't afford to do extra for their kids. Have you checked your health insurance policy for coverage of psychologial evaluations lately? What if you don't have insurance?

We're pretty well off and educated. Imagine my shock when I was told my son was uncontrollable in school. The school system, one of the top rated in the nation, can do nothing for me. Nothing. My son is struggling with reading and writing and out of frustration has become a major disciplinary problem. Still, the school has offered no learning evaluations. What would I have done had I been a single mom living paycheck to paycheck?

Our systems--all of them--are penny wise and pound foolish.

Posted by: mdreader1 | April 22, 2008 11:55 AM

I don't see how I can back down on this one. If you were unable to read well enought to handle a daily newspaper, unable to write well enough to put together a resume and fill out a job application, and unable to handle enough simple arithmetic to make change at a yard sale, then you would be uneducated.

But my point is from the teaching angle, no the student's. How does a student get that way when someone is paid to teach them 170+ days a year? How does a student get to the point where they can't make change at a yard sale?

My issue with "the basics" is that if the teachers ONLY teach "the basics" then they're crappy teachers. Right now they use a few students' poor performance as an excuse why they aren't better teachers who do more. Sometimes I'm told about students they taught 5 or 10 years ago(!), sometimes I'm told about their friends' students at other schools(!), because all the students in my son's class are good kids who are smart and learning and only a minority are discipline issues. My son, for instance, had MAJOR discipline issues that we worked with him on. His school counselor told me one of my son's first complaints was there wasn't enough science class time each day.



The counselor explained to me that the kids needed to learn write all the letters in the alphabet first. But who didn't know that by age 4? I asked. Turns out there were 4 kids in the class who were still learning. So, there's how a teacher, claiming to focus on the basics while ignoring science is a lousy teacher.

are you going to say I'm wrong Demos? really?

Posted by: DCer | April 22, 2008 12:27 PM

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