WASHINGTON – As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country.
Now the situation in the District of Columbia could not be more different. After a series of rapid-fire scandals, including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure.
This stunning reversal has left school administrators and city officials scrambling for answers and pledging to regain the public’s trust.
A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011. Glowing news articles cited examples such as Ballou High School, a campus in a low-income neighborhood where the entire 2017 graduating class applied for college.
Then everything unraveled.
An investigation by WAMU, the local NPR station, revealed that about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else – with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.
The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences. In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department, while the D.C. Council has repeatedly called for answers and accountability.
“We’ve seen a lot of dishonesty and a lot of people fudging the numbers,” said Council member David Grosso, head of the education committee, during a hearing last week. “Was it completely make-believe last year?”
School Superintendent Hanseul Kang promised Grosso a “new accountability system” to prevent these kinds of abuses. The interim chancellor, Amanda Alexander, told the committee the estimated graduation rate for 2018 would end up just over 60 percent, a drop of more than 10 percentage points now that the attendance rules are being properly enforced. The chancellor’s office runs the public school system while the Office of the State Superintendent of Education oversees both the public schools and Washington’s robust charter school system.
Repeated efforts to interview both Kang and Alexander for this story were unsuccessful.
While the attendance scandal was still fresh, a new controversy engulfed the top public school official. Chancellor Antwan Wilson was forced to resign in February after revelations that he skirted his own rules to place his daughter in a prestigious high school while skipping a 600-student waiting list.
The Wilson scandal speaks to some of the unique dynamics and pressures of the D.C. school system. Parents who don’t like their local “in-bound” school can apply to any public school in the city through a complex and highly competitive lottery process. One local columnist dubbed the school lottery system “an academic Hunger Games.”
Most recently in the headlines has been one of the jewels of the school system, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, alma mater of comedian Dave Chappelle and musician Me’Shell Ndegéocello. In May, an internal audit alleged that more than one-quarter of Ellington students were fraudulently coming in from neighboring Maryland or Virginia.
Students from outside Washington can attend city schools if they pay tuition, but the investigation alleges widespread residency fraud with parents faking Washington addresses to avoid those fees. Ellington parents have sued, claiming they’re being railroaded by an administration eager to prove strong oversight and repair its reputation. The issue is working its way through courts.
The brutal year for Washington schools doesn’t seem to have hurt Mayor Bowser as she runs for re-election. Bowser, campaigning on the improved economy in the capital, has no significant opposition in the all-important Democratic primary Tuesday as she seeks a second term.
The issue of the school system was the only down note in Bowser’s otherwise triumphant State of the District speech in March. Bowser could only acknowledge “significant bumps in the road,” and promise rapid changes.
Defenders of the school system point out that independent measurements such as the National Association of Educational Progress test have shown consistent improvement that shouldn’t be lost in the controversy over graduation rates.
Critics view the problems, particularly the attendance issue, as an indictment of the entire data-driven evaluation system instituted a more than a decade ago when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took over the school system and appointed Michelle Rhee as the first chancellor. Rhee’s ambitious plan to clear out dead wood and focus on accountability for teachers and administrators landed her on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom. But now analysts question whether Rhee’s emphasis on performance metrics has created a monster.