High-quality public education is critically important to America’s future, and we are falling behind globally. On the standardized tests administered every three years by the Program for International Student Assessment, American school students finished 25th in math, 17th in science and 12th in reading among all industrialized countries.
This worrying discrepancy, as well as national and local high-school graduation and college-acceptance data, and the numbers of students who still do not perform at their grade level in math and reading, should concern us all. Data such as this provides much of the rationale for the nation’s burgeoning education reform movement. But too many of the self-styled education reformers focus too narrowly on quantitative data for short-term gains, while ignoring qualitative analysis and the research and development required to answer more fundamental questions.
To provide a high-quality public education for every American, we need to know what is working; for whom; and under what conditions. Sadly, the corporate model currently favored by the business, with its emphasis on standardized math and reading test scores, doesn’t provide answers to these larger questions.
Our nation’s capital—of all places—has a higher achievement gap than any state, yet it also is home to some public schools that have strikingly different results and have significantly narrowed that gap.
The big money behind the drive to judge success or failure based on narrowly focused standardized tests does not fund the kind of research that could enable us to figure out what works for our nation’s most vulnerable children. Instead, the business minds that fund and control the policy direction of public education—though they are not educators—think they know what is best: applying the productivity model to teachers and schools, as they do their stores and employees.
Friendship Collegiate Academy is a charter high school in Washington, D.C. that specializes in college preparation for at-risk youth from some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. Some 74 percent of their students are eligible for federal lunch subsidies, and 60 percent are male. Their on-time (four year) high-school graduation rate is 91 percent—higher than the District (60 percent) or neighboring high-income states, Maryland (82 percent) and Virginia (81 percent), and the national rate (78 percent). And 100 percent of their graduating class is accepted to college.
Collegiate Academy’s success occurred after it pioneered Early College and Advanced Placement courses nine years ago. Yet only one other D.C. public school offers Early College. Friendship, a network of charter and traditional-charter partnership campuses, is responsible for 43 percent of the on-time graduates in D.C.’s high-poverty Wards 7 and 8. But is there a causal relationship between Early College and on-time graduation? Why do we see this apparent correlation? How does this happen and why?
D.C. now has four bilingual immersion public schools: Yu Ying, which teaches students in Mandarin and English; Elsie Whitlow Stokes, which teaches in either French and English or Spanish and English; and LAMB and Mundo Verde, teaching Spanish and English. They now plan a joint high school offering their language options under the same roof. Research shows that language programs teach lifelong learning skills, yet the benefits to students who learn second, third or fourth languages go unmeasured. What are their advantages, and for whom?
Still other D.C. schools go above and beyond the fashionably narrow emphasis on standardized tests. Thurgood Marshall Academy is law-themed and Cesar Chavez Public Charter School specializes in D.C.’s domestic industry, public policy. What difference do their areas of specialization make to student motivation, academic success, and post-graduate success? For whom does this work? And under what conditions?
By funding research to answer these and other questions, we could break down the barriers between traditional and chartered public schools, and replicate the best in the interests of every student, however disadvantaged.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the District of Columbia Association for Chartered Public Schools.