Last week, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) issued the “Final Report on the Audit and Investigation of Graduation Irregularities at Ballou High School and across DC Public Schools.” The issues identified in the report are much bigger than just one school – they represent a system-wide problem that damages every student and our city as a whole. Our educational systems have failed the young people they’re charged with educating. These failures come at a huge cost to our kids: those who earned their diplomas now face a cloud of doubt about their accomplishments and those who didn’t have been sent forth unprepared to succeed in college or careers.
According to the investigation’s findings, 937 of the 2,758 DCPS high school graduates last year (34 percent) did not meet the city’s requirements to earn their diplomas. DCPS administrators routinely graduated students who were chronically absent and who failed to complete required coursework. It appears that a culture was created that pressured teachers to change grades and attendance records, and pressured principals to deliver results at all costs. In efforts to ensure that every student had an opportunity to graduate, credit recovery courses were improperly utilized to award credit. And the findings hit close to home, with nearly 45 percent of last year’s Eastern High School graduates impacted by these policy violations and Eliot-Hine Middle School Principal Eugenia Young implicated in policy violations at her previous assignment, Roosevelt STAY High School.
At Eastern, the report emphasized that no students were found to be missing coursework required for graduation but indicated that teachers were overly empathetic to the needs of students who regularly missed class. Rather than fail these students, they allowed them to make up work and gave extra lessons during lunch or afterschool. We agree that we should strive to remove the barriers that prevent students from attending school or completing their work. However, we cannot willfully ignore the policies we have in place to ensure every student meets the same graduation standards.
The failings of our school system play out in many ways.
Even though two-thirds of DCPS seniors appear to have met all the requirements for graduation, how will institutions of higher learning or potential employers look at their diploma?
System Wide Failure
Of the third of DCPS graduates who did not correctly earn their diploma, how many are unprepared for college and careers? A shocking ninety-eight percent of DCPS graduates attending the University of the District of Columbia need remedial coursework once enrolled – most incurring debt while earning no college credit.
What of the damage done to families with children in our elementary and middle schools – especially those currently in the midst of selecting a high school? Can they, with confidence, trust that DC will challenge and prepare their child for success after high school?
In our opinion, it is clear that DCPS administrators put incredible pressure on school leaders and teachers to improve graduation rates. It’s also clear that in some places school leaders exercised intimidation, often through teachers’ IMPACT evaluations, to dissuade them from failing students. In the cases where a principal or central office administrator knowingly ignored policy or changed data, they have no place in our schools. We also believe that those at the central office level who coerced school leaders to act in a manner inconsistent with our city’s values should also be held accountable for their actions.
DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson’s response to the report shows promise – but more is needed. It is refreshing that he has pulled no punches in acknowledging the scope and depth of the problems. He has outlined the creation of new end-of-course assessments (with new supports for students who fail); he is seeking to establish new college and career milestones to measure progress toward successful graduation; and he has created a new Office of Integrity within DCPS to address complaints and concerns about school policies and legal compliance. But we also believe more can and should be done. The timeline for some of these elements doesn’t have them taking effect until 2022, which shows a lack of urgency that DCPS desperately needs.
How Do We Move Forward?
First, we need to restore trust in our schools. We believe that starts with transparency and engagement. Our communities should have a greater role in the success of our schools and our school leaders. Local School Advisory Teams (LSATs) should have a voice in setting goals for their schools, evaluating school leaders, and providing greater input on District-wide priorities. These advisory organizations should also meet across our community to identify concerns and jointly pursue solutions. Parents and communities should be true partners in the success of our neighborhood schools.
Second, we recognize that a school’s climate cannot change overnight and that many students in our schools may have already missed too many days to receive credit. We don’t believe these students should be punished. Our school leaders must identify ways to ensure that students currently enrolled in courses, but with high numbers of absences this term, are provided opportunities to make up the missed time, master the course content, and move forward in their academic careers.
Finally, to solve the broader issues of attendance and achievement, more information is needed. We need to dig deeper into the issues that have been identified and explore the areas that were not covered in OSSE’s audit. Namely, truancy and unearned promotion should be examined at other grades beside the senior year of high school, and not only in our traditional DCPS schools.
Every parent in DC should have confidence that our graduating seniors have earned their diplomas and are prepared to succeed as adults, no matter what public school they attended. And we know that attendance issues begin early, often in middle and elementary school. We also know that more needs to be done to close the achievement gap in DC. Far too many of our poor and minority students enter high school unprepared and we must do better.
Achievement and attendance have a complex relationship, with students who miss school lagging, and students who are behind too often give up on attending. We need to make our schools somewhere every student can succeed, with supports to identify special education needs as early as possible, resources to address the toxic effects of trauma, and high quality wrap-around programming like before and after-care that is critical to working families.
There is no question that our public schools are improving and we should take pride in them. But we also must ask the hard questions about where they’re falling short and demand accountability. We must work together to solve these issues and ensure that all our DC public school students graduate with a diploma of which we can be proud, one that truly means they’re prepared to succeed.
Charles Allen is the Ward 6 councilmember (D). Joe Weedon is the Ward 6 State Board of Education member.