Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Do you have something to say about D.C.’s public schools or charter schools? Consider submitting a public letter to the interim chancellor or to the DC Public Charter School Board. Email your letter to City Paper will publish select letters and verify the identity of their writers. We are most interested in hearing from people who spend their days inside school buildings, either as staff or students. We will offer anonymity upon request.

Dear Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander,

I admire you. As a former 12th grade math teacher at one of D.C. Public School’s comprehensive high schools I understand what a complex undertaking it is to lead a single classroom of 25 or so learners, but I can hardly imagine the challenge of leading an entire District.

You’re especially courageous to take the helm now, when the District’s much-touted graduation rates are under intense scrutiny and your predecessors’ preferential school placements have eroded the public’s trust. DCPS has for many years claimed to be the nation’s fastest-improving school district. That legacy is in danger.

I understand that your first impulse as chancellor may be simply to steady the ship. Ballou and other high schools got in trouble for failing to follow District attendance policy. Chancellor Antwan Wilson promised to enforce compliance with these rules, and you might be tempted to do the same. Following policy might indeed restore some of the District’s lost credibility. Yet this rigid approach, in the absence of meaningful changes to the way its students are actually taught and assessed, is doomed to fail.

I taught students who had spent most of their lives in DCPS schools, and I know that the challenges the District faces go much deeper than preserving its public image. Gentrification may have pushed up test scores, but the achievement gap between demographic groups in DCPS remains huge. Teacher and principal turnover remains constant. One in seven high school students is proficient in math. Education-reform efforts have been well underway in DCPS for many years, yet the District still fails to educate far too many of its students. We can’t keep pushing the same flawed policies and hope that they will work.

What the District and its students need from you is more flexibility, not less.

Consider two students: hypothetical here, but based on many of the students I taught during my years as a 12th grade math teacher in the District. And consider what will happen to both if District attendance and grading policies are enforced.

Student A is a strong student with serious attendance issues. She is responsible for her two younger siblings and has accumulated 40 unexcused absences as a result. Nevertheless, she learns material quickly and seeks out her teachers’ help whenever she needs it. She began the year on grade level and, having learned the major content of each of her courses, is now ready for the next level. Under DCPS policy, she will fail and be held back to relearn content she already knows.

Student B is a weaker student with a stronger attendance record. She is in school every day, but she reads at an elementary-school level and is missing fundamental skills in math. She has never reached proficiency on a year-end test, but she has always moved up anyway. Yet despite her lack of preparation she wants to learn; her teachers recognize this and give her enough credit to scrape by. She began the school year several years behind grade level and will end it just as far behind. Under a grading policy that allows students to pass with largely incomplete mastery of a subject, she will pass and go on to more advanced content.

The mission of DCPS is to help each and every student reach his or her full potential. Policies like those in place, which tie advancement to compliance and not to mastery, will end up hurting both students. Student A will languish, while Student B will continue to be passed along, unprepared. My classes were full of students like these. District policy let all of them down.  

So what is a District, full of students like these, to do? The answer, I think, is simple. Stop enforcing attendance, and start requiring mastery.

As the example above and years of appalling standardized test results show, it’s quite possible for students to attend school without learning what they are supposed to learn. Most high-school students in the District are below grade level in English and math, yet they pass, and eventually graduate. No amount of policy training or accountability will prepare a student with third-grade math skills to succeed in an algebra class.

What DCPS must do, instead, is figure out how to reorient its school system around student learning. Stop passing students from grade to grade based on age. Instead allow and encourage students to move through material at their own unique paces, through a combination of teacher-led and online lessons and activities. Don’t let students move forward with incomplete understandings of critical material (as any “D” grade indicates). Instead require that students truly master prerequisite skills before attempting advanced content. In a rigid, compliance-driven system, taking the time to treat and teach each student as an individual is impossible. In a world where students have unique needs, talents, and abilities, it is essential.  

Teaching in this way certainly presents its challenges. Self-paced classrooms require motivated students, dynamic teachers, and courageous administrators who can see beyond the short-term metrics of pass rates. Classrooms need flexible spaces and reliable internet access. Students learning independently or in small groups need constant in-person encouragement and support from caring adults. These are all resources that the District has in abundance. They must be deployed in the service of true student learning, regardless of a student’s age or her attendance record.

Rules and policies can be efficient: It’s easier to teach students when they attend class regularly, easier to motivate attendance with the consequence of a failing grade, and easier to let students pass with Ds than to require true understanding of advanced content. Yet the District’s mission must be much bigger than simply enforcing rules; it must to give each and every student the education they need and deserve. What matters is not how old students are or how often they come to class, but that they actually learn what it is we want them to learn, and that the District becomes a place where students can, and must, do just that.

Students in D.C. face incredible challenges. If the District tightens attendance requirements even further, or lets students pass without authentic understanding and mastery of course material, it will only make life harder for these students. What the District must do instead is find a way to educate all of its students: Student A, Student B, and everyone in between.

I wish you, your staff, and your students the very best.


Robert Barnett

Former teacher, DCPS