Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

“How can our students be learning if they aren’t coming to school?” It’s a question that officials in D.C. have been asking themselves lately, as they seek to explain both chronic truancy and record graduation rates in DCPS. But it isn’t the right one. 

What we should be asking instead, is “Why aren’t students who come to school learning?” Three in four DCPS students graduate from high school, yet less than one in three high school students are proficient in English, and less than one in seven high school students are proficient in math. Should we really expect students to attend classes they aren’t prepared for when they’ll almost certainly pass regardless?  Getting students in the door is one thing; getting them out with the skills and knowledge they require is another. How can we do both?

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As a former DCPS high school teacher, I know firsthand that students miss school for many reasons. My students missed class because they were experiencing homelessness, because they took care of younger siblings or elderly relatives, because they worked to support their families, or because the Metro broke down. Some encountered a combination of the above issues. Sometimes they came to school and were still marked absent by the District’s punitive 80/20 attendance policy. These are all factors that D.C.’s recent attendance-promotion efforts should seek to address.

In my experience, however, the biggest driver of student absence is something simpler: Students don’t attend class because they aren’t learning—and they don’t need to. Thanks to a toxic mix of social promotion, institutionalized inequality, nominally high standards, and stunningly low expectations, most students in DCPS take classes for which their test scores reveal they are grossly underprepared. A student-friendly grading policy makes passing routine and thus compounds the problem. It’s no wonder that I regularly saw students, often those who were furthest behind, cutting class or showing up five minutes before the bell, or dragging their feet before the small army of administrators and security guards my school employed to push kids into classrooms. There isn’t much reason for these students to be there.

This isn’t to say that students don’t want to learn. Every student I’ve ever taught—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, straight, LGBTQ, tall, short, quiet, loud, athletic, artsy, you name it—has wanted to learn. The problem is just that few have been set up to do it.

DCPS is a school district with tremendous assets: gorgeous buildings, state-of-the-art resources, devoted and hardworking staff. Most importantly, the District is full of brilliant and talented students. But its obsolete system of education prevents students from doing the things they come to school to do: learn, develop their passions and interests, achieve their true potential. And I don’t think that we can solve the District’s attendance crisis without simultaneously addressing its much more fundamental academic one.

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So why aren’t our young people learning?

The first reason that so many students don’t learn—and then, eventually, don’t attend—is that their classes don’t meet their needs. Consider a typical high school math class. Given the prior test scores of most DCPS high schoolers, it is virtually certain that the majority of the class is unprepared for the course material. Even so, students are placed in those classes, expected to learn rigorous math content as outlined by ambitious Common Core standards, and are still, for the most part—with another year of failing test scores and without any meaningful effort at remediation—promoted to more advanced classes. Is it any wonder that a student who can’t multiply wants to avoid an algebra class? Or that the rare student on grade level skips a watered-down course that is filled with students who are several years behind?

The second reason students don’t learn is that DCPS’ grading policy doesn’t require them to. Under the most recent iteration of the grading policy, students can pass an entire course by earning a high enough grade in any one of four marking periods. There is no requirement that a student show sustained mastery of the course material or complete any sort of culminating assessment. A student who earns an A in one quarter and sleeps through the rest of the year will pass. 

The students who don’t learn aren’t lazy, or unmotivated, or unable. Instead, they respond reasonably to the incentives that DCPS, in its haste to graduate its students, has put in place. They are the students DCPS leaves behind.

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These academic problems may seem intractable. (They exist in the fancy private schools where I’ve taught, too.)  But if D.C. is the bold and innovative district it claims to be, it can make some significant changes that have the potential to help students. 

First, DCPS should allow students to learn at their own pace, regardless of how long it takes or where it happens. The biggest impediment to student learning is time pressure: the strange idea that every student needs to acquire the same predetermined set of skills each year, and thus each month, week, and day. It’s what pushes underprepared students into classes they can’t handle and holds advanced students back, thereby keeping all students from reaching their true potential. Why not eliminate it? Give each individual student something appropriately challenging to do every day, and they’ll be more likely to show up.

Second, DCPS should tie promotion to actual mastery. A student who scrapes through school with a D average will earn a diploma, but it isn’t worth much. Fix the broken incentives of the grading policy with this simple rule: When you’ve proven that you understand something, you move on. And when you’ve proven that you have developed the skills that you need to successfully enter the working world, DCPS sends you into it, prepared to fly.

There are many versions of self-paced, mastery-based learning, but those that are most successful, both in highly effective DCPS classrooms and in innovative schools around the country, share common elements: online lessons that deliver content on students’ own time, meaningful projects that require student inquiry and initiative, and teacher support that is individualized to each student’s unique needs. These courses are not online credit-recovery factories, they are dynamic academic ecosystems where students actually learn. 

The inherent flexibility of these combined online/in-person classrooms also makes them accessible to students with real attendance issues. In a traditional school setting, a student who misses a week of class to care for a sick sibling faces the added challenge of making up missed material. In a self-paced classroom, that student simply picks up where they left off, assuming they haven’t been learning from home the whole time. 

There are logistical challenges to adopting this model of education. Schools are built around the idea of grade-level cohorts and D.C. law defines graduation requirements in terms of the hours that students spend in physical classrooms. We have all become accustomed to the year-by-year progression of education, and the low expectations that it often fosters. 

Still, the current system is failing. (Is 13% math proficiency anything else?) The District faces a vicious cycle: Students who aren’t learning aren’t coming to school, and students who aren’t coming to school aren’t learning. If we want students to attend, we must make sure that schools are places where students really learn.