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Public trust in the District of Columbia Public Schools is in tatters. To shore up the system once widely lauded as a model of urban school reform, Mayor Muriel Bowser must replace the liabilities to its integrity that caused back-to-back scandals. February’s scandal stemmed from Chancellor Antwon Wilson bypassing school lottery systems for his daughter and resulted in the resignation of Wilson and Deputy Mayor for Education Jenny Niles. In contrast, no resignations followed January’s far more important scandal that revealed widespread graduation policy violations, because no individuals were clearly to blame. However, if Bowser is to rebuild a foundation for trust in DCPS, she has yet to replace the greatest liability to its integrity. That liability is not an individual, but a number: the deceptive 73 percent graduation rate.
Bowser rightfully replaced two of D.C.’s highest education officials, Wilson and Niles, after it came to light that Wilson’s daughter was granted a “discretionary transfer” into Woodrow Wilson High School, not only bypassing the city’s school lottery system and the line of 600 wait-listed students, but also violating a ban on such transfers Wilson himself had instituted back in June. Bowser forced Niles to resign immediately after the news broke. A week later, after most of the D.C. Council called for his resignation, Bowser removed Wilson.
In Bowser’s words, “It became very clear … that Wilson would be unable to successfully lead the schools having not been able to regain the community’s trust.” Wilson’s and Niles’ blatant policy violation made it obvious that they had to be replaced before trust in DCPS could be rebuilt.
The response to the much more important graduation scandal, which revealed that more than a third of the DCPS class of 2017 graduated in violation of attendance or grading policies, is less clear. Had DCPS followed its own common-sense policies, last year’s record 73 percent graduation rate would have been closer to 48 percent. The scandal was the outgrowth of aggressive graduation rate goals and DCPS’ resulting culture of passing and graduating students even when they violated the district’s academic standards.
When the bombshell graduation report was released, Bowser said it was “tough news to deliver. But very necessary in order that we right the ship, make sure the community has all the information we have and implement the changes necessary in public education.” However, Bowser has not been willing to deliver the bad news that is so obvious: that the district’s official 73 percent graduation rate is illegitimate, and she cannot right the ship until she disavows it.
As long as that graduation rate remains official, teachers and school and district officials will continue to operate under its shadow, with the associated pressure to pass unprepared students to uphold that unreasonable and unreal standard. The magnitude of those challenges became clear when DCPS recently released data showing that only 42 percent of the class of 2018 was on track to graduate. The same student absenteeism and high proportions of students needing credit recovery courses that fueled the 2017 graduation scandal remain pressing issues this year. So long as the target of 73 percent looms for the next three months, sidelining academic integrity will once again be the easiest route for DCPS staff to cope with the pressure to pass as many of the remaining 58 percent of students as possible.
The graduation rate will be an albatross around the neck of any candidate the district may recruit to replace Wilson. What kind of leader would fill a position with an immediate challenge of either matching the false record graduation rates established under his predecessors or start a career with a historic drop in graduation rates? Only an opportunist would accept such a position — the last kind of leader DCPS now needs.
Bowser should order the school system to withdraw last year‘s published graduation rate and replace it with an official estimate, produced through an independent audit, of what 2017’s graduation rate should have been had DCPS policies been followed. Unfortunately, doing so will make official the shadow cast over 2017 graduates, but not doing so will extend that shadow to the class of 2018. Immediately replacing the toxic record graduation rate with an honest benchmark is the only way to give DCPS staff and officials an honest foundation to build on this year. It will also give Bowser the opportunity to recruit a leader capable of honest school improvement. In an election year, this course is fraught with danger for the mayor, but doing anything less will demonstrate that Bowser lacks the integrity to right the DCPS ship, to make the changes necessary in public education and continue to hold her office.
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