Rock Creek Park celebrates its 125th anniversary next year. We speak with two local experts with books about the history, flora, and fauna that abound in Washington's "backyard."
A number of education issues are making headlines in our region. D.C. agreed to address claims that girls are getting short shrift when it comes to school sports. Montgomery County is closer to implementing later school start times for high schools. Several former managers of a D.C. public charter school are accused of diverting millions of taxpayer dollars to line their own pockets. And the federal shutdown is affecting programs for disadvantaged students, including Head Start. We explore news from our region’s schools.
- Emma Brown D.C. Education Reporter, Washington Post
- Kavitha Cardoza Education Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
- Michael Petrilli Author, "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools;" Vice President for National Programs and Policy, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. A number of education issues are bubbling up in our region, perhaps the most sensational headlines involving a D.C. public charter school where several higher ups are accused of diverting millions of taxpayer dollars to line their own pockets.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILess dramatic headlines include a Title IX case in D.C. where school officials have agreed to settle claims that girls are getting short shrift when it comes to school sports. Districts around our region are debating later start times for sleep-deprived high school students. Parents are fighting to keep recess on the schedule in elementary schools.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd the federal shutdown is affecting some programs for disadvantaged students, including Head Start, and could soon affect public charter schools. Joining us to discuss all of these education issues is Kavitha Cardoza. She is WAMU 88.5's education reporter. Kavitha, good to see you again.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZAThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Emma Brown. She is the D.C. education reporter for The Washington Post. Emma Brown, thank you for joining us.
MS. EMMA BROWNThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Michael Petrilli is the senior vice president for National Programs and Policy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He's also author of the book, "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Schools." Michael Petrilli, good to see you again.
MR. MICHAEL PETRILLIThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIFeel free to join the conversation. Call us with your questions about education at 800-433-8850. Emma Brown, let's start with the biggest headlines, Options Public Charter School, the District's first such. This is a story which your reporting appears to have had a pivotal role in uncovering. Can you talk about what led you to investigate what was going on at this school?
BROWNSure. Yeah. The first thing I heard about this school was from a teacher who worked there and was concerned about services that students were receiving and not receiving, which led me to start just sort of nosing around and using Google and other tools in the trade to try to find out more about this school.
NNAMDIParticularly worrisome is the fact that the former chief financial officer for this public charter school board -- for the Public -- for D.C.'s Public Charter School Board is named in this case. Can you talk about the role he allegedly had in all of this?
NNAMDIAnd first, of course, you might want to tell our listeners what all of this is.
BROWNSure. Yeah. There are three people who used to run Options Public Charter School, and they are alleged to have started companies and then signed contracts to send millions of dollars to those companies while they were still running the school. They've since left the school this summer. And the complaint that the city filed last week alleges that Jeremy Williams, who is the former CFO of the Public Charter School Board -- and let me stop for a second, explain what that is. The...
BROWNThe D.C. Public Charter School Board is in charge of authorizing new charter schools in the city and then deciding when a school must be closed. And so a school can be closed for failing to meet its academic objectives. But if there's financial mismanagement, it can be closed as well. So the CFO's job is really to oversee those -- the financial workings of the charter schools.
BROWNAnd what's alleged is that the CFO, instead of overseeing them, actually helped these folks at Options do what they allegedly did. So he allegedly sort of maneuvered so that the contracts wouldn't be reviewed by the people who were supposed to review them.
NNAMDIAnd after you started either investigating or reporting, the D.C. School's -- The D.C. Public Charter Board actually asked for a forensic audit of the books, and that's how some of this was revealed?
BROWNYes. The -- and his sworn declaration for folks who like to look at legal documents is totally fascinating. And it's online at the Public Charter School Board's website. He is from PricewaterhouseCoopers. And he came in and spent a couple weeks and, according to him last week in the court room, is continuing to look at the documents and try to figure out exactly what happened with the money.
NNAMDIYou know, nearly all of D.C.'s -- or nearly half, I should say, of D.C.'s public school students now attend charters, and millions in taxpayer dollars follow. You know, Kavitha Cardoza, there were people who were skeptical about charter schools from the very beginning. They thought that this was essentially a move -- some even felt it was a conspiracy -- to privatize the public schools and then to put lots of money in the hands of private individuals.
NNAMDIShould we be concerned about what protections are in place to ensure that charters, which do have a great deal of autonomy, are not abusing taxpayer funds?
CARDOZAI mean, I think some more checks and balances would be good. I think -- Emma and I were talking earlier, and we were saying, the scale of this is kind of astounding, $3 million. And some of the bonus amounts, Kojo, were really, I mean, so shocking to me. One, I think -- correct me if I'm wrong, Emma -- $425,000, when you take salary and bonuses, one of these individuals got. So the scale of this was huge.
CARDOZABut we were talking and saying, once the Charter School Board heard about this, they were really quick to kind of investigate. But you know how long was this, a three-month...
NNAMDIHow long it took for them to hear about it.
NNAMDIMichael Petrilli, concerns?
PETRILLISure, absolutely concerns. Now, keep in mind we see this in the public sector and in the private sector all the time. There's bad people out there who try to steal money. And so we have to have internal controls in place to make it harder for them to do so and easier for us to catch them. The trick is to make sure that when we set up those internal controls, we do it in a way that doesn't then create a mind-numbing bureaucracy.
PETRILLII think there's a lot of people who work in this town both at city agencies and in the federal government, you know, who spend their days being driven crazy by the paperwork and the checks and balances. So you can definitely go too far and create new problems. But there's got to get the balance right. And certainly charter schools must be open to audits. And there's got to be some checks, such as on big contracts, to make sure this sort of thing isn't happening.
PETRILLIBut, again, kudos to the Public Charter School Board who took fast action and has been really on this issue from the very beginning. That's exactly what you'd want to see a city agency do.
NNAMDIThe issue of bonuses that Kavitha mentioned was one of the things that people who were reading your article, Emma, immediately noticed. The other, of course, is the stark difference in the cost of transportation that, for Options, when it was being run by one company and then when it was taken over by the private company started by individuals involved with the school, it seemed to jump, what, like, tenfold?
BROWNYeah, more than tenfold. So it was $70,000 under the former company, a previous company that had run the buses for Options. And then when the company that the managers had started took over that service, it jumped by more than tenfold. And their defense is that, hey, we were serving more kids. We were doing a better -- you know, we had higher costs 'cause we were serving more kids. And there was a bonus built in to the contract for serving more kids.
BROWNBut what was, to me, kind of interesting about that is that kids were being paid $50 at the end of each week if they showed up each day on the bus on time and then behaved properly in school. But parents and students told me that if they didn't ride the bus to school that they wouldn't get the 50 bucks at the end of the week. So that was just sort of an unusual thing that I hadn't heard of before at a school. And I don't know what that all means. But it was unusual.
NNAMDIIf you don't what it means but it certainly has the appearance that students were being paid simply to attend school, but, well, -- how is this -- is there any kind of timeframe over which this is all intended to shake out? We have the attorney general who has filed suit, and we have the U.S. Attorney's Office that is investigating at this point.
BROWNYes. The U.S. attorney said they're -- I think the quote was "continuing to review the matter" when the story came out last week. And the next thing that happened -- so the next thing that happens is on Friday in the D.C. Superior Court. The judge will consider whether to appoint a receiver to oversee the companies so that some of its assets can be unfrozen. Right now, all of its assets are frozen. And the receiver has been appointed to oversee the school and sort of get it on track.
NNAMDIKavitha, it's been in the news here in the District, but it's also an issue in many places, sports opportunities for girls. First, can you give us some background on what's going on here in Washington, D.C.?
CARDOZASo after years of kind of negotiating and it not going anywhere, the National Children's -- Women's Law Center filed what's called a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Department. And what they said was girls don't have the same opportunities for sports as boys do. And that was under Title IX, the federal law that kind of prohibits discrimination on sex. So lower quality -- it was not just opportunities. Girls in D.C. have lower quality facilities, fields, uniforms, lockers, coaching -- I mean, that's what they said.
CARDOZAAnd what they looked at, Kojo, was the gap between the percentage of girls enrolled in high schools and the percentage of girls playing sports. And in the majority of the high schools, they found that that gap exceeded 10 percent. In some schools like Ballou and Roosevelt, it was over 20 percent. And so they've filed this formal complaint. So that's the background.
NNAMDIDCPS has settled the complaint now. What has DCPS agreed to do?
CARDOZASo what they found was that there are a lot of deadlines that have been set to what was called tight deadlines, and if they don't follow those deadlines, then there might legal action to come. What DCPS has said, this isn't a finding of fault, but now they have to offer more sports teams. They have to survey students to find out whether girls are getting the opportunities they want. They have to create more clubs and more teams. So they are really aggressively trying to increase the opportunities for girls.
NNAMDIMike Petrilli, Emma Brown, in fact, all of D.C. public schools, including charter schools, it's my understanding, have some issues when it comes to offering sports. Can you talk a little bit about some of those issues?
PETRILLIWell, you know, for charter schools, it can be a real challenge. Keep in mind that many of these schools are quite small. A lot of times they've had to find facilities that are quite nontraditional because they don't get full facilities funding like the traditional public schools do. So they may not have the room for sports fields, athletic fields, so they have to be creative. In some cases, they need to partner with maybe Parks and Recreation or other entities to be able to provide those opportunities.
PETRILLIYou know, it may get to the point where there's going to need to be some solutions here as we get to 50 percent of kids in charter schools. Can they get access to the playing fields at the traditional public schools?
BROWNI think there are two other issues to bring up, one, for all kinds of schools, charter schools and DCPS. The opportunity is available to youth as they're kind of growing up and making habits. Are there enough opportunities to ingrain athletics and a love of athletics and sports in them so that they want to play when they get to high school, is one question? And then in DCPS, one challenge that high schools have is declining enrollment.
BROWNAs charter schools gain more students, many DCPS neighborhood high schools that have long traditions of great sports teams have fewer and fewer students. And it's hard to field football teams, and it's hard to field every kind of team when you have your fewer students to play.
NNAMDIThis is not only an issue in D.C. Where else in our region have you seen the issue of girls in sports coming up?
BROWNWell, you know, just recently, within this last year, Arlington County Public Schools built a new softball field at Washington-Lee High School after many complaints, years of complaints, by parents of girls who played softball who said, look, our girls are playing on a field that just isn't suitable. It's, you know, pockmarked, and it's dirty. And it's not lit and those kinds of things. So they have a brand-new field there.
BROWNA couple years ago, in Prince George's County, there was a -- National Women's Law Center also filed a claim that was settled and brought a lot of new softball facilities to girls there. So, yes, it's an issue not just in D.C. but broadly.
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding that Prince George's County settled a similar complaint a few years back. So apparently these problems have been region-wide. We got an email from Patty relating to charter schools. She says, "I hope you'll balance your charter school discussion today when talking about Options by also commenting that many, many other public charter schools are highly functioning, successful in educational strategies, fiscal management, and raising the standards of quality of education in D.C."
NNAMDIWell, I didn't have to say it, Patty, but, well, you did. And here's what Delabian, in Washington, D.C. has to say. Delabian, you're on the air. How are you?
DELABIANVery well, thank you. Very well.
NNAMDIGood to hear from you, Delabian Rice-Thurston. (laugh) Go ahead, please, you're on the air.
DELABIANThank you so much. I am concerned about the fact that people do not know that the District of Columbia's traditional public schools have seven National Merit semi-finalists, Walls -- School Without Walls has four, Wilson High School has three. There are private schools where people are paying lots of money, at least six of them that have fewer National Merit semifinalists than our traditional public schools and only four of the really expensive private schools that have more.
DELABIANI mean, really, I -- there are no charter schools at this moment that have National Merit semi-finalists. Our school system does not publicize its successes and that really infuriates me. I sent an email to Ms. Henderson and have not yet seen anything in the paper that shows that she is saluting her successful, really successful, nationally competitive students.
NNAMDIWell, Delabian, you and Patty combine to remind us that there's not only bad news coming out of the public schools, that many public schools are doing what they're supposed to do and doing it very well. Well, that's not really news, because we expect them to do that. But I'm glad you mentioned that. By the way, Delabain, you used to be one of the leaders of Parents United to Save D.C. Public Schools. Do you still have any children in D.C. Public Schools?
DELABIAN(laugh) My children are 35 and 30.
NNAMDIThat's what I thought. (laughter) Thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on public and charter schools in the Washington area. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think high school should start later? What do you know about the Common Core and what it will mean for your child's school? Call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about education in the DMV. We're talking with Emma Brown. She is D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post. Michael Petrilli is a senior vice president for National Programs and Policy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He's also author of the diverse school's dilemma, "A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Schools." And Kavitha Cardoza is WAMU 88.5's education reporter. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Are you concerned about standardized testing? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIOr you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Kavitha, there's been a great deal of debate around start times for high schools. What are the issues there?
CARDOZASo the American Medical Association and a growing number of health professionals have called this a public health issue, that our kids are not getting enough sleep. So if you take the time after school, Kojo, and you factor in after school activities, homework, dinner, you know, and then just some time to unwind, it's sometimes midnight. And some of our start times are as early as 7:15 in the morning. And so in Montgomery County, for example, there was a group called the Bell Times Work Group.
CARDOZAAnd for a year they’ve been studying input. And the superintendent of schools there, Joshua Star, has recommended some changes. Now, they're not going to go into effect, even if his recommendations are followed, until the 2015/2016 school year. But some of them are to move high school start times back by 50 minutes, so instead of 7:25, to start at 8:15. Middle school would start 10 minutes earlier and elementary school start times would start at the same time, but they would extend the day by 30 minutes.
NNAMDIAny comment on that, Mike Petrilli?
PETRILLIWell, you know, there is some good research that show that these later start times would help. They'd help in terms of students getting more sleep and in learning more, that it does appear that the later start times makes sense. The trick has always been, how do you make sure there's time for everything else that you want to do, including the after school sports.
PETRILLIA lot of times the pressure's been, well, we can't push the sports back too far. And so, you know, this is a classic conundrum in American education, is academics versus athletics. You know, I think that there's some possibilities here. If we see more students starting to take courses online, those courses could be taken online any time. Right?
PETRILLIAnd so they could do those at night, perhaps. And so you could start to see where there could be some more flexibility. Start the day later, still end it at the same time and still have time for everything else.
NNAMDII remember when I was in high school I participated in Cadet Corp, I participated in sports and I often did homework. And high school started for me 8:15 in the morning and that seemed to be too early in those days
PETRILLIAnd you walked uphill both ways?
NNAMDIYeah, right. (laughter) Fortunately, I lived in a flat city.
CARDOZAEspecially with the high school kids, Kojo, they're getting ready to apply to college. And so a lot of these extracurricular activities help boost their kind of resumes, so to speak. Two issues that they're going to look at are the cost and traffic patterns, both of which are important in our region. So right now they have four tiers of bus routes. How is that going to work and with our high-traffic, you know, what if the school kids -- like right now, if you're dropping a child to school at 7:15, trying to get there by 7:00 there's not a lot of traffic.
CARDOZAWell, what if everyone is trying to get everywhere at around the 8:00 o'clock hour. How are we going to manage? And so there's certainly a lot more work to be done.
NNAMDIBecause you know, at 7:00 there's the rush to beat the rush, at 8:00 there's the rush itself, and at 9:00 there's the rush that waited for the rush to pass. (laugh) So here is Mandy, in Garrett Park, Md. Mandy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MANDYYes, hi. I started the petition, actually, in Montgomery County a year ago and then had the pleasure to be on the work study group. And I just wanted to make a couple of points. Sports will be just fine. Everybody worries about them, but many districts, like Loudoun and Arlington start at 9:00 o'clock and their sports teams are just fine.
MANDYAlso, in terms of more cars on the road, you would be surprised. There's hundreds and hundreds of parents that are driving their kids to high school, even though they could take the bus. I know many. And you want your kid to have that extra half hour of sleep. So you say, sleep in, don't take the bus, I'll drive you in. Start to ask around and you'll hear that.
NNAMDIThat if there's a later start time you're saying that more kids will be taking the bus?
MANDYYes, I will.
MANDYBecause parents don't like getting up and driving their kids in, you know. They'll be happy to put them on the bus if it's at healthier reasonable time.
MANDYTo the kids out there or parents, tell your kids this, you know, a lot of kids are worried, oh, but I can't afford to sleep more, you know, I have so much homework and I can't afford to get home later. Two things, we're not making the day longer. It's the same school day. And I've heard Dr. Judy Owens from Children's Hospital, a renowned researcher in this area, say -- I've heard say twice, five hours of homework could become three if you don't have to relearn first period, if you're not dozing off, if you can do your homework more efficiently. And I didn't repeat that until I had heard her say that twice. So, kids, you're going to have less homework. (laughter)
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
MANDYI'm a good salesperson, aren't I?
NNAMDIMandy reminded me of a friend in high school who used to fall asleep in history class all the time. And we said, why do you keep going to history class if you fall asleep? He said, I've got to go, I need the sleep. (laugh) Emma, evaluations on principals in D.C. recently came out. Half of D.C. principals were rated developing, which is just one rung above ineffective under the district's rating system. What does that rating mean and what are we to make of that report?
BROWNYeah, this is the first year that D.C. has given their principals an overall rating, the way that teachers have gotten them for the last several years. And so, you know, principals are really frustrated and feel like this is a really flawed instrument. We're not all that bad. We can't possibly be.
BROWNAnd they point to the fact that the way that the evaluations are set up, if your school doesn't hit its test score target you are going to be developing, pretty much. So they say it's, you know, way too tied to test scores. On the other side of that, you know, principal evaluations have been long overlooked, compared to teacher evaluations, which have gotten much more attention and scrutiny and press.
BROWNAnd so there's a feeling among many people who are interested in improving schools, that principals need to -- a lot more attention needs to be put on principals and their role in creating an environment that works for kids.
CARDOZAI've heard from teachers, Kojo, who say, you know what? Now, may be my principal who evaluates me knows how arbitrary this is. Custodians in school, a part of their evaluation comes from student achievement test scores. And so a lot of people say, yes, there needs to be. Also, when you think of how a principal sets the tone, right? The tone starts in the top. You develop the culture, you develop the priorities.
CARDOZAThe problem -- or the challenge I see with this is there's been so many kind of -- there's been so much teacher churn and principal churn. So if you keep getting developing or ineffective, you know, ratings, and then the principal leaves and then the new principal comes in and then you have to get everyone on board again, and what is that going to do to the school system?
NNAMDIBut, Mike Petrilli, it's my understanding that these evaluations do not necessarily affect the job security of administrators, as they already have one year contracts and can be dismissed for any reason at the end of the school year. So what does this rating really mean?
PETRILLIRight. I mean, this is meant to put some pressure on the principals to get better results. And it may be that this particular instrument is flawed and it needs to be calibrated. We saw this in the first year with the teacher evaluations, as well, that they made some adjustments. But keep in mind, we had this cognitive dissidence for decades, where we had schools that, by all measures were failing. And yet almost all the adults in the system, the principals and the teachers were told every year that they were doing great, which, you know, couldn't have possibly been true. So maybe we've gone too far to the other direction, but it is good that we finally are now getting serious about evaluating professionals, just like professionals are evaluated in every other sector in our country.
NNAMDIMichael Petrilli is a senior vice president for National Programs and Policy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He's also author of "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Schools." he joins us in studio for our DMV education roundup with Emma Brown, D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post, and Kavitha Cardoza, WAMU 88.5's education reporter. Are you concerned about standardized testing? Give us a call at 80-433-8850.
NNAMDIMike, there's a lot of debate about that right now. It's been ramping up steadily in the past decade or so with No Child Left Behind. And now it's centered on the new Common Core standards. Let's start with the basics. What is the Common Core?
PETRILLISo the Common Core are a set of standards in English and in math. They have been adopted by 45 states, plus D.C. One of the holdouts is Virginia, that has not adopted the standards. These standards then replace the state standards that were in place before. Our institute, our think tank thinks very highly of the standards, that they came out very good, and in fact, they're much better than what most states had previously.
PETRILLIMany states, including, I would say, Maryland, had standards that were pretty mushy and vague and not set terribly high. These standards are very clear, rigorous and it's the expectation that the new tests that come along with these standards are going to be pitched at a very high level.
NNAMDIAre these standards voluntary on the part of states? Who's on board?
CARDOZAIn our region, D.C., Maryland, not Virginia, like he said. Yes, they were voluntary. They came from the National Governors' Association. They were funded -- The creation of them was funded heavily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The U.S. Department of Education did kind of dangle and carrot and say, you can get these millions of dollars on the race to the top, if you adopt the standards. So a lot of states have. Some of the thinking behind it, Kojo, was, we don't do very well at all when you compare us to other industrialized or developed countries. We kind of do pretty poorly.
CARDOZAAnd so what they found was different states had different things. So one of the things the researchers of the Common Core found was, say Massachusetts, the kids -- one of the better, you know, states for public education -- had this long kind of thing, paragraph about detail enriched from Tolstoy, right, that the kids were questioned, fourth grade up. And then Kentucky it was like a sentence, like a cat and a god did something.
CARDOZASo when you have that kind of difference, but they wanted it standardized. Also, one of the interesting things to me was, you actually -- there are way fewer standards now. So for example, in D.C. we were teaching like 35 standards in third grade math, I think. Now it's something like 28.
CARDOZAAnd the reason they found was when they did research, countries like Hong Kong or the high achieving math countries, they were able to learn fewer standards, but they really understood it. So if they really got fractions, by the time they got to ninth grade algebra, it was like they understood it. Whereas here it was like every two weeks, this kind of frantic, let's learn something new. And they felt that we were not -- our kids were not able to make those leaps in analytic kind of understanding of math.
NNAMDIOn to Martin in Landover, Md., who wants to address this issue. Martin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTINGood afternoon, Kojo. Thank you very much for taking my call.
MARTINI will try and be brief because I'm on my lunch break and just heading back to work, but I am just recently out of the school system and college myself. And it seemed to me that more often then not, whenever there's been an issue with -- well, not meeting standards, the common theme has been to lower the standards, as opposed to elevate them. I heard your guest say that the Common Core aims to do the opposite, to elevate them, but after looking at some of the material -- I do do some teaching. I've looked at some of the material and it does not appear to be that way.
MARTINPrimarily what I'm curious about is has there been any consideration given toward allocating resources to reducing class sizes and increasing attention, as opposed to beating a dead-standard horse?
NNAMDIWell, you seem to be suggesting that the Common Core for you represents a lowering of standards, Martin?
MARTINYeah, yeah. I do. From what I've seen. And I don't claim to be an expert. I haven't looked at it in detail, but I've looked at the math portions and particularly one thing that I'd draw exception to is the way that they're planning on teaching addition at the lowest levels. I feel it's completely unintuitive and (unintelligible)…
NNAMDIWell, what I find fascinating about that, Kavitha and Emma, is that that, I guess, would depend on the jurisdiction you're in. In some jurisdictions it would be seen as a raising of the standard and in others it would be seen as a lowering of the standard. In Martin's case he sees it as a lowering of the standard.
NNAMDIMartin, and what was your suggestion about what should be done?
MARTINWell, in my experience I've noticed that the times that I felt most successful in classes and most successful overall is when I've had teachers that had license to teach what they know, as opposed to teach what they're mandated to. And they're able to really get enthusiastic about it. And I'm wondering why it's never been -- so far as I’m aware -- an option to allow teachers like that free license.
NNAMDIEmma Brown, that's a central feature of the conversation -- well, sometimes the argument that we're really having about public education, is it not?
BROWNThat's true. And I think that the tension -- so you're on one side, Martin. I think that tension is that people want to know how kids are doing and, you know, the whole thrust of No Child Left Behind is to make sure that all kids are being well served by our public schools and that the achievement gap that's huge and persistent in our country starts to narrow. And so, you know, and maybe Mike can speak to the latitude within the Common Core to be creative as a teacher, but I think, you know, the whole point of standards is so that we can know what our kids are supposed to learn and where they are on that spectrum.
PETRILLIWell, that's right. These are a list of standards. That's really just a list of what students should know and be able to do. So I've got a five-year-old in Montgomery County Public Schools. I know that by the end of the Kindergarten he is supposed to be able to count to 20, for example. So, you know, it does not get into curriculum. And so it's still up to local school districts to decide how to teach things, which textbooks to use, what curriculum, to use.
CARDOZASo your son's teacher can come up with any way to teach 1 to 20?
PETRILLIThat's right. That's right. And so there is still plenty of flexibility there. And teachers, by and large, when you do polls, are very enthusiastic about the Common Core. They like these standards better than most of the standards before because they are clearer, they are fewer and they also provide a lot of flexibility, you know. And in English, for example, the focus is on assigning really good readings to students and making sure they can take information from those readings. It doesn't say which readings. You know, there's still a lot of opportunity for teachers to be creative professionals.
CARDOZAI will say, though, Kojo, there is some criticism from teachers in that they want much more professional development and they feel that there hasn't been that. And they also worry about the struggling students. So suddenly you have increased what students are -- you know, you've set the bar higher. Well, kids who are already behind, especially, say, at the high school level, you've had kids who were behind and suddenly now they have to catch up even more. And so there is a lot of worry about that English language learners or kids with special needs.
NNAMDIEmma, do parents understand these new standards here?
BROWNOh, that's a great question. I mean, there was a recent poll by PDK Gallup that showed that basically most people in the U.S. don't know that the Common Core. And I mean, there's a lot, sort of, storm und drung politically about it. But there's -- just among regular folks, I think, some confusion about what this thing is. And locally, perhaps in D.C., there's a little more knowledge. D.C. was one of the first and most aggressive adopters of the Common Core. So people, parents here I think are more familiar with what it means for their kids in their classrooms than in places that have been a bit slower to adopt.
NNAMDINow, let's hear from Lisa in northeast Washington who identifies herself as a parent. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
LISAYes. Good afternoon, Kojo. I have a child who is a freshman at Banneker in D.C. And I love the school. I think it has great teachers, great principal and administration. I agree in principle with the idea of the Common Core and national standards, especially for reading and math. However, having, you know, a child who is learning from the Common Core right now in math, I find that it's implementation is just a little bit disjointed.
LISAThe teachers have, for instance, textbooks in the class but they can't teach from it right now. They're teaching from handouts because they have to teach from the Common Core and it's not in the textbook. It's very hard for me to evaluate how my child is doing in the class. And I find myself, like, having to send her to work with the doctors at the school and be in constant contact with them just to see how she's doing.
LISASecond things is I feel that there is a little bit too much standardized testing. The kids are doing some standardized testing in reading and math today. Then they have to do a PSAT next week. And it's just -- it seems week after week standardized testing. And I'm more interested in that she can write, she can read, she can think critically and it just seems like way too much.
NNAMDIYou've anticipated my next question, Lisa. Is the Common Core better or worse from the perspective of those like Lisa worried about high stakes standardized testing. What can you tell us, Emma?
BROWNYeah. I think that there -- Lisa's concern is one that's echoed by many parents in D.C., in Virginia, in Maryland, across the country who -- and teachers too -- who wonder -- we're spending so much time testing. Are we losing learning time? And are we losing learning time for things that are not math and reading particularly. You know, social studies, civics, science, art, all of these things that make a well-rounded and happy person. So, yeah, I think that Lisa's concern is one I hear all the time.
PETRILLIYeah, absolutely. Now, Lisa, very well said. You know, I do wonder, I said, what are these tests that they're giving right now? For example, in the fall, I suspect that there are some tests that are optional or that are done at the school level or maybe DCPS has put in place. We've got to be smart about taking away some of these tests. Now, I do believe it's important to have these end-of-year tests under Common Core to find out how our students are doing.
PETRILLIBut some of these other tests that we're doing every few weeks, it's just too much. One last point, though, Kojo, on this issue about squeezing out important subjects. You know, if schools are going to do well on the Common Core, especially in English and especially in the elementary grades, they have got to bring those subjects back in. They've got to bring back history, geography, science, art, music.
PETRILLIThe premise of the Common Core is that once kids learn how to decode, they learn their phonics, the way they become better readers is by learning things, by learning content. And a lot of that has been left out of our schools and this is a chance to bring it back.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number 800-433-8850. How important do you think music, art and gym class are? 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Kavitha Cardoza, WAMU 88.5's education reporter. It's a kind of DMV education round-up. Emma Brown also joins us in studio. She is the D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post. And Michael Petrilli is the senior vice president for national programs and policy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He's also author of "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Schools."
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Adopting these tougher Common Core standards means that in many cases, test scores may likely fall initially. And not to pick on the District but, well, we got this email from Troy who says, "Can Emma please comment on the two sets of D.C.-CAS scores that were released. It seems like she should be commended for the reporting she did on this."
NNAMDI"D.C.'s impressive, D.C.-CAS increases over the summer were based on the old standards, not the new Common Core standards which would have shown very little gain. This is expected as the tougher standards roll out." Emma, you reported on this. Can you clarify how this came to light weeks after all the fist pumping on the initial results, including by our mayor and schools chancellor.
BROWNSure. Yeah, this is a hard thing to clarify because it gets into some pretty nitty gritty horrible details. But we'll try to stay away from those. So, yeah, there was a lot of celebration when the mayor and the chancellor and others announced a four-point gain in math and reading in July. And, I mean, at the time they didn't explain a decision that had been made about how to score the tests.
BROWNAnd from my reporting and talking to people who are expert in tests, the decision they made was not an unreasonable decision but they didn't explain it. And what it was that the test had changed. It had become more like the Common Core test that are on the way, that are going to be harder, that are going to demand more of kids. And so the testing company and the city had worked together to come up with, like, a new grading scale for this new test.
BROWNAnd in the end, the city agency that deals with this, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which is known as OSSE decided not to use that new grading scale and to instead try to -- that new grading scale -- it would have they said thrown everything off because it would have been a whole new way to look at tests. So we wouldn't have been able to know how are our kids doing compared to last year?
BROWNThat would have messed up the charter school rankings, for example, because they're based in part on progress from year to year. And we wouldn't have known the progress they set. So that they...
NNAMDIEntered Councilmember David Catania, head of the Education Committee on the council saying, oh, wait a minute here. These are not the way -- this is not the way this was supposed to be done. Please pick up the story from there.
BROWNCorrect. And he would say they could have compared, they could have figured out progress from year to year. They didn't need to make that decision and they did so. So this is Councilmember Catania's position, in order to show growth, more growth, a better political story basically. But -- so, yes, so if they had chosen one way, there would have been a more mixed picture.
BROWNMath would have gone -- would have appeared to have been fewer students proficient. Whereas reading, even more students would appear to be proficient. So it would have been sort of a mixed bag.
CARDOZAI will say, Kojo, we saw this for graduation rates recently. So, again, every jurisdiction used to calculate graduation rates the way they wanted. And often very generously. What happened was last year the federal government said there's going to be one standard of how we calculate graduation rates. And D.C.'s instead of saying, you know, under the new rate, they plummeted, almost 20 points, right?
CARDOZAThe thing is that they had prepared everyone and they had said, well, the rates are, you know, going to go down, going to go down. So when they went down, I think everyone was kind of ready for it. They did also, though, say under the new rate, this is what we would have been. And there was an increase. And so that could have been -- if they were worried everyone was going to be confused about this method, that is one way they could have done it.
NNAMDIMichael Petrilli, are we going to be all on the same page at some point soon?
PETRILLIOh, we are. We are in this awkward phase right now as we're waiting for the new test to get developed and to come on board. Those are going to come on board about 18 months from now. And in places like D.C. and Maryland, they're going to participate in these national assessments that we expect will have these tougher standards attached to them and where we expect to see the scores go down. And, look, the point is not just to make the test harder.
PETRILLIAlthough that's important. The point is to try to give a real signal that parents can trust about whether their students are on track to be college or career ready by the age of 18. What we have right now, certainly in Maryland, where this test is quite easy, is we have a lot of kids who pass the test and then later go on to college and end up in remedial education. They can't take credit-bearing courses because they're not ready.
PETRILLIAnd they say, wait a minute, I've been passing the state tests. I've been getting good grades, what do you mean I'm not ready. So what we're trying to do is to basically stop lying to parents and to kids and to families saying you're doing fine if they're not doing fine and to make they're ready for the real world.
NNAMDILast spring, the Institute of Medicine recommended that the U.S. Department of Education designate physical education, gym class basically, a core subject just like math, just like English. Nearly half of all school administrators reported cutting significant amounts of time from areas like gym, arts and recess to increase time for reading and math. And since the passage of No Child Left Behind. Can you talk a little bit about what's going with gym class in our region, Emma?
BROWNSure. Well, the chancellor this year, for the first time, made sort of standard recommendations for all schools in terms of the time that they spend in different subjects. And so it's like two hours in language arts every day in elementary school, for example. Ninety minutes in math. And then there are some flexibility. I think there's 45 minutes a day that's totally flexible. Well, the recommendations were for 15 minutes of recess.
BROWNSo parents, the first week of school had their kids coming home saying, gosh, we only had 15 minutes of recess and they were not happy -- neither the kids nor the parents were happy. And there was an outcry immediately. The local wellness policies here in D.C., the DCPS follows says 20 minutes minimum of recess. So the school system said, okay, okay, we'll do 20 minutes. That's the new expectation.
CARDOZAAnd some schools have gone ahead and done longer. But there was a real outcry that I think shows that parent -- there are a number of parents who care a lot about the physical activity that their kids are getting in school.
NNAMDII think one of those parents happens to be Kristen in Washington, D.C. Kristen, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
KRISTENThank you. I wanted to first just thank you all for this panel. You all do a great job of reporting on education in the district and it helps so many of us parents all the time.
KRISTENMy question was about whether there's a commonality of standards for P.E., for recess or play time or even for facilities between charter schools and public schools in the district. And that we have -- sort of have, you know, very clear set academic standards in the public school system that charters must also follow, their kids must meet those same standards and show success on them. But it seems like for some of those other areas there's not as much commonality.
KRISTENI've had children in public -- regular public school system in the district and, you know, private schools here, in private independent schools and now I have one child in a charter, which, you know, we really like. But, you know, we're looking at -- we have one kid who has two recesses a day and lots of different sports and another kids that has a much more limited access to those things and yet I think they both thrive academically and become great adults.
KRISTENI'm just curious as how the district is handling those kinds of standards and even in buildings. The buildings around the city per school are so different in some kids, especially in new charters and very (word?) environments.
NNAMDIYou should know, Kristen, carving our time for recess is an issue everywhere, including Montgomery County, right, Mike Petrilli?
PETRILLIAbsolutely. It's a big issue everywhere. You know, in D.C., my understanding is that the charter schools do have the flexibility to set their own schedules. And that's part of the idea here is that they can decide to do things differently.
NNAMDIIt's part of the appear for charter schools.
PETRILLIIt's part of the appeal. And so -- and parents get to choose. If having a lot of recess is important to you, then you choose a school that does that.
NNAMDIIt's important to me.
PETRILLIRight. You know, other schools might say, hey, look, we only have the kids for seven hours a day, so there's plenty of time after school for them to be doing other activities. And so we're going to focus on academics. Now, you know, personally as a parent again, you know, I understand that for little kids especially they need time during the day to run around and to blow off that energy.
PETRILLIAnd that's going to help them do better in terms of learning. But, look, you know, there are trade offs. Should it be 20 minutes versus 30 minutes? I think allowing local flexibility makes a lot of sense.
BROWNWell, you mentioned facilities. And I think that that is -- that is something that's not common among schools. I mean, every charter school is basically its own school district. And here in the city, they have a range of different facilities. Some of them have gyms, some don't. Some have outdoor play space, some outdoor play space is like a driveway, you know, next to an alleyway between one school and the next building. So the facilities that kids have to run around and play vary hugely among different schools.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Susanna in D.C. who says "I was wondering if Emma could provide more details on her article from yesterday on the new unified DCPS charter lottery. How many choices are we likely to be able to make?"
BROWNWell, so the story was quite short because there are no details yet. The deputy mayor for education hasn't shared those details and they are supposedly to come in the next couple of weeks. When she announced the -- this is Abigail Smith, the deputy mayor. When she announced the unified lottery a month ago in May, she described it as, you know, you would -- parents would rank their choices, both traditional and charter schools in order of preference.
BROWNAnd then there would be a computer algorithm that basically sort of like match day when medical students go on to their residencies and matches the student with their -- with their highest choice.
NNAMDID.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson mentioned this when she joined us back in July. And Abigail Smith was also on at the end of June. She's the head of the state education system talking about this. But before we go, one issue we haven't really had a chance to discuss. Carol in Fort Washington, MD would like to raise. Carol, you have about 30 seconds.
CAROLYes, sir. Thank you for taking my call. I am volunteering as an art teacher in my public school in the neighborhood because I thought there was a gaping need there, and one reason why I'm not sending my young son to that school. So I figured I would try to address it in that way. One thing I am trying to do as a volunteer art teacher is to weave the arts in with academics. So if I'm trying to support teaching math, say, I start going in with origami and showing how fractions look in paper, for instance. So I'm trying to actually support whatever academics the teachers are trying to teach in a class.
NNAMDIBecause you believe that art is crucially important in an education.
CAROLAbsolutely. I think it's very important. And I...
NNAMDIKavitha, you got about 10 seconds.
CARDOZAI think they call it STEAM, right, instead of STEM -- science, technology, engineering, math. STEAM includes the arts.
NNAMDIKavitha Cardoza, she is WAMU 88.5's education reporter. Kavitha, always a pleasure to see you every day.
CARDOZAThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIEmma Brown is the D.C. education reporter for the Washington Post. Emma, thank you for joining us.
BROWNThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Michael Petrilli is a senior vice president for national programs and policy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He's also author of the book, "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools." One of the issues we didn't get a chance to discuss, diversity. But there's always tomorrow. Good to see you, Michael.
PETRILLIGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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