Although Washington is touted as a promising laboratory for national education reform, alarming reports released last week by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson show that school reforms in recent years have done little to alleviate the problems D.C. public school students face.
These statistics raise important questions about whether the D.C. model of school reform is actually raising achievement levels for all students. Policymakers must realize that it is not only factors within school buildings that affect student outcomes. Students’ economic and social realities are powerful indicators of educational performance, and they must be addressed by public school systems just as mediocre teaching is.
The statistics revealed that almost 10 percent of eighth graders and 12.5 percent of twelfth graders have tried to kill themselves. Nearly 30 percent of eighth graders have had sex, and 15 percent of middle-school students are involved in a gang. 18.4 percent of sixth graders missed school last year because they felt unsafe, and 13.9 percent of middle-school students said they had been afraid of being beaten up at school.
Furthermore, according to the Washington Times, more than half of dropouts leave school by ninth grade and over 80 percent of those who drop out leave before the end of tenth, limiting their ability to gain essential work skills.
Shocking statistics like these are common in low-income school districts nationwide, and in each case the predominant underlying cause is poverty. New York’s schools made headlines for a 2009 school-administered survey that revealed similar statistics about attempted suicides, and, as Michigan Public Radio reported in June, Detroit’s third and fourth graders recently recorded the lowest scores ever measured on nationwide standardized tests.
Scholars have long recognized the impacts of financial stresses, such as foreclosures, addictions and marriage problems, on students and their families. Nevertheless bureaucrats and politicians across the country continue to address education reform as if performance in school is separate from issues outside of the classroom.
If self-styled educational reformers like former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Florida governor Rick Scott, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker are really committed to improving public education, they also need to be committed to alleviating the poverty of many students and their families. Right now they are not. Fixing public education by improving learning standards and holding teachers accountable is important, but if policymakers only focus on these problems, their reforms, and the students those reforms aim to help, will continue to fail.