Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

Why the New York Times Failed

By Sara Mead — December 05, 2011 4 min read

If you want evidence of the sorry state of journalism and public discourse around education reform in the United States today, look no further than this op-ed piece by Natalie Hopkinson in Sunday’s New York Times.

Hopkinson, a D.C. resident, argues that the difficulties her families had faced in finding a stable and quality school in D.C. for her middle-school aged son offer an indictment of “the direction that education reform is taking in this country.” Too bad the piece contains factual errors and never cites a single data point, beyond Hopkinson’s own experience, to back up this bold contention.

Look, I have tremendous sympathy with the situation Hopkinson and her family find themselves in: While the expansion of charter schools and improvements in DCPS have expanded the number of decent options available to D.C. families, children in our city lack access to high-quality educational options.

But while the struggles Hopkinson describes are very real, her attribution of them to education reform is misguided.

To begin with, it’s not as if everything was hunky-dory in D.C. before the current wave of education reform. There was a time when D.C. high schools, such as Dunbar, were the best in the country for African American students, but those exemplars coincided with segregation that perpetuated grave educational inequities for the city’s African American youngsters. As the city fell apart in the 1970s and 1980s, so did its schools, and by the time Congress handed oversight of the city’s governance to a Financial Control Board in 1995, the state of the schools was so bad that the elected school board was stripped of its powers. Frustration with the city’s poor schools also helped fuel the growth of the charter school movement beginning in the late 1990s. And from 2003-2007, D.C.'s students scored dead last among 11 cities participating in the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment.

Nor are the educational inequities Hopkinson mentions between affluent families “west of the park” and poor, working, and middle-class families in other parts of the city anything new. “West of the Park” schools like Janney, Murch and Lafayette have always offered better quality options, in part because they serve largely white, affluent student populations whose parents fundraise extensively to supplement spending.

What’s changed is that, while buying expensive homes within the boundaries of these schools was once one of the only ways D.C. families could access higher-performing schools--putting them out of reach of the vast majority--now families in many other parts of the city have access to quality charter school options, including some of the city’s highest poverty and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, such as Achievement Prep and KIPP schools in Ward 8, or the Center City school in Trinidad.

And don’t take my word for it: Look at the data. District of Columbia students have made dramatic improvements in NAEP TUDA since 2003. While they still rank near the bottom of urban districts, they’re no longer dead last, and if recent trajectories continue, they won’t be there for long. Both DCPS and charter schools also made progress this year on the D.C. CAS state assessment.

Hopkinson is also dead wrong when she states that “The charters consistently perform worse than the traditional schools, yet they are rarely closed.” Charter schools do not consistently perform worse than DCPS schools. The current portfolio of charter schools includes both some of the city’s highest performing schools as well as some very low-performers and a large number of schools roughly on par with DCPS. But charter schools are making real gains in student performance--outstripping DCPS this year--and over the past two years the DC Public Charter School Board, on which I serve, has moved aggressively to close down half a dozen low-performing schools. But the New York Times apparently didn’t find it necessary to look at this data before publishing Hopkinson’s column.

Contrary to Hopkinson’s assertions, all the available evidence suggests that the past decade of reform efforts has improved, not worsened the quality of educational options available to D.C. students. That’s not to discount the very real and legitimate frustration of parents like Hopkinson. While D.C. has made substantial progress to date, it’s not enough. Moreover, some of the transitions necessary to improvement--such as closing undersubscribed schools that drain resources but are still to small to offer a quality education--are going to be messy and painful for some students, teachers, and families. And if you’re kid is one of the kids caught in the transition that just really, really, sucks. But the solution is not to continue postponing the pain by maintaining a status quo that is never going to be adequate. It’s to better support children and families impacted by transitions, and also to expand the supply of high-performing school options. While D.C. has many good school options today, most of the best schools--charter or DCPS--remain wildly oversubscribed. But the problem here is one of scarcity of high-performing options relative to demand, not the creation of the options themselves. And the solution is to work to grow the number of high-performing options (both by creating new schools and improving existing ones), while also continuing to close down low-performers.

That’s one of the reasons that I spend a great deal of time when I’d rather be doing other things serving, on a purely volunteer basis, on the board that oversees charter schools in Washington, D.C. I know a D.C. where all families have access to high-quality schools is possible, I see we’ve made progress but it’s not enough, and I know that the board’s work authorizing quality schools and closing down low-performers is critical to getting us there.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.