School Choice in D.C. – The Full Picture

Speaking of DCPS, here’s something else for Chancellor Rhee to work on. In digging back through the Master Education Plan for DCPS from a couple years ago, I found some very interesting statistics set off in a sidebar:

• 23% of all DCPS high school students attend citywide schools that use an admissions process;
• In the comprehensive, attendance-area high schools, 40% of students attend out-of-boundary schools;
• 55% of middle school students attend out-of-boundary schools;
• Only 50.5% of DCPS elementary school students attend the schools to which they are assigned.

Approximately 30% of D.C. students attend public charter schools and close to 17% of D.C. students attend private schools, leaving approximately half of city students attending DCPS schools. Given the statistics above, over 70% of families in the District of Columbia are choosing a school other than their assigned neighborhood public school.

We can extrapolate many causes and results from these figures, but it says to me that our “neighborhood schools” in D.C. have already disappeared, most school choice doesn’t even involve charter schools, and that the problem with District schools is not uninvolved parents.

– Guestblogger Michael Robbins

10 Replies to “School Choice in D.C. – The Full Picture”

  1. Thanks for the stats, but I’d like to connect the dots in the opposite way. In fact, I’d argue that nothing distinquishes between the attitudes of urban teachers from those of policy analysts more that the reality of “creaming.”

    If I remember correctly, around 23%or so of children are poor, while 46% of public school students are poor, which is the first level of creaming. Then of course, we cream off more of the top students to the suburbs. Then, your data shows that 55% of middle school students are creamed off to charter or magnet schools or more effective neighborhood schools.

    Each round of creaming leaves a greater percentage of traumatized and otherwise at-risk kids. As the critical mass of more challenging kids crosses the tipping point, the problems go up geometrically. It gets to the point where nobody would send their kid to a neighborhood school if they thought they had a choice or understood the importance of having a choice.

    Go to an urban playground, get in a pick-up game, and then ask the kids where they attend school and why. Chances are the players from that park attend schools that are scattered over whatever county you are in. Chances are, they will tell a broad range of horrifying stories why brothers and sisters are scattered. And if you listen to those tragedies, chances are you will be less likely to blame their home schools in a simplistic manner. (I don’t deny that dysfunctional schools do plenty of destructive things, however.)

    I HONESTLY don’t know whether to root for Rhee to succeed or fail. But the chances are, next year we’ll be debating her failure. The untintended effect of her reforms will be similar to the result of Klein’s reforms in NYC. They will make the remaining home schools more unbearable – forcing more destructive narrowing of the curriculum, more conter-productive test prep, and showering more disrespect on adults and children alike. And the lines of debate will be predictable. Some will say it wasn’t her fault that schools responded in a destructive way, and blame “special interests.”

    And there will be plenty of blame to share, but the bottom line is that if you are in too much of a hurry to face the real problems, you will probably make things worse. D.C. special interests are a worse problem than in most districts, but the real reason will be the denial that there is a fundamanetal difference between schools that benefit from creaming, and those that are damaged by it.

  2. I’d like to see some data to back up John Thompson’s creaming assertions. Certainly you might assume that a parent who takes advantage of a school choice opportunity is more motivated and therefore a greater benefit to their child’s educational achievement than other parents. But parents are seeking out alternative schools for a variety of reasons, including many not related to education per se, e.g. safety, convenience to work, etc. In addition, its pretty bold to assert that charter schools are creaming across the board; I suspect the charter schools located in the tougher wards are accepting many of the same challenging students as their district school counterparts. Finally, this all begs the question of whether parents deserve a choice or should be confined to their neighborhood school regardless of its quality.

  3. Responding to Gideon’s request for data about “creaming” or “sorting”.

    Creaming Versus Cropping: Charter School Enrollment Practices in Response to Market Incentives

    Natalie Lacireno-Paquet, Thomas T. Holyoke and Michele Moser
    Jeffrey R. Henig


    Cobb, C. and Glass, G. (1999) Ethnic Segregation in Arizona Charter Schools. Educational Policy Analysis archives 7(1)

    There’s more out there as well, including an upcoming session at AERA in NYC.

    In general, consider that at least a portion of parents are not engaged in education to consider choice options. It might not be a large percentage, but there will be some in every school. These students, who are disadvantaged by low parental engagement, are likely to remain at the neighborhood school. Of the more engaged parents who at least consider choice, some will stay and some will go. Regardless, there is a good chance that the percentage of kids in a neighborhood school who have moderately to highly engaged parents is going to decline over time.

    Then, consider that consumers do not all have the same quality of information when making decisions in the market. If I do my research on Consumer Reports and DealNews, I am likely to make a better purchase on my widget. When services for socioeconomic mobility, education being among them, are offered in a market, preexisting inequities will tend to be exacerbated.

    I certainly don’t envy Rhee, but I think the political buffer provided by mayoral governance should be a benefit to her in the long run. Klein and Bloomberg are tone deaf when it comes to education, but they have enacted some powerful reforms. No way Klein would still be around under an elected school board.

  4. While the above is interesting and so wonderfully erudite, from the perspective of running a charter school in DC in which many parents have chosen to enroll their children, the creaming argument is bunk. My students are on average 3 grade levels behind academically when they get here; 85% qualify for free or reduced lunch; they come from all 4 quadrants of DC; 50% are Latino and 50% are African-American. As many of 10 of my families have experienced temporary or permanent homelessness . Child Family Services is actively involved in several of our families’ homes. If this is creaming then we’ll take it and do everything we can to make sweet butter but don’t dare to claim that we are not serving the people who most need it. While some schools may appear to “cream” and “counsel out” difficult and low performing students (I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there are some charters and CMO’s that do this as a matter of practice and design) but Mr. Thompson, you cannot fairly claim that all schools do this or judge all schools on this assertion.

  5. Like I said, nothing divides teachers from policy analysts more than the issue of creaming.

    And few things divide teachers from neighborhood schools and teachers from magnet schools more than the issue of creaming.

    There are comprehensive school teachers who diminish the accomplishments of teachers in magnet schools but I’m not one. I’ve got nothing but praise for your accomplishments. But if you had been teaching the kids who were left behind by creaming as opposed to those who recieved (well deserved) benefits of creaming, you would have faced a much, much greater challenge.

    John Thompson

  6. Mr. Thomson – Thank you for your recognition, I think? However, I think you misread my post. here’s some more data, my poverty rates are higher than traditional DCPS schools, my SpEd numbers are hovering around 25% as compared to DCPS rates that have been reported to ranged from 11% to 18%. The vast majority of my families have left school with “better” numbers (lower poverty rates, lower SpEd numbers, more balanced demographics) because of issues concerning safety, decrepid facilities, awful academics, and a system unresponsive to parental concerns. Yes, these are parents who took the step to choose but they can not be lumped into a “cream” argument – please pardon the bad pun. The challenge is not in the parents or a somewhat specious argument about “creaming”…the focus must be on why ANY families get “left behind” to use your words and that this is a systemic failure not the fault of charters or the parents who chose charters.

  7. I hope I didn’t imply that parents or teachers of magnets were to blame. I could risk getting into a petty dispute over your 25% on IEPS vs my 40%, but that’s not the point.

    We have all had students and parents who transcend horrific obstacles. The issue is the complex interation of poverty, race, educational dysfunction, trauma, politics etc. I have taught poor students in summer programs that you had to apply to, then I taught some of the same kids in neighborhood schools. Same kids, but a completely different reality.

    And no, I don’t begrudge charters their right to set rational policies, enforce discipline, control their own curricula, etc. But I’m sure you’ve all heard teachers complain, “we’re the alternative school to the alternative school.” Sometimes its an exagerration, but often its true. Its not right but under today’s situation, if you give one school freedom to control its destiny, then you have to have another school which is not allowed to maintain safe and orderly conditions – to cite just one factor. Worse, there is much more pressure for nonstop test prep in our tougghest schools.

    I’m not saying you are doing it, but why should teachers engage in comparative victimhood/heroism debates? Its no excuse, but neighborhood school teachers often are very touchy about theorists who say we could get the same results in our schools. If the theorists would back off from their sillyist positions, perhaps we would be less defensive, and together we could address the real problems. And addressing schools that have been thoroughly creamed will be the toughest challenge of all.

    John Thompson

  8. I really don’t know what to say to a statement such as this: “under today’s situation, if you give one school freedom to control its destiny, then you have to have another school which is not allowed to maintain safe and orderly conditions.” Are you really saying the existence of charter and magnet schools requires neighborhood schools to diminish safe and orderly conditions? The differences between choice and neighborhood school demographics just aren’t big enough to explain the poor performance of so many inner-city neighborhood schools. Blaming the students makes a good excuse, but doesn’t begin to address the real issues.

  9. I taught low-income students with emotional and learning disabilities in both of the above-noted settings: (1) Traditional Public Schools and (2) Charter or private schools comprised soley of these same type of students.

    From my position as a teacher in these two different settings, I understand the points of both “Anonymous” and John Thompson. The students in my charter and/or private schools had the same low socioeconomic indicators as the public school students: single parent households, eligible for free or reduced price lunch, dangerous neighborhoods, friends and relatives in jail or involved in gangs.

    However, as John Thompson noted, the very fact that these students were enrolled in the private or charter school pointed to the strong involvement of concerned parents in their lives. Also, the fact that they took the trouble to come to our schools (long bus rides, etc.) meant that they cared enough about their own education to rise above the average student in their academic and SES position.

    Hands down, it was easier to teach the students in the private/charter schools. In my opinion, this was due to three factors: (1) motivated parents and students; (2) smallers schools and class sizes; and (3) the fact that if they did not attend/behave, the student could be removed and their spot filled by another student.

    Therefore, I tend to agree with John Thompson that charter schools do “cream” from the general student population. Although this creaming may be more about motivation and the threat of removal to the home school than based on any measurable socioecomic factors, it has a large impact on the culture and educational results of charter and private schools.

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