DC Public Schools HS teacher here (although I’m not returning next year, as is the case with many of my colleagues). As noted, one of the biggest factors in the graduation rates is the unexcused absences–if you look at the results of our external audit and investigation here, you see that for many schools, a significant number of our seniors “Passed Despite Excessive Absences in Regular Instruction Courses Required for Graduation”–over 40% of 2017 graduates at my high school, for example.
So the attendance policy is being strictly enforced now, and you can see how from that alone, a ~30% drop in expected graduates is possible. Some more details about strictly enforcing the attendance policy though:
1: DCPS has what’s called the ’80 20′ rule: A student that is absent for at least 20% of their classes is considered absent for the whole day.
2: Most schools have 5 periods, so an absence in one class would be considered an absence for the whole day.
3: If you have 10 or more unexcused absences in a class, you automatically get an F for the term.
4: If you are over 15 minutes late for a class, that is considered an unexcused absence.
5: A majority of these absences are in first period.
6: A majority of students in my school and many others live in single parent households.
7: These students are typically responsible for making sure their younger siblings get to school, if they have any.
8: Elementary and middle schools in my neighborhood start at the exact same time as high school.
9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.
10: Refer to point 4.
There’s many other problems at DCPS to be sure, but this set of circumstances alone is causing the largest increase in failing grades and graduation ineligibility at my high school, and basically every other 90+% black school in the district. You could see how this accounts for quite a bit of the difference between white and black graduation rates as well. There’s a reason why across the board, DCPS schools were not strictly enforcing this policy in previous years.
It looks like most other school districts don’t have this policy; it seems plausible that this is the main difference between DC and other poor school districts that nevertheless manage to pass most of their kids.
Userfriendlyyy also focuses on the absences:
Looks to me like the policy they changed was losing credit for bad attendance. This might be from a few things. Kids might need to help out with the family finances. The only part of the job market that is doing well right now is low end unskilled workers who are willing to get paid crap (no matter how much the financial press wants to pretend otherwise, I listened to an hour of local NPR and the Topic was ‘call in and tell us how the booming job market is helping you out’, 20 callers not one had anything good to say and my state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country). If you know you don’t have the grades for a scholarship, your family is broke and since we have effectively made going to college impossible for anyone but the offspring of the oligarchy, and you can find a minimum wage job easily; what exactly is the utility of that little piece of paper compared to the ability to put food on the table tonight?
Static focuses on absences too:
The amazing thing to me is that they are largely failing due to unexcused absences. [See Washington Post:] I Feel Really Bad For The Class Of 2018: Graduation May Be Imperiled
I think that does point a little to the signalling difference between the GED and the diploma- can you show up every day?
That said, DC is planning to add an exam requirement for graduation. It would be better if they made that an alternative to attendance.
The absence requirement seems infuriating insofar as it probably fails mostly poor children, and if those children are failing due to the absence requirement rather than because they actually flunk their exams, then it seems mean-spirited to punish inputs rather than actual success.
Maybe they have it because they don’t actually grade students on exam performance (or have lots of different ways to make sure students who flunk exams graduate anyway), but they only want to extend this benefit-of-the-doubt to students who really try. I wonder if it would work to say you can graduate if you manage to make it to school enough times or pass your examinations. That would at least be fairer to poor children who can’t always attend but are able to figure out ways to succeed anyway.
I was friends with a guy who briefly worked as a teacher at a public high school in central DC (I’m 80% sure it was Cardozo High). He had an education background thanks to spending several years working as a youth camp counselor and as an after-school program counselor, and that was sufficient to qualify him for DCPS’ abbreviated teacher training program (such a thing existed in 2009 when he did it; I’m unsure if it is still around). During the training program, I remember him speaking about his enthusiasm for the teaching skills he was learning and about his eagerness to put them to use (in retrospect, I think some of this was a nervous attempt to convince himself the job wouldn’t be bad). After a break of several months, we spoke again, and he was almost totally disillusioned with the job and was already thinking of quitting. This is what I remember him saying:
1) On the first day of classes, there was no orientation for new teachers, no brief meeting where the Principal shook his hand and said “Welcome Aboard,” nothing. He had to go to the front office and ask a secretary what classroom was his and walk there by himself.
2) Unexcused absences were chronic and undermined his ability to teach anything. At the start of each of his classes, he had a written roster of students, and he had to check off which students were there. For any class, typically 20-30% of students would be missing, without explanation (This is a very important point to remember whenever anyone tries to blame DCPS’ poor outcomes on large class sizes–on paper, each class might have 35 students, but typically, only 23 are actually showing up). Additionally, the 20-30% of students who were absent each class varied from day-to-day, meaning one student didn’t know what was taught on Monday, the one next to him was there Monday but not Tuesday, the third was there the first two days but not Wednesday, etc.
3) Student misbehavior was atrocious. For example, out of the students who showed up to class, it was common for some to walk into the classroom late, again without any explanation and often behaving disruptively. As a rule, whenever a student did that, he was obligated to sign his name on a clipboard for the teacher’s attendance records (there was no punishment for tardiness–late students merely had to write their names down). Some late students would chronically resist doing this, either ignoring him and just going to their desks or yelling curses at him. My friend described an incident where one student–who was physically bigger than he was–yelled out he was a “FAGGOT” when asked to sign the clipboard, provoking laughs from all the other students, before sitting down without signing it. After seeing he could get away with that, the student started calling my friend “FAGGOT” all the time. Other examples of misbehavior included near-constant talking among the students during lessons and fooling around with cell phones.
4) Teachers received almost no support from the school administration. Had sane rules been followed at this high school, students would have been immediately sent to the office for formal punishment for these sorts of offenses I’ve described. However, under such a policy, the office would have been overwhelmed with misbehaving students and probably some of their enraged parents, so the administration solved the problem by forbidding teachers from sending students to the office for anything other than physical violence in the classroom. My friend had no ability to formally punish the student who liked to call him “FAGGOT” other than to use stern verbal warnings.
5) Most of the students were unwilling and in some cases unable to learn. During class sessions, the students were clearly disengaged from what he was teaching. Homework completion rates were abysmal. As the end of the academic semester neared, he saw that a huge fraction of them were on track to fail, so he resorted to pitiful cajoling, pizza parties, reward schemes, and deals involving large curves to everyone’s grades if they could only, for once do a little work, and it didn’t work. Some of his students were Latino and understood little or even no English, meaning they learned (almost) nothing, even when they tried. He resorted to seating the students who knew no English next to bilingual Latinos who could translate for them. That was the best he could do. In fairness, he spoke glowingly of some of his students, who actually put in some effort and were surprisingly smart.
6) At the time my friend was teaching, DCPS was in the grips of some harebrained, faddish teaching philosophy that said students of different academic abilities shouldn’t be put in different course tracks, but rather, should be deliberately put in the same class. This of course caused immediate problems since the curriculum was too hard for the weakest students and too easy for the strongest ones. I think my friend said his training program basically told teachers to “try harder” if any problems arose from the setup.
I’ll never forget how crestfallen and stressed out he was when he described these things to me. Having never taught in American public schools, I didn’t realize just how bad it was, and the detailed nature of his anecdotes really had an impact on me. I advised him to finish his year at the high school and then to transfer to ANY non-urban school in the area, even if it meant lower pay or a longer commute. We lost touch after that, but I can’t imagine he still works in DCPS.
Okay, maybe this goes deeper than just the absence thing.
One thing to keep in mind is that DC really is uniquely bad as a school district. A few years back, the Washington Post did a really in depth analysis of why it was so broken. (Sadly, with Google being totally swamped by the current scandal, I was unable to find a link.)
The conclusion they found was pretty interesting –
If you go back to the 60s, DC had some of the best urban schools in the country by every metric they had to track things back then. What changed? Well, see, back then DC still didn’t have home rule. They were almost entirely run by the federal government. So the highest elected office the city had was the DC Board of Education.
In 1971, an ambitious young politician by the name of Marion Barry got elected to the board, and almost immediately began farming out school administration positions as political rewards for his cronies. This practice caught on, and within a matter of years, the whole enterprise basically descended into naked corruption.
I recall they showed a figure in that article that the DC public school system spends the third most money per student of any district in the country (after NY and Boston); however, the Post also found that in terms of the quantity of money that is actually spent on students, DC was roughly at the level of the most poverty-stricken districts in the poorest Southern, rural school districts.
Michelle Rhee did not change any of this, Waiting for Superman or no.
This isn’t meant to argue with the premise of the rest of the article – the idea that everyone else is committing fraud seems quite plausible. But I wouldn’t necessarily reject the idea that DC’s school system really is a special, unique snowflake of terrible practices, either.
There’s also this comment on home rule and Puerto Rico which seems to reinforce this idea that districts carefully monitored by competent national authorities do well, and districts that have control of their own standards devolve into corruption and failure really quickly. How does this mesh with the standard federalist/localist/Seeing-Like-A-State style arguments that individual communities know what’s best for them and central planners usually make things worse?
I won’t quote it directly because it’s not from an SSC comment, but some people on the subreddit link to this Reddit post by a DC public school teacher.
See also this thread in the subreddit on how sub-Saharan African schools – despite being much poorer than anywhere in DC – are really well-run, quite safe (except that apparently “baboons are a huge problem”), and a delight to teach at.