Parents, teachers, union leaders and education activists greeted Mayor Muriel Bowser’s nominee for D.C. Public Schools chancellor at a public legislative hearing on Thursday with a single directive: Close the achievement gap.
“The system is failing its most vulnerable students,” said Markus Batchelor, a member-elect of the D.C. State Board of Education. “It’s not the [D.C. Council’s] job to hastily rubber-stamp this choice. As our only safeguard, it is the council who needs to hold him accountable.”
Mr. Batchelor was referring to Antwan Wilson, currently the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California — a position the 44-year-old educator has held for two years.
In his testimony Thursday, Mr. Wilson cited several factors in assessing and closing the achievement gap, including graduation and dropout rates, chronic absenteeism, state assessment tests, early childhood literacy, job readiness and social development.
He also said it’s critical for schools to be able to individualize their needs, with each school assessing dollar allocation and staffing.
“We have to start by asking what supports we need to provide our schools for all students to graduate DCPS with the milestones we set,” Mr. Wilson said.
He also emphasized helping children learn “essential social and emotional skills.”
“There’s evidence that this approach is key to long-term academic success,” he said.
About 19 percent of black students and 25 percent of Hispanic students scored at or above their grade level in English in the District’s most recent standardized tests. That’s up several percentage points from last year, but far from the 74 percent mark scored by white students.
In math, about 17 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students scored at or above their grade level, compared to 71 percent of white students.
Noting Mr. Wilson’s resume, Karen Lucas said the chancellor nominee should have proven he could close the achievement gap in Oakland before moving on to another school district.
“Mr. Wilson does not meet that requirement. He never saw changes through. He saw no appreciable gains,” said Ms. Lucas, a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner.
Oakland doesn’t use the same standardized test as the District’s, making it difficult to make direct comparisons between the two.
According to the California Department of Education, graduation rates improved somewhat under Mr. Wilson. About 61 percent of Oakland students graduated high school on time in 2014 and 64 percent in 2015 — the same as the District’s rate that year. Statistics for 2016 are not yet available.
Most witnesses at Thursday’s hearing said there’s still a lot to learn about the nominee before judgments can be made.
Mary Levy, an education finance lawyer who has been involved with education reform since 1989, said questions abound about Mr. Wilson’s plan to address DCPS’ high teacher turnover.
According to the education think tank Al Shanker Institute, the District has a 25 percent teacher turnover rate, compared the 16 percent national rate.
The figures worsen for schools that serve low-income students. The DCPS teacher turnover rate for teachers at schools with more than 80 percent free or reduced lunches (a rough barometer for low-income students) jumps to about 38 percent. That compares to about 22 percent nationwide.
Council member Robert White said he has met with teachers and found that many want to leave the system because they don’t feel supported. “It is pointless to attract great educators if we can’t retain them,” he said.
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, agreed.
“The No. 1 response we get from teachers who leave the system is that they don’t feel supported,” she said. “The support they’re looking for is more than just a teacher evaluation.”
New teachers need coaching and collaboration in first few years along with good induction programs and more time to understand how to plan lessons, Ms. Davis said. Having a mentor early on helps teachers more quickly find the most effective way to do their jobs.
Jacqueline Hines, treasurer of Washington Teachers’ Union, said all that’s left is to hold Mr. Wilson accountable.
“So let’s work with it. Let’s hold him accountable for everything that goes on here. I’ve spent 25 years in the school system and around the city,” she said. “This is Washington, D.C. Impress me.”