The keys to keeping education reform rolling in D.C.

BySusan Schaeffler (op-ed)

As Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray prepares to take office, the D.C. education community is holding its breath. With the winds of progress at our back, it is critical that we continue to be relentless in our efforts to provide a high-quality education to every student in the District. Though the outgoing administration laid the groundwork for reform, many important and difficult decisions lie ahead.

Gray’s long-standing support for education reform and his campaign pledges to continue pushing ahead are encouraging. As the D.C. Council chairman, Gray championed reforms that have been central to implementing lasting change in the D.C. schools, such as providing universal pre-kindergarten and supporting the mayoral takeover of the public schools. Gray has also been effective in getting buy-in from teachers, parents, school officials, policymakers and district administrators to move these initiatives forward.

As a parent of two children who attend D.C. public schools and CEO of the KIPP DC public charter schools, I offer the following three suggestions for how Gray can continue the progress:

1. Advocate for all students. With D.C. charter school enrollment at a historic high, it will be Gray’s responsibility to lead for all students. During his campaign, he promised to deliver — within three months of taking office — a blueprint for funding parity between District and charter schools.

It is critical that Gray follow through on this promise, because charter schools currently receive less funding per student than the District’s traditional public schools. With nearly 40 percent of D.C. children enrolled in public charters, we cannot afford to shortchange these schools. All children in D.C. public schools ought to have equal treatment, regardless of whether they attend District or charter schools.

2. Provide more time to learn. It’s a stark fact: Students in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea typically spend 40 more days annually in school than children in the United States, and their academic results outpace ours in science by a wide margin. Because of this discrepancy, President Obama has joined the growing chorus calling for lengthening the school day and year.

At KIPP DC, our extended school day, week and year gives students 40 percent more time learning, and this extra time has yielded results. KIPP DC’s fifth-graders typically come to us two or three years below grade level. Yet, when these same students complete eighth grade, 92 percent are scoring proficient or better in math and over 80 percent are proficient in reading on the D.C. achievement test.

Mayor-elect Gray should provide schools with the opportunity to extend the week and year, as well as the funding to pay for it. This currently costs KIPP DC an additional $950 per student — a small price to pay for a generation of students prepared for a college education.

3. Train and retain excellent teachers. Research has shown that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of his or her teacher. If we are to accomplish lasting improvements in the District’s public schools, we need creative strategies for attracting and retaining the best teachers. To develop a talent pool for schools throughout the city, KIPP DC and the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School recently created the Capital Teaching Residency (CTR) program, an intensive, year-long teacher training program that prepares teachers in math and science, special education and early childhood education. Like medical residents, teaching residents train alongside the best in their field. By 2015, CTR will have added more than 400 high-performing teachers to D.C. schools.

Teacher quality was a signature issue of Mayor Adrian Fenty and former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the city has made great strides in this area as a result. Because of the new teachers contract, D.C. public schools can begin to reward and attract high-performing teachers and remove low-performing ones. To increase the number of effective teachers in all D.C. schools, Gray should continue these efforts and support teacher training programs such as the Capital Teaching Residency.

At this critical moment, the mayor-elect, and all of our elected officials, must keep us moving in the right direction and support what works to improve all District schools. With this as Mayor-elect Gray’s objective, students in the District can only thrive.

The writer is the founder and chief executive of KIPP D.C. public charter schools.