WASHINGTON — As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country.
Now the situation in the District of Columbia could not be more different. After a series of rapid-fire scandals, including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure.
This stunning reversal has left school administrators and city officials scrambling for answers and pledging to regain the public’s trust.
A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011. Glowing news articles cited examples such as Ballou High School, a campus in a low-income neighborhood where the entire 2017 graduating class applied for college.
Then everything unraveled…
An investigation by WAMU, the local NPR station, revealed that about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else — with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.
The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences. In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department, while the D.C. Council has repeatedly called for answers and accountability.
“We’ve seen a lot of dishonesty and a lot of people fudging the numbers,” said Council member David Grosso, head of the education committee, during a hearing last week. “Was it completely make-believe last year?”