Lots Going on in the Nation’s Capital

These days, when you read a headline like that, your mind instantly flashes to sequestration or some other partisan fight over the budget.  But, in this case, I want to focus on the public schools in Washington, D.C., a system that serves 45,000 students. With the former chancellor, Michelle Rhee, the school system was often in the news, but, of late, the public profile of the DC schools has been lowered somewhat.  Yet, the district still has been quietly making a big impact on education and, in particular, in efforts to bring more school time to the largely high-poverty communities that make up its student body.

The first piece of news comes from the decision last week by the school board to approve the largest-ever application for new charter schools in the district.  Rocketship Education, which is based in San Jose, California, submitted a plan to open up to eight new schools in D.C. to serve a total of over 5,000 students.  Rocketship boasts an eight-hour day and a distinctive educational model. Aside from its record narrowing achievement gaps, the network also stands as one of the true pioneers in the field of blended learning – mixing together face-to-face instruction with the integration of technology to advance students’ basic and more advanced skills. The model boasts three key benefits. First, it develops in students the absolutely essential skill of becoming technologically adept. Second, it helps to individualize learning by carefully tracking (in real time) exactly what each student’s strengths and weaknesses are and then giving the student extra help in those areas that s/he does less well. Since NCTL’s profile of Rocketship last year, the network has announced some tweaks to its model of blended learning that it will implement in 2013-14—giving teachers more direct learning time with students—but the focus on technology will remain.  

The second piece of news, to my mind, is even more significant because of what it tells us about the changing face of American education. Before I get to that point, though, a little history,when charter schools first burst onto the scene in the 1990s, the argument among advocates was that these schools would actually be education laboratories for public schools. As they used their autonomy to innovate, charters could test out new instructional and organizational practices to see if they might generate greater learning and achievement. Once these practices were perfected—or, at least, demonstrated to have significant impact— they could then be adopted by non-charter district schools and, in turn, the entire system would become more effective. 

The problem with this vision, however, is that those in traditional public schools tended to see the work of charters as so unlike their own or in conditions that were so unlike district schools that they were disinclined to think they could really learn much from charters.  Rather than educational testing grounds, charters became educational islands—standing alone and mostly unconnected from the vast majority of public schools.

But over the last couple of years, as more and more charters have come into being, and as their level of effectiveness has increased, that dynamic is starting to shift.  And this is where the news from D.C. comes in.  Earlier this week, the chancellor, Kaya Henderson, announced that the next teachers’ contract would allow for more flexible rules around instructional days and years, a direct result of the influence of charter schools’ ability to have a longer day and year.  As the Washington Post reports:

The rapid growth of nonunionized charter schools has been an important backdrop to teacher contract negotiations, which have intensified since the previous contract expired in September (although that contract remains in force). While charters have the flexibility to design their own schedules, traditional public schools are bound by the terms of a contract that says that the year may not exceed 185 instructional days and that a workday must be limited to 7.5 hours. Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders said that although details remain to be worked out regarding longer school days, the union acknowledges “changes that are necessary to make [traditional public schools] competitive in light of the dynamic education environment” in the city.

Now, I must say that there is a lot more to a good charter school than a longer day and/or year. The whole school and individual teachers have to be using that extra time well to have a real impact on student achievement. But the school schedule is one of the most obvious places where district and charter schools differ, so this is often the starting point for adoption by district schools.  My hope is that once D.C. district schools start experimenting themselves with expanded time they will see, too, that those additional minutes and days open up fantastic opportunities for students’ learning and that they will take full advantage of these opportunities to develop an excellent education for all their students.