DC Mythbusting: Back to School Edition

Photo courtesy of
‘Field trip’
courtesy of ‘clio1789’

It’s back to school time here at DC Mythbusting!  Our pencils are sharpened and we’ve got our Trapper Keepers ready (they still use those, right?), and we’re ready to bust some school-related myths.  The District’s schools get a bum rap: they’re often cited as the worst-performing schools in the country, and there’s an impression of hordes of students leaving the system for greener pastures (which are typically the suburbs or DC charter schools).  But are the country’s worst schools here in DC?  And is DC the worst school district in the country?  And finally, are students really leaving in hordes?

Photo courtesy of
‘Fun at the White House’
courtesy of ‘gerdaindc’

Myth #1: DC is home to the worst schools in the country.

Before we even get to busting this myth, we have to recognize that DC is not a state, and when it is compared to states it is often way off the charts because of the unique characteristics of the city.  With that being said, since education is a state-level issue, you can’t help but compare schools across states.

While DCPS as a system generally doesn’t rank highly, none of the 100 worst schools in the country are in the District.  Of course, that’s not saying much if the country’s worst school (located in East St. Louis, IL) has a 0% math proficiency rating and a 3% reading proficiency rating.  In fact, some of the country’s best schools are located in the District: Benjamin Banneker High School was awarded a silver medal in this year’s US News and World Report Best High Schools report, and three charter schools (Hyde, Thurgood Marshall Academy, and Washington Math/Science/Technology Public Charter School) were awarded bronze medals.

Of course, system-wide when DC is ranked alongside states, it does fall to the bottom of the pack, at least according to recent rankings from Education Week.  But it is not an outlier: its D+ grade is matched by Nebraska and Nevada, and South Dakota and Mississippi aren’t far behind.

DC’s school district may not even be the worst in the region, as Alexandria (VA) was ranked as the worst school district in the country by Forbes Magazine back in 2007 (DC was third from the bottom though) based on spending per pupil and graduation rates.

So long story short, DC is generally near the bottom of school district rankings.  But there are a growing number of bright spots out there, and none of the 100 worst schools in the country happen to be inside the District.

Photo courtesy of
‘Dent Capitol Hill Day School’
courtesy of ‘Tony DeFilippo’

Myth #2: Students are leaving DCPS in hordes.

Enrollment in DC public schools has been declining for the past thirty years, that part is true.  But it looks like the trend is finally leveling out.  For the first time since the 1970s school enrollment is up at DCPS, and fourteen schools even had wait lists this year.

The decline in school enrollment can partially be attributed to the growing popularity of charter schools, which have seen dramatic gains in students over the past decade.  Currently about 38% of DC’s public school students attend charter schools, which is significantly above the rate of other comparable cities but nowhere near the rate of New Orleans at 53%.

Michelle Rhee has been working hard to recruit families back to DCPS, reaching out individually to parents and holding events in communities with low DCPS enrollment.  The Washington City Paper had a great feature last week about how families that would typically choose charter schools for their children are now reconsidering DC public schools.  So the era of dramatic decreases in DCPS enrollment may finally be over.

These two school-related myths are both technically busted, but they’re based in truth.  Typically DC’s public school system has been ranked near the bottom of comparable school systems, but it’s a myth that the worst schools (at least the 100 worst schools) in the country are located in DC.  And while DCPS enrollment has dropped year after year for decades, it seems to finally be evening out.  So there’s a long way to go to bring DC’s schools to the top of the class, but things are definitely looking up.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

2 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Back to School Edition

  1. I have found that a number of people who automatically write off DC public schools do not know anyone of school age. My niece attends DC public school and is doing remarkably well. In fact, I saw great improvements in her education after her move from a private school to a public when she started 4th grade. Granted she was at Bancroft & is now at Deal – 2 examples of schools with strong leadership. Are there bad DC schools? Absolutely. Are there good ones? Absolutely. And could you find that mix in almost every school district across the country? Yep.