Photo from Muriel for Mayor website.

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser has displayed her strengths as a campaigner, but her education platform is pretty thin. Before the general election 7 months from now, she has the opportunity to flesh it out.

Bowser’s main campaign promise on education has been that she would replicate the success of Ward 3’s Deal Middle School in other parts of the city. While the middle grades in other schools need attention, it’s far from clear that replicating Deal district-wide is a workable strategy.

Only 23% of Deal’s students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At other middle schools in DC, that proportion is far higher. While it goes without saying that all kids deserve an excellent education, delivering that education to low-income kids requires a different set of skills and methods.

Simply recreating Deal’s amenities in high-poverty schools or moving its excellent teachers there (assuming they would be willing to go) won’t automatically transform those schools. To succeed there, teachers will need expert classroom management skills in addition to all the other qualities that make teachers great. And given the high proportion of special education students in high-poverty schools, it would help if they also had training in that area.

There are a host of other things that will be necessary before high-poverty middle schools, or high-poverty schools at any grade level, can reach Deal’s level. You need strong principals who can inspire their staffs to work together and to persevere in the face of discouraging setbacks. You need support services for kids who have been traumatized by the effects of poverty.

Most fundamentally, you need to develop a positive school “culture” that motivates kids to adopt behavior that will lead to their success. At the same time you need to teach them to reject behavior that is destructive to themselves and disruptive to the education of others.

Other issues

Bowser has also said that she would focus on schools that are “on the brink” of excellence. But she hasn’t defined what that means, or how she would get them over the brink. And what about the schools that are far from that brink? There are thousands of DC kids in schools fitting that description. Shouldn’t we be focusing on them at least as much?

Bowser has also given contradictory signals on whether she would retain Chancellor Kaya Henderson. While DCPS is still in many ways a work in progress, Henderson has launched some promising initiatives that may be close to bearing fruit, and it would be worth keeping her in place for that reason if for nothing else. A commitment to do that sooner rather than later would help ensure that progress doesn’t stall while the Chancellor’s status is in limbo.

Nor has Bowser indicated how she would coordinate the DCPS and charter school sectors, aside from saying that she would try to prevent new charters from locating near existing DCPS schools. With 44% of DC public school students in charter schools, we can no longer view charters simply as competition against DCPS that needs to be held in check. It’s time to figure out how to connect the two sectors into something that resembles one coherent system.

Education and the general election

Bowser may not feel much urgency to develop her positions on education at this point, given that she won a resounding victory over Mayor Vincent Gray with the little information she’s divulged so far. But things may change.

The issue of corruption dominated much of the primary. But in the November general election Bowser will face Councilmember David Catania, chair of the DC Council’s Committee on Education. Catania has turned himself into a genuine expert on DC public education in very little time, and there’s no doubt he’ll have detailed, well thought-out stands on education issues.

Right now Bowser may have a 30-point lead over Catania in the polls, but that could disappear once attention turns to the vital issue of education. If Bowser is going to win the general election, she’ll need to be able to hold her own against Catania on that issue in a debate. And he will no doubt be a formidable debater.

Bowser needs to start researching and thinking seriously about education in DC now, and not just because she’ll need ammunition against Catania. The pace of progress in public education in the District has been distressingly slow, and for the sake of DC’s children, anyone who is elected mayor this fall will need to be able to hit the ground running.