It’s not that often that an urban public school district gets a shout-out during a major cultural event. Education and media analysts were surprised Sunday night when passing comments by Dave Chappelle and John Oliver briefly made #DCPublicSchools the number two trending topic on Twitter. As an education policy analyst, I enjoyed seeing a deserving education organization get a moment in the sun. And as a D.C. resident who remembers (as Chappelle does) when D.C.’s schools were among the nation’s worst, it’s great to see our city’s progress get attention outside the edu-sphere.
But there are also things about the #DCPublicSchools trend that gave me pause: As Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak observed, trending on Twitter isn’t exactly a merit-based honor. Even acknowledging that the Chappelle- and Oliver-fueled tweetstorm isn’t exactly in the same class as such dubious Twitter trending topics as #dogbuns or #glitterbeards, the outpouring of #DCPublicSchools tweets reflects just how cheap it is to show “support” for something – be it a cause or a school system – on social media. Although social media can catalyze activism and help activists coordinate, it can also be an easy release valve for expressing views on public affairs – giving users the illusion of taking a stand without engaging in the hard work endemic in influencing complex public systems.
In the United States, politicians, celebrities and regular citizens often give lip service to the importance of education, schools and teachers. Really supporting public education shouldn’t just be a matter of mouthing (or tweeting) feel-good sentiments. Truly valuing any institution – including public education – doesn’t just mean supporting what it does well, but honestly confronting places where it falls short of its promise and values and working to improve them. Our current national discourse on education has fallen into a deeply unhealthy state where those who call attention to inequities and inefficiencies in public school systems or propose improvements to them are too often accused of being “anti-public school.” But it’s not pro-public education to tolerate a system that enables less than 10 percent of low-income children to successfully complete a 4-year degree.
Changing those depressing statistics and enabling our public education system to achieve its potential requires both honesty about where public schools currently fall short, and hard work – by parents, educators, policymakers and advocates – to change school-level practice and the federal, state, and district policies that contribute to current inequities. Yet the #DCPublicSchools Twitter storm, in contrast, reflects the kind of vapid “support” for public schools that too often characterizes our public discourse around education.
When it comes to #DCPublicSchools, I’m incredibly proud of the progress that Washington’s public schools (both those run by #DCPS and the charter schools that educate more than 40 percent of D.C. students) have made over the past decade. Student learning in the District of Columbia is improving faster than almost any place in the country, in both DCPS schools and charter schools. After years of enrollment declines, families are staying in the city, boosting enrollments across the system. DCPS’s IMPACTteacher evaluation system demonstrates that it’s possible to improve teaching quality by retaining, developing and adequately compensating great educators. The District’s public charter schools offer a wide and growing range of high-quality options – from bilingual, to Montessori, to core knowledge – that meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population.
That’s not to say that the District doesn’t have a long way to go. Achievement gaps for low-income and minority students remain large, and far too few students of any race or background achieve proficiency on the PARCC assessment. There are not enough seats in high-performing schools for all the families that want them, and the system could be much better coordinated and seamless for parents and families.
These are real issues – much too complicated to address in a 140-character tweet. Many good people in D.C., from classrooms to the mayor’s office, are working to address them. If making #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter for a night gave them encouragement and joy, then I’m grateful to David Chappelle and John Oliver. But let’s not forget that our public education system, and the kids it serves, needs more than empty praise or social media “support.”