It’s Not Failure. It’s a Challenge.

By Junior Associate: Kelly Halom 

It is very easy to see the statistics and be disheartened. Sitting in any education policy class, you probably hear them within the first lecture. Our students are failing. Not only are they failing by school standards, but they are failing against international standards as well. What some find even more upsetting is that our students in low-income families are disproportionately failing, which consequently disproportionately affects students that are African-American and Hispanic, ever widening an achievement gap that has come to define many of the societal problems that our country faces. It is very easy to see the statistics as failure.

And as long as we are taking the easy way out, it’s easy to look for someone to blame. If our students are failing, then it’s someone’s fault. Naturally, we scoff at their schools. We blame incompetent teachers, disorganized principals, and bureaucratic school districts that are too entwined in red tape to affect real change.

And even though I knew they were all a part of the problem, I found myself at DC Public Schools this summer. Though I had loftier visions of interning in highly esteemed think tanks or well-regarded non-profits, I somehow joined the enemy’s team.

It only took me one week to realize how wrong I was.

Nearly every person I meet at Central Office has a background in schools– former teachers, principals, and counselors alike. Ivy-league educations and graduate degrees abound. And as much as each person’s background provides insight into their talents individually, Central Office’s strength lies in its collective work ethic, as each person is clearly driven by the needs of our students. It is not uncommon to see employees eating lunch at their desk as they charge through the day’s work. People come to the office early and stay even later. Open up any employee’s Outlook Calendar, and I guarantee your head will whirl.

Working in the Office of School Turnaround and Performance the past two months, it hits you in the face. Our schools are not where they should be. And it is going to take smart people and it’s going to take hard work to fix that. But it’s also going to take time. What I’ve realized this summer is that it’s not about placing blame. It’s simply not that easy. There’s no quick-fix to educational inequity. If there were, we’d probably know about it by now. You can read all the studies you want in your education policy class, but you’re simply not going to find the magic bullet from the outside. You have to show up. And that’s what’s happening at DCPS. Our teachers show up. Our principals show up. Central Office shows up. And we collectively pray that our students show up.

If DCPS has taught me anything this summer, it’s that working hard and being smart is not enough. It’s not that easy. It’s harder. It’s really really freaking hard. But we’re here each day and we’re trying. And if we don’t get the results we are pursuing, it’s easy to see it as a failure. But it’s not failure, it’s not lazy, it’s not dim-witted: it’s a challenge. And what I have learned from my colleagues here at District of Columbia Public Schools is to never shy away from a challenge.

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