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Erich Martel 
McKinley Technology High School
April 16, 2003




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McKinley Technology High School
Erich Martel, Department of Social Studies, Wilson Senior High School

McKinley Technology High School has been listed in the capital budget for several years: 

prior to 2003: $29,949,000
FY 2003: $15,099,000
FY 2004: $21,851,000

But there is no justification for this school. 

a. Where are the students for this school to come from? 

SAT9 math and reading (which is also essential to math performance) scores show three high schools whose math performance leads all others: Banneker, School Without Walls, Wilson. The SAT9 performance levels are classified as Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. I am reprinting the April 2002 math and reading scores from the July 4, 2002, Washington Post "District Extra":

SCHOOL %BB %Basic %BB+B %BB %Basic %BB+Basic
BANNEKER 0.4% 29.6% 30% 12.2% 47.2% 57.4%
WALLS 2.2% 40.9% 43.1% 20.9% 43.1% 64%
WILSON 25% 41.2% 66.2% 55.1% 25.5% 80.6%

As can be seen, the percentages of students whose math performance levels are in these two low categories are shockingly high, even in the relatively small schools, Banneker and Walls. 

While average NCE scores in the 105 elementary schools rose approximately 1.75% (differences in individual school populations not accounted for) from April 2001 to April 2002, 79% of the net NCE increase in reading scores and 100% of the net NCE increase in math scores came from 8 elementary schools: Burroughs, Burrville, Drew, Maury, Moten, Peabody, Simon, and Wheatley, whose average increases were 17.2% in Reading and 21% in Math.

Have the Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer of DCPS analyzed these important increases? Have they determined how to replicate this success in other elementary schools?

Until DCPS is able to replicate the type of improvements in these two key areas, as represented by the eight improved schools, and then sustain improvement through junior high school, it will not have the numbers of students needed to justify an entirely new technology high school. Banneker, School Without Walls, and Wilson, and the much smaller in-school academies will continue to be the schools of academic choice for students from all parts of the city who are prepared to tackle grade level math (and reading) requirements. 

b. The mayor’s web site describing the McKinley plan 

This web site is typical of education improvement proposals that can be found in every failing system: soothing descriptions of the future laced with technical terms designed to evoke visions of success. But no objective analysis of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that students will need in order to successfully meet the expectations of this proposed "flagship" of the DC Public Schools. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a "business plan" type analysis of the real levels of skills that prospective students will actually be bringing to the school. 

c. Are Jefferson H.S. in Fairfax and Montgomery Blair in Montgomery meaningful “models for ideas”?

The mayor’s web site (http://www.mckinley.dc.gov/) suggests these two schools as models for McKinley, but are they? They are magnet programs that draw upon large bases of students from two of the top school districts in the US, whose K-8 preparation in reading and math are at or above grade level, thus making them ready to meet the high expectations of those schools. They may be models in the sense of describing goals, but they are not models in the sense that they can be easily replicated in a school district where the vast majority of students lack basic reading and math skills.

It should be further noted that decision to locate the science magnet program in Montgomery Blair was dictated, in part, as a means of keeping the school racially mixed, i.e., by attracting students county-wide to the school. The same is true of the Austin, Texas, Independent School District’s decision to locate the Science Academy of Austin (whose director since 1997 was named principal of McKinley in 2002) in Lyndon Baines Johnson High School.

Has DCPS determined how successful these in-school academies have been in attracting a significant number of African-American and Hispanic students, retaining them, and successfully preparing them to move into college programs in science, math, and technology? The truth is that in most school systems, the majority of the students who attend these magnet programs are from out of boundary or out of neighborhood.

d. Faulty proposed curriculum: project-based learning

The principal’s proposed curriculum (http://www.mckinley.dc.gov/news/nr042902.shtm) is deficient. It is filled with the feel-good education world jargon (http://www.mckinley.dc.gov/home/about.shtm) found in schools across the country, which has directly contributed to the dismal performance of U.S. students in international mathematics performance.

Mostly, Gohl is focusing on curriculum. He envisions project-based learning that can cut across many disciplines. An example: An in-depth study of a public health scourge. It could incorporate bioscience (studying the biological underpinnings of the outbreak), history (connections through time and places), mathematics (statistical modeling) and government (public policy crafted to handle such an outbreak).

The real result of a focus on “projects … across many disciplines” is that students gain very shallow knowledge of the “many disciplines” they are “cut[ting] across.” To use the above example, they end up knowing isolated bits of epidemiology (a.k.a. “bioscience”), history, statistics, and “public policy,” but not enough in any of those areas to establish meaningful competence. 

A subject-area discipline is a body of knowledge grouped around a logically coherent cluster of content and related "thinking skills". Information that is "logically coherent" can be retained longer and become a base for the acquisition [and retention] of increasingly complex content and more sophisticated skills. For a good discussion of memory and learning from a neurological perspective, see Daniel Willingham's “Ask the Neuroscientist” in the Winter 2002 American Educator (AFT), http://www.aft.org/american_educator/winter2002/CogSci.html

The myth of “interdisciplinary learning” is effectively addressed by Howard Gardner and Veronica Boix-Mansilla:

Current debates around the organization of pre-collegiate curriculum have directed considerable criticism at the dominant role assumed by subject matter or disciplines. Criticisms have ranged from a call for interdisciplinary or theme-based curricula to an emphasis on “ways of knowing,” or “learning styles” as organizing units that replace disciplinary knowledge.

In this article, …we propose a positive view of disciplinary knowledge. We claim that, over the years, knowledgeable human beings working in specific domains have developed concepts, methods, and perspectives as means of better understanding the physical, biological, and social worlds around us. We find students’ access to these disciplinary tools to be an indispensable ingredient of quality education. Shorn of disciplines we become intellectual barbarians.

The authors then comment on classroom experiences that are advertised as interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary:

[I]t is crucial to note that interdisciplinary work can be carried out legitimately only after the individual has become at least somewhat conversant in the relevant disciplines. Much of what is termed interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary work in the early grades is actually pre-disciplinary work — drawing chiefly on common sense.

(Gardner, Howard and Boix-Mansilla, Veronica, “Teaching for Understanding in the Disciplines-and Beyond,” Teachers College Record 96.2, Winter 1994, 199-218.)

“Project learning … across … disciplines,” undermines the acquisition and retention of knowledge, because the de facto curriculum that it advocates cuts across existing bodies of knowledge without replacing them with a consistent and meaningful body of knowledge. That's because a “project” is just that, it's not a body of knowledge that will be expanded, revisited, and become the basis for further bits and bytes of knowledge. Students are denied broad layers of supporting knowledge within the field of, for example, bioscience, i.e., biology, that make knowledge of epidemiology, part of an expanding and logically connected body of knowledge.

True vocational education closely resembles learning within the disciplines in that the bodies of knowledge that must be mastered in a vocational education area are not random or shallow. Like learning within the disciplines the information has a logical coherence, structure and increasingly complexity; it isn't random or shallow, i.e., it's not a “project.”

e. McKinley Technology H.S. or McKinley Vocational H.S.?

What is the intended purpose of McKinley?

The principal is quoted as saying that McKinley's “perceived purpose — preparing students for college or the workplace — is a ‘false dichotomy,’ — an either-or proposition that’s hopelessly out of date in today’s economy.” http://www.mckinley.dc.gov/news/nr042902.shtm.

Those words describe something that is neither a curriculum that prepares students to enter college-level science, math, or technology programs nor one that trains students with marketable technical skills. 

In this day and age, when the undergraduate college degrees earned by vast numbers of students in all but the top private and state colleges and universities are increasingly the equivalent of the high school diploma or vocational/technical diploma of 40-50 years ago, in terms of marketable skills and potential for job advancement, an undefined, quasi-vocational, quasi-college prep curriculum will not produce the results its planners hope for.

The principal is quoted as saying, “As we look at the redesign of [McKinley] … we need to go to … three [industry] groups: biotechnology, information technology and broadcast technology — and find out what skills [that they need] are.” He is, in effect, saying that he doesn't know what students will need to know for these three fields — and this, despite the principal's background in science, math and technology.

In effect, this means:

  1. He can't say outright what those skills are, because the job market’s demands for them are rapidly evolving. The best preparation for the job market, therefore, is a strong preparation in the supporting disciplines of mathematics and the sciences or a broadly based vocational/technical program that is not limited to currently defined or currently anticipated practical skills and applications.
  2. He/DCPS is, in fact, planning a vocational magnet program.

This poses a further question: what is DCPS' plan for its vocational education programs, especially those in the technology area?

f. In conclusion:

In conclusion, it is unfair of Mayor Williams to hold an entire school system hostage to an expensive capital outlay and educational program that is undefined and based upon curricular theories of unproven value. 

If he wishes to use his position as a bully pulpit to reform the school system, there are many areas he should be looking at and many hard questions he should be asking the Superintendent and Board of Education to answer (in addition to the questions about the expensive consultants):

  1. Reading Instruction: to what extent is DCPS implementing the research in early childhood reading instruction based on phonics and phonemic awareness that was pioneered by the NICHD program in DCPS, 1997-2001, by Dr. Louisa Moats?
  2. To what extent is DCPS implementing K-6 and higher mathematics instruction, starting with a basic mastery of arithmetic — without calculator dependency?
  3. Can DCPS provide clearly worded reports analyzing the reasons for poor math and reading performance, starting with the SAT9 process clusters?
  4. Why will DCPS not release each school’s SAT9 scores by school and grade level, so that the progress of student cohorts in each school can be followed year by year as is done in California and other states?
  5. Why has DCPS failed to replace the flawed social studies standards centered on random and disconnected events and themes with those that require mastery of coherent bodies of content knowledge?
  6. Why is DCPS calling subject area “pacing charts” a curriculum? Does it know the difference?
  7. Why is DCPS planning to establish system-wide, end-of-course examinations based upon a non-existent curriculum (pacing charts)?
  8. Can DCPS provide comparative statistical evaluations of the many reform models that have been in place since the late 1990s?
  9. Is there anybody in the DCPS/School Board/Mayor’s Educational Advisory Team who has read the Abell Report, which found little documented connection between teacher preparation courses and teacher classroom success  ( http://www.educationnext.org/unabridged/20021/walsh.pdf and http://www.abell.org/pubsitems/ed_cert_rejoinder_1101.pdf)? (Prepared for the Baltimore City Public Schools by the Abell Foundation)?
    The mayor could ask the Superintendent and the Board to provide him with a response, whereby he/they either 
    1. state their agreement and list the initial steps that will be taken to reform teacher certification requirements; or 
    2. if he/they disagree with the report, provide a fully documented explanation defending the existing teacher certification requirements in light of student DCPS student performance.

The mayor would be making an enormous contribution to the improvement of education in this city, if he were able to get answers to these questions.

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