One to Watch: DC Public Schools

DC Public Schools (DCPS) has been in the center of the national debate about how to fix failing districts for the past six years. We at TNTP have taken a keen interest too, both because our ex-colleagues have been in leadership positions (former Chancellor Michelle Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson were TNTP leaders) and because the District’s human capital reforms have broken new ground and deserve close study.

Like many others, we were impressed by the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS) exam results that were posted this week. Two headlines jumped out at us:

  • Students did better across the board. Almost every student group improved: black, Hispanic, white, Asian, low-income students and students in special-education classrooms all did better in both reading and math, compared to last year. Overall student achievement improved on every single subject tested area: reading, composition, math and science.
  • Scores went up at every level. It’s not just that fewer students earned “below proficient” scores overall, though that is critical progress. More students earned scores in the advanced category; the percentage has more than doubled in the past six years. Teachers are not only moving kids onto grade level, they’re helping them leap ahead. And keep in mind that the DC CAS is Common Core-aligned.

So what’s working? There are many dimensions to the District’s strategy. However, it’s fair to say a focus on educator effectiveness has been the hallmark. No other district in the country has done more on this front, particularly when it comes to thoughtfully evaluating and retaining teachers.

We studied DCPS’s teacher-retention practices and patterns in our 2012 case study, Keeping Irreplaceables in DC Public Schools. Because DCPS is focused on ensuring only strong teachers lead its classrooms, it is far more likely than other districts we’ve studied to dismiss educators who consistently show weak performance (based on multiple measures)—and it’s done that without losing top teachers.

In 2010-11, for example, the district kept 88 percent of its top teachers but just 45 percent of its low performers. In other urban districts, by contrast, there tends to be only a modest difference between the retention rates of their best and worst teachers.

We know from decades of research that instructional quality has a greater impact on student learning than any other factor at the school level, so this ought to have an effect. But because so few districts retain top teachers at differential rates, there’s limited evidence available to show how such practices affect student performance.

That’s what makes the news out of DC this week so noteworthy. While we should consider the latest results with all the usual caveats—a single year’s change in performance is just a snapshot and the gains could be attributable to any number of factors—they serve as a strong signal that DCPS is on the right track.

Six years after the advent of mayoral control, DC’s educators and families should be proud of their progress. Certainly, plenty of challenges remain. Overall, student achievement remains far below where it needs to be. But it’s exciting to see positive news about student achievement on such a large scale, and in a place where improvement has so often been elusive. We’ll be watching closely to see how students do next year, as DCPS leaders continue to put teacher effectiveness at the center of all their work.

August 1, 11:00am: This post was revised to add the final paragraph, which was missing in an earlier version due to a production error. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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