In Layoffs and Test Scores, Pain and Gain for D.C. Schools
By Katherine Bradley and John Hill
Amid the controversy over the D.C. public school system's Oct. 2 layoffs of more than 220 teachers, a novel and important fact keeps getting buried.
The District's layoffs did not follow the tradition of "last hired, first fired" common to other school district employment practices. Instead, principals made separation decisions based on which teachers and staff were contributing the most value to student learning -- not by seniority or favoritism. Some good teachers may have been let go, just as businesses all over the country have lost talent due to hard budgetary realities. And the layoffs exact a human toll. But shouldn't relative contribution be the rule -- not the exception -- if we are to build high-functioning teams in our schools? Isn't that the way we would expect to make decisions elsewhere in our economy?
The noise over the layoffs may be distracting Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and anyone with a stake in District children's education from our "true north:" staying the course to support continued academic progress for D.C. public school students. The past two years have produced a steady stream of good news. On Wednesday, the results of the biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in math were released. The District was one of only five "states" in the nation -- along with Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont -- to post gains at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. The percentage of D.C. students scoring at basic competency levels or above increased by 10 percent in both grades.
While the absolute scores remain unacceptably low, these numbers show real and significant progress. Michael Casserly of the Council on Great City Schools says, "The truth is you just can't get gains of this size without reforms behind it."
And the NAEP scores are only part of the picture of improvement. Our students are also posting solid, continuing gains on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC-CAS. Between 2006 and 2009, our D.C. public school test scores for elementary schools improved by 12 percentage points in reading and 22 percentage points in math. Secondary school gains are similar. Double-digit gains are rare in education, and the District is producing them.
Perhaps more important, the black-white student achievement gap in our city is closing rapidly. Washington has long suffered from one of the worst academic racial disparities in the country -- a 67-percentage-point gap between black and white achievement on the 2007 Grade 4 reading NAEP, for example. In access to opportunity and civic participation, a gap of that size means D.C. is in fact two cities, separate and unequal. In the past two years, however, the achievement gap has begun to close. Between 2007 and 2009, the black-white achievement gap in secondary math dropped 20 percentage points; the gap in secondary reading narrowed by 14 percentage points.
And we can see measurable progress beyond test scores. Rhee's team is providing options that will have universal appeal and bring families back into our public system by creating innovative projects, such as the "Catalyst School" programs in science, arts-integration, and world cultures. Will offering Chinese language courses, as Eaton Elementary is doing, lure parents back from private schools and from the suburbs? Maybe it stems from the recession, but parents may already be noticing progress in the public schools: D.C. public schools enrollment increased by about 1 percent this year.
This growth is modest, but it is an important inflection point, reversing a decade-long decline. Rhee has brought fierce urgency and uncompromising standards to her work. Some credit for progress is rightly shared, however, with previous superintendents and with the D.C. Council. Without the council's bold decision to give Mayor Adrian M. Fenty control over the schools, and without their support of Fenty's appointment of Rhee, none of this progress would have occurred. As the council manages the controversy over recent school layoffs, it is vital that the education reform agenda, and council members' support for it, continues.
Rhee needs to stay focused on the job she was hired to do: making D.C. the first high-performing urban school district in the nation. Just imagine what might happen if Rhee continues to erode the black-white achievement gap in Washington. If she maintains the rate of progress of the past two years, the achievement gap in secondary math will close entirely by 2012. Think what that would mean for our city: the District as a proof-point of opportunity for the nation.
Katherine Bradley is president of the CityBridge Foundation; John Hill is chief executive of the Federal City Council.
| October 16, 2009; 1:18 PM ET
Tags: Rhee, education, layoffs, schools
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