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Posted at 1:18 PM ET, 10/16/2009

In Layoffs and Test Scores, Pain and Gain for D.C. Schools

By Stephen Stromberg

By Katherine Bradley and John Hill
Washington

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.

By Stephen Stromberg  | October 16, 2009; 1:18 PM ET
Tags:  Rhee, education, layoffs, schools  
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Comments

I posted this on another blog. I am reposting it here:


Let's do the math:

4th grade
2000 – 192
+13
2003 – 205
+6
2005 – 211
+3
2007 – 214
+5
2009 – 219


8th grade
2000 – 235
+ 8
2003 – 243
+2
2005 – 245
+3
2007 – 248
+6
2009 – 254


The increases go in this order:

4th grade 1) 2000 to 2003 2) 2003 to 2005 3) 2007 to 2009 4) 2005 to 2007

8th grade 1) 2000 to 2003 2)2007 to 2000 3) 2005 to 2007 4) 2003 to 2005

That means that the increases for 4th graders in 2009 are 3rd out of 4 places.

The increase for the 8th grade in 2009 are 2nd out of 4 places.

I don't see anything in this that indicates anything special about Rhee's influence on the district.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 16, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

I heard that DC teachers were under pressure last year to teach to the test. If that really happened, how accurate how are the latest DC-CAS test scores?

Ms. Bradley and Mr. Hill -

What policies or procedures did Michelle Rhee put into effect that caused the supposed increase in test scores for the NAEP and the DC-CAS?

Posted by: jlp19 | October 16, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

"Perhaps more important, the black-white student achievement gap in our city is closing rapidly"

Speadking of race, what percentage of the people that were laid off were African American, Hispanic, or European American. That would an interesting piece of information right there.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 16, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"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.'"

really? And why exactly should we believe Michael Casserly? Just looking at the scores posted above, it's evident that the increases have been happening for many years and that greater increases came under other superintendents, before Rhee came in.

Also Rhee's major reform - firing teachers - didn't start until after the 2009 NAEP tests were taken, so all these kids have been improving with the very same "bad" teachers that Rhee is determined to fire.

Please, the next time you report something, base it on facts. This is not just good reporting, in this case, our children's future is at stake.

Posted by: efavorite | October 17, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

I always find it interesting when there is talk of the white/black achievement gap in this city. Data can be manipulated to say anything. It's a great statistic using percentages but use actual numbers of white children testing(much smaller number) and the number of black children testing(much greater number) might also suggest that this may not be relavant until there is more of a balance in the population.

I'm also tired of hearing about the rise in test scores as long as the cheating allegation has not been addressed as well as credit being given to Rhee on a testing year that would have been the effort of
Dr.Janey, a superintendent.

Posted by: candycane1 | October 17, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

I always find it interesting when there is talk of the white/black achievement gap in this city. Data can be manipulated to say anything. It's a great statistic using percentages but use actual numbers of white children testing(much smaller number) and the number of black children testing(much greater number) might also suggest that this may not be relavant until there is more of a balance in the population.

I'm also tired of hearing about the rise in test scores as long as the cheating allegation has not been addressed as well as credit being given to Rhee on a testing year that would have been the effort of
Dr.Janey, a superintendent.

Posted by: candycane1 | October 17, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

I have absolutely no problem with crediting Rhee for those things she is responsible for. I wish her success, however, the test results are for the NAEP that was given in 2007. The gains are the result of Janey's work on the DC CAS and in raising standards.

For those who know more about education in DC, Bradley is leading an effort of the wealthy the bust the teachers' union, and Hill is the handmaiden of Terry Golden. In this case neither of them have children in mind.

Posted by: topryder1 | October 18, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

For Jay Matthews, since you read the blogs and comments, cheerleading does not help one to maintain their objectivity, you have ceased to be effective. You have long since crossed the great divide and you column should be moved to the editorial page.

In reading your column over the past two years, you have become blind to any methods other than those that support your book and a model that is not sustainable on public funds, and therefore will never impact the masses of children, or Rhee, neither of which has an impact in the top school systems in the country. Just look at Montgomery County.

Posted by: topryder1 | October 18, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

When people talk about closing the achievement gap, I’ve never heard them address score differences in successful, racially-mixed schools. I imagine that’s because it’s a touchy subject, that defies pontificating and requires looking at real statistics and considering potentially politically incorrect explanations. Then again, maybe no one has even thought about it.

Looking at a school like Stuart–Hobson Middle School, you can see by its high AYP rating* that it is doing well for all its students in a racially-mixed Capitol Hill neighborhood. However, looking at the scores by race, you will see African American math and reading proficiency in the 70’s while White proficiency is 100%. If teachers make such a huge difference in kids’ learning, what does this say about these teachers? Are they teaching differently based on race to kids in the same class? Any interesting achievement patterns based on teacher ethnicity? What would happen to kids’ scores if we took these obviously successful teachers and put them in a severely underperforming school? And what if we put the teachers in the low-performing school into Stuart-Hobson? Isn’t anyone interested in this kind of experiment?

* For all AYP scores, go to: http://www.nclb.osse.dc.gov/aypreports.asp?c=&rt=&sb=m
Then click the appropriate boxes on the left.

Posted by: efavorite | October 18, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

So let me get this right...

If the test results are true, and the "erasure" controversy is still looming large over these results, did Rhee fire (lay-off) the very teachers that presided over the improvement in test scores now being touted as the results of Rhee's "fierce urgency and uncompromising standards to her work."

I'm just asking...

Posted by: 2belinda | October 18, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Anyone with any knowledge or insight into what is currently occuring in the DCPS had to read this piece and realize that teachers, principals, staff, parents and students are considered to be stupid by the Rhee can do no harm crowd. "Rhee has brought fierce urgency and uncompromising standards to her work." Michelle is fierce alright. She has used the terminator effect - might makes right, to convince others that change can only come from first destroying what exists. "Uncompromising standards" ?? Is that what you call it when you-
- are determined to bring down the teachers union
-fire staff without due process/evaluation
-lack transparency : What really happened in those schools where cheating on tests was not formally investigated? and why are there double-dippers on staff (paid by DCPS and privately contract with DCPS for services?)
-leave "new" principals in place that are less effective than the the principals that were fired without explanation
-create budget complications that you can use to circumvent the process for terminating teachers
We need to examine the total "Rhee Effect"- what have DCPS and the parents/citizens of DC really gained
Truth and Transparency must be demanded. It is becoming clearer that FENTY MUST GO and take Rhee with him.
-

Posted by: lightkeeper | October 18, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Rhee has been an invaluable force for introducing the concept of accountability to a failing, entitled, and many-sigmas-below-mediocre educational bureaucracy. As for the anger that there were lay-offs, I absolutely agree with the principle that it should not be last in first out (LIFO).

Some people have the position that it took Hurricane Katrina to give the failing New Orleans public schools a reset, and it takes someone as strong as Rhee to battle an entrenched system that has long resisted the idea that its members are accountable to the results.


Go Rhee go!!

Posted by: yh132 | October 19, 2009 7:52 AM | Report abuse

yh132 - do you think that brand new, completely inexperienced teacher are intrinsically better than teachers with experience? I ask because in this case, Rhee supposedly hired 900 new teachers. How would we know that they were better than those already in place.

Also, how could new principals fairly evaluate teachers after just a few weeks to determine which ones should go?

Posted by: efavorite | October 19, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

As I just posted on Jay Mathews’ blog:

I do have hope that journalists will be more careful in the future when reporting Rhee propaganda. Writer Michael Petrilli recently acknowledged that I made “a fair point about the achievement increases preceding Michelle Rhee’s time in DC” at http://educationnext.org/the-one-winner-in-todays-naep-release-michelle-rhee/.

Journalists are quick to follow a popular storyline – it’s a lot easier than doing independent investigation. But they ultimately can’t argue with facts, once they have them. Now that verifiable facts are more available to the public, it’s more possible to keep journalists on track. Pity that we need to do it, however.

Posted by: efavorite | October 19, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

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