D.C. Public Schools: Once in Crisis, Now It's a Model

This week marks five full years with the D.C. public schools (DCPS) under the leadership of Chancellor Kaya Henderson and it comes on the heels of new data showing that the district is the fastest improving district in the nation. In a city with the greatest economic inequity in the country and with a rapidly expanding charter school now serving nearly half of the city’s students, D.C. is one of the few traditional public school districts in the country with enrollment gains and is on track to exceed 50,000 students by 2017. Much of the credit goes to Henderson’s leadership.

Strong Leadership

Henderson’s relentless energy and boundless public praise in support of her teachers and principals has created positive morale and considerable buy-in among classroom educators to what is one of the most ambitious reform agendas in the country. She has also maintained labor peace even while driving an aggressive teacher quality agenda that links evaluation and compensation in part to student growth, something few other urban superintendents can claim. Henderson’s longevity is all the more remarkable given that the district is under mayoral control and she’s served three different mayors. During that time she inherited bold reforms that may have cost her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, her job but are increasingly accepted and even popular among teachers. Some people even suggest that the current mayor might have picked up a few votes in the recent election based on her promise to keep Henderson as Chancellor. Along with Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Houston, the District’s overall gains outpaced the nation, which largely saw scores flatline or decrease. Among other findings:
  • D.C. was 1 of 3 urban school systems where fourth-grade math scores increased from 2013, and 1 of 4 systems that saw fourth-grade reading scores rise.
  • In 2003, 64 percent of the District’s fourth graders scored “below basic” on math. Twelve years later, that number has been slashed in half, to 32 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, the number of fourth graders who scored proficient or advanced in math more than quadrupled, from 7 percent in 2003 to 33 percent today.
  • Scores for fourth graders in reading are similarly encouraging. In 2003, 69 percent of District students scored below basic. Now, it’s 44 percent. The percentage who scored proficient or above tripled in those 12 years, from 10 to 30 percent.
DCPS is now in the middle of the pack of 21 urban districts, which is impressive, given that the school district struggled for over 40 years.

D.C.’s Got the Talent

A major reason behind the District’s upward trajectory is aggressive talent recruitment, says Jason Kamras, chief of human capital at DCPS. Beforehand, the District devoted few resources to bolstering its workforce, with only two staffers working on teacher recruitment. Most of its teachers were brand new to the profession. Currently, 12 people are part of that recruitment team. DCPS advertises its teaching jobs nationally and created a principal development program to encourage some of their strongest teachers to pursue school leadership. As a result, DCPS retains 92 percent of its highly effective teachers. Seventy-five percent of the District’s teachers start with at least one year of experience. Better pay, says Kamras, also helped the district attract higher quality teachers. Teachers once had to work 21 years and have a Ph.D. in order to earn $87,000 annually. Now skilled teachers who work with the neediest children are rewarded handsomely. After four years, Kamras says, they can earn $100,000 per year. Another reason for the District’s improvement is IMPACT, the teacher and staff evaluation system implemented in 2009. A 2013  study revealed that IMPACT was effective in retaining talented teachers (who are rewarded with bonuses and accelerated salary schedules) while prompting ineffective ones to improve or leave.

Raising Standards

District leaders acknowledge that wide achievement gaps persist for black, Hispanic, and low-income students. In eighth-grade math, for example, black students on average scored 65 points lower than white students, Hispanic students 51 points lower, and students who qualified for free or reduced price lunch 53 points. The District was an early adopter of the Common Core State Standards and Henderson has also pushed for universal preschool. Other ambitious DCPS efforts include  helping black and Hispanic boys in danger of falling behind, and bolstering equity by providing  enriching programs created by teachers to all its students. In a city where 44 percent of the students attend charter schools, Henderson also recognizes that collaboration with charter schools is essential. As she told the Washington Post, “The city is at a point where we need to make sense of how these two systems fit together.” In a relatively short period of time, DCPS has transformed itself from a system in crisis to a model of what reform can look like. More important, as Henderson  has said: “The reforms that we put in place are working. When you raise the bar for teachers and you raise the bar for kids, they rise to the occasion.”  
Caroline Bermudez is Senior Writer and Press Secretary at Education Post.
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

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