Broader, Bolder Should Have Done Better Homework

Having worked directly on the education reforms implemented in D.C. over the past several years, I read with interest a recently released national report that purports to examine the impacts of various education reforms in three of the nation's largest cities: Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

I read the report, however, with a grain of salt because the campaign pushing it -- called The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education -- is a project of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which is strongly affiliated with the education labor unions that oppose reform.

That's why I wasn't surprised to read that the report's authors had "found" that the data doesn't support claims that reforms are working in these cities. Rather, according to the report, the "Broader, Bolder Approach" would be to abandon these reforms altogether.

When it comes to D.C., I paid specific attention to claims made about a lack of progress there, and make a few observations.

Student Achievement

The first set of 'findings' focus on whether or not student achievement (as reflected by progress on the National Assessment of Education Progress or NAEP) grew between 2005 and 2011, specifically focusing on the growth of traditionally underserved students and the change in magnitude of the achievement gap as reflected. Unfortunately, the authors cherry-pick their data points, such as pointing out that scale scores in reading for Hispanic and black 8th-graders declined. One could just as easily focus on the performance of 4th-graders during the same period and find that black 4th-graders increased their reading scale scores by 5 points, while Hispanic 4th-graders' scores increased by 10 points during the same period.

The report leaves out other parts of the story as well. In 2009, for example, D.C. was the only large urban district to experience statistically significant growth on the NAEP in both math and reading for both 4th- and 8th-grades. From 2005-2011, scale scores for poor, Hispanic, and black students all grew in for both math and reading in 4th-grade, as well as 8th-grade math.

In terms of proficiency, D.C. students posted the top gains among all students in large urban districts between 2007-2009 and were the second-highest growers from 2009-2011. More specifically, over a four-year period, both black and low-income students increased their proficiency in reading and math in both grade levels. And as an overall trend - in 2011, fewer D.C. students were at basic and below basic levels, and more students were at proficient and advanced levels than compared to 2005.

Despite clear progress, the truth about DCPS student achievement over the past few years is that the news is mixed. Overall achievement remains abysmally low and significant achievement gaps persist. This is troubling, and District leaders must double-down on their efforts to provide higher quality instruction and greater access to more seats in high performing schools.

Teacher Retention

The report asserts that changes like DCPS' IMPACT evaluation system are causing teachers to leave DCPS in greater numbers. According to a report by TNTP, however, DCPS is actually retaining more of its best teachers than other districts - in fact, in the 2010-2011 school year, DCPS retained its best teachers at nearly double the rate of its low-performing teachers. In other words, when it comes to keeping teachers in the classroom who benefit kids the most, DCPS is now a national leader.

School Closings

Another oft-repeated, but not fact-checked, assertion relates to the costs of the DCPS school closings in 2008, purported to cost the city $39.5 million. The truth behind those numbers is that only about $17 million can be attributed to actual costs and spending related to closing the schools. The larger number only takes into account the cost of closing schools, but fails to account for the annual savings associated with operating a more right-sized system of schools. When we did the math, we estimated that DCPS was actually saving $41 million for every year that those schools were closed. And this doesn't include the savings from capital expenses, nor does it include any revenue the city received for the sale or lease of the space.

Early Childhood Education

Despite the author's claims, under Michelle Rhee's leadership as chancellor, DCPS embarked on a huge expansion of its prekindergarten program, adding over 700 additional seats, almost exclusively in Title I schools, and mostly for 3-year-olds. Very few cities could demonstrate this level of program expansion.

More importantly, DCPS didn't just focus on opening new classrooms; improving quality was a key priority as well. The school system implemented a comprehensive assessment (aligned with early learning standards) across all pre-K classrooms to help teachers individualize instruction and share progress with parents; a stronger curriculum targeting Title I schools; and the Head Start school-wide model, allowing children in all Title I schools to receive comprehensive services, such as developmental and medical screening.

All schools also provided parent education services and had access to social services and teachers received more professional development and job embedded coaching from over 30 early childhood instructional specialists. Ultimately, the early childhood reforms that Rhee put in place while at DCPS took DC's Head Start program from being low performing and chronically deficient to one that not only passes federal reviews, but is recognized for being above the national average.

Enrollment Going Up

There is one public education indicator in DC that perhaps speaks louder than any other: enrollment. For decades, public school enrollment in the DC Public Schools system declined. Families sought other options than what the system provided, and many found them in the vibrant public charter school sector. But that enrollment decline began to level off in 2008. Today, for the fourth straight year, overall public school enrollment in the District has increased, and enrollment in DCPS is higher today than it was in 2009. Bottom line: the reform strategies that the District has pursued over the past several years have worked to revitalize public education in DC; parents have responded and are choosing DC public schools once again.

"Broader Strategies"

So what to the "Broader, Bolder" folks recommend instead? I was mystified by the strategies that the authors argued would have a greater impact on cities. For instance, the report argues that district leaders should focus more in increasing access to AP courses, improving teacher recruitment through earlier hiring dates and job fairs, and leveraging community partners to help provide additional programming in schools. All of these things are great (although not necessarily 'bold'), but they're not really policy reforms. Nor are those ideas at all in conflict with the policy reforms the report attempts to criticize.

One can only conclude that the report's authors shun policy reform entirely, in favor of programs and culture change.

I believe that it is specific, deliberate policy reforms -- like those advocated for by education reform organizations including StudentsFirst -- that will give district and school leaders greater flexibility, resources, and vehicles with which to implement the kinds of recommendations included in the "Bolder" report. By empowering school leaders with great autonomy over their budgets and staff, for example, schools will have the ability to innovate with new programs or new community partnerships in order to provide educational opportunities tailored to their student bodies.

Ultimately, what is most disappointing about the "Broader, Bolder" report is that by selecting only data points that align with their narrative, the authors deprive the public of a real discussion about the merits of the policies at issue in the greater education reform debate. No doubt a research-based, objective evaluation of the impact of reforms being implemented in Chicago, New York, and D.C. would be helpful to the conversation -- unfortunately, this report doesn't provide that.