Should The Next D.C. Mayor Keep Rhee’s Successor?


DC Councilor Muriel Bowser, who won the Democratic primary last week and is likely to become the next mayor, is not yet sure whether she’ll keep DC Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson through 2017, as the Chancellor has requested. I hope she’ll base her decision on a serious assessment of how DCPS has fared under Henderson (and her predecessor Michelle Rhee, who set in place the reforms that Henderson has largely continued, albeit with a lighter touch). While the Washington Post continues to uncritically praise those reforms, a closer look at their outcomes suggests that all may not be so rosy, especially for those on the front lines of the changes — principals, teachers, and, of course, students and their families.

Henderson’s biggest claim to date is the recent bump in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, or “the Nation’s Report Card”). DCPS, along with the state of Tennessee, posted the largest two-year NAEP gains of any state between 2011 and 2013. Like Tennessee State Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, Henderson attributes much of these gains to the District’s use of student test scores to evaluate and make decisions about teachers, principals, and schools, and to other policies enacted in compliance with the District’s Race to the Top grant. Also like Tennessee, unfortunately, the gains largely did not go to the poor and minority students those reforms were supposed to help, but rather to higher-income white students.

In the four years prior to the Rhee and Henderson era, fourth graders gained an average of 9 points in math—virtually identical to the 10 points they gained from 2009 to 2013. The earlier gains, however, were distributed equally among higher- and lower-income students, while those of the past four years are heavily skewed, with higher-income students reaping twice the gains of their low-income counterparts. The pattern is more troubling in fourth grade reading. In the Rhee-Henderson era, higher-income students saw nearly ten times the gains compared to their low-income peers (19 points vs. 2 points). Low-income eighth graders have fared better, posting larger gains in both math and reading in the past four years than they did in the earlier four. Even so, the bias toward higher-income students is extremely pronounced; the income gap in math widened by ten points in just the past four years.

This trend certainly did not begin with Henderson. DCPS has long had the largest achievement gaps in the nation, due to a number of factors, including high levels of income inequality, and residential and school segregation. Prior to Rhee’s appointment, however, things had been moving slowly but surely in the right direction. All students were gaining ground in both math and reading, and disadvantaged students were gaining more. As a result, gaps were narrowing. The start of test-based measures to evaluate teachers and schools, along with a focus on competition as a way to improve the system, however, appears to have stalled that progress.

Troublingly, these reforms seemed to have also increased teacher and principal turnover in DCPS, where the churn was already high. Of teachers who left DCPS under Rhee’s new IMPACT teacher evaluation policy, many more had been deemed “effective” and left voluntarily than the small proportion who were forced out due to “ineffective” or “minimally effective” ratings; it seems that evaluations based on test scores hurt already low morale and made the system even less attractive for many of the strong teachers it needed to recruit and retain. The problem was just as dire at the leadership level, where DCPS also struggles; more than half of the new principals Rhee hired were gone after just two years, and by the time she left, virtually all had gone, too. Yet Henderson has kept IMPACT largely intact, albeit slightly reducing the weight of test scores.

There can be no question that Henderson cares deeply about the future of poor and minority children in the District. But it seems that she also has a deep-seated belief, notwithstanding much evidence to the contrary, that a strong focus on test scores and on recruiting teachers who are young, enthusiastic, and make “no excuses” for poverty, are the best ways to improve disadvantaged students’ odds of success. A fundamental belief in policies and strategies that are fundamentally wrong is not what DCPS needs in its Chancellor.

As we document in our study of similar reforms in DC, Chicago, and New York City, while all three districts saw similar problems with respect to test scores and gaps, all three have also implemented other, innovative programs with much more promise to boost achievement, to narrow gaps, and to enable students to reach for goals beyond higher test scores. DCPS’ universal pre-kindergarten program is among the nation’s best; expanding it to serve toddlers and ensuring support for parent engagement could make it even stronger.

Making the strong, consistent student-teacher relationships and hands-on activities of New York City’s small high schools a priority in DCPS would offer all students what only a minority currently enjoy. And ensuring that disadvantaged students have equal access not only to Advanced Placement courses, but to the foundational classes they need to successfully pass them, and to the in-school college guidance specialists that can help them take the next steps toward post-secondary education, as Arne Duncan did in Chicago, would make college and career readiness more a viable reality than a talking point. If the next Chancellor pays more attention to those, and ratchets back the pressure on test scores, it will be win-win for the district.

Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), where she works with three co-chairs and numerous allied organizations to shift the education policy discussion from closing achievement gaps to addressing their underlying cause, gaps in opportunity. BBA released two major reports in 2013, Market-oriented reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality, and Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement, both of which document the lack of evidence underlying education policies that rely heavily on test scores and the harms that they can cause.