Washington D.C.’s education reforms boosted student achievement over the last 15 years, according to a recent study. But researchers found little or no improvement at higher grades, and they overlooked the crucial issue of what is being taught and how.
The Washington Post editorial board, a longtime cheerleader for D.C.’s reform effort, proclaimed that the study by the prominent research firm Mathematica establishes the city as “one of the success stories in American education.” The analysis, the editorial declared, refutes the “myth” that gentrification is largely responsible for an increase in test scores.
The study has drawn little attention elsewhere. D.C. was once the poster child for the education reform movement, but activists who used to see education as the path to equity have mostly moved on to broader issues like poverty and, increasingly, racism. They’ve concluded that reforms like those analyzed in the study—mayoral control of schools, a teacher evaluation system tied to test scores, and a proliferation of charter schools—just didn’t work.
But many of the structures created by those reforms are still embedded in major school systems across the country, including D.C.’s. So it’s important to know if they have worked—and if not, why not.
Before D.C.’s reforms began in 2007, the school system was a mess: textbooks languished in warehouses, paychecks went undelivered, buildings were in various states of decrepitude. As mayoral control resolved these basic administrative failings, schools saw an influx of students from wealthier families, who generally score higher on tests. So have scores increased because the system now has more of those kids? Or has teaching and learning improved for kids from lower-income families? Previous studies have come to contradictory conclusions.
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For this study, the Mathematica researchers used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math every two years. They compared D.C.’s results against those from other similar geographic areas where its “market-based” reforms were not adopted. And they controlled for the change in the racial make-up of the student population in D.C., where the share of Black students has fallen by 15 percentage points and the share of white students has risen by a corresponding amount.
You could argue that the researchers should have controlled for income as well as race, or that trying to isolate specific factors—and determine their success by comparison to other areas where different factors might have been at work—is impossible. And using NAEP data to determine the impact of any particular reform is problematic because the tests don’t follow the same group of students over time.
That was pointed out years ago by education researcher Steven Glazerman, who coined the term “misnaepery.” “Beware of arguments that use NAEP to defend or attack policies like charter expansion or teacher layoffs,” he wrote. “The reality is that NAEP is not meant for this purpose.”
That certainly sounds like a warning against this particular study—except that Glazerman, formerly a senior fellow at Mathematica, is thanked in the acknowledgments. So perhaps he’s abandoned his earlier skepticism, or he feels his objections have been answered by the study’s technique of using NAEP data to create “pseudocohorts” of students. (Glazerman wrote his piece for a D.C. news website for which I was also a writer and editor at the time.)
But even if you accept Mathematica’s methodology, the study falls far short of proof that the reforms “worked.” It did conclude that scores rose in fourth- and eighth-grade math beyond what would be accounted for by demographic change. But there were no increased improvements in math at eighth grade—suggesting, the researchers said, “that instructional improvements may have been primarily in the early grades.” Another possibility is that early instruction didn’t prepare kids for learning more sophisticated mathematical concepts.
In reading, the results were even less impressive: scores rose at fourth grade but not at eighth. Given the importance of reading ability to learning in general, that finding is sobering. The study came to no conclusions about high school because of a lack of data, but given the eighth-grade results, it’s highly unlikely there were gains in either math or reading at that level.
With the kinds of reforms D.C. undertook, it’s common to see a lack of progress at upper grade levels. Why? The passages on reading tests aren’t tied to anything specific that kids have learned in school—in fact, they’re designed to avoid those topics, because the tests are theoretically assessing general reading comprehension ability rather than content knowledge. But if students don’t have enough knowledge of the topic of a test passage—or enough general academic knowledge and vocabulary to understand “grade-level” text on any topic—they never get a chance to demonstrate their ability to “find the main idea” of a passage or “make inferences” about the meanings of specific words. And passages at higher grade levels assume an increasing amount of general academic knowledge and vocabulary.
Students from more highly educated families typically absorb that knowledge at home, giving them an advantage on standardized tests. If kids from less-educated families aren’t acquiring that kind of knowledge at school, they fall farther behind every year. Education reformers have generally been oblivious to that dynamic, and to the fact that their emphasis on boosting reading test scores has only exacerbated a long-standing focus on illusory reading comprehension skills—like “finding the main idea”—at the expense of building knowledge, especially in the elementary grades. Not surprisingly, the Mathematica study makes no mention of that either.
The researchers overlook the potential downsides of the reforms, which I might also have remained unaware of had I not been writing about D.C. schools during part of the period covered by the study—visiting classrooms and listening to teachers. The D.C. Public School system’s teacher evaluation framework, called IMPACT, may have helped push out a few “ineffective” teachers, but it was also unfair to many others—especially at the high school level, where educators were faced with the impossible task of getting woefully unprepared students ready to graduate within four short years. Teachers have told me that the resulting stress has been a big factor in D.C.’s extremely high teacher turnover rate. And high teacher turnover has been found to have a negative impact on student achievement.
Then there’s school choice. The competition from charter schools—which enroll almost half of D.C. students—probably spurred improvements in the traditional public school sector. But even with a unified enrollment system—one of the reforms the study evaluated—many parents found the plethora of choices overwhelming. Some charters with low scores were shut down, leading to massive disruption for families. And for the most part, thanks largely to the universal pressure to boost reading scores by drilling kids on isolated comprehension “skills, ” the choices weren’t actually all that different.
To be fair, some DCPS officials have tried to discourage a focus on such skills. But rather than adopting one of the knowledge-building elementary literacy curricula created by curriculum experts in recent years, DCPS created its own version—and from what I’ve seen, it falls far short of those created by experts. Even that curriculum hasn’t been implemented consistently, stymied by competing initiatives from the DCPS administration or simply ignored by educators—including in one school where a DCPS chancellor had enrolled his own children.
And despite the vaunted reforms, DCPS has apparently failed to teach many students the basic skill of decoding, or sounding out, words. With only 30% of fourth-graders scoring at the proficient level or above on the most recent NAEP, one commentator has declared that D.C. is facing “a reading crisis.” And that crisis is clearly continuing to affect different student groups differently: 79% of white fourth-graders scored proficient or above, but only 19% of Black students and 27% of Hispanic students did.
In his piece on “misnaepery,” Steven Glazerman suggested that “we need purposeful experiments that try out promising practices and then collect the data to evaluate them.” That sounds like good advice for his former colleagues at Mathematica. How about comparing one group of students that gets a knowledge-building curriculum beginning in kindergarten to another group that gets the standard approach, as has been done in some other districts? Or comparing one group that gets systematic decoding instruction against another that doesn’t? And maybe try talking to some D.C. teachers and observing some classrooms.
With that kind of data, those who care about fairness in society might realize that schools in fact haven’t tried everything they could, and we might begin to make some real progress in D.C. and elsewhere.