The Washington Post
School reform drove achievement
Researchers find D.C.’S bold changes set in motion progress for students.
ONE OF the success stories in American education has been the turnaround of education in the nation’s capital in the decade since school reform was ushered in. Schools in D.C., once ranked among the worst in the country, are now some of the fastest improving. Critics of the changes that included mayoral control of the school system long have argued that statistics purporting to show academic gains actually reflect gentrification and changes in the composition of the student body, not real improvements in the quality of education. A rigorous new study refutes that myth and demonstrates that D.C.’S bold school reform drove the progress in student achievement.
Evidence of D.C.’S improvement isn’t new, as students have posted outsize gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) during the past decade. A report this year by the Council of the Great City Schools spotlighted D.C. as the fastest-improving of all large urban school districts, outperforming expectations.
Now researchers from Mathematica, a social policy research company, have confirmed that students in both D.C.’S school system and the public charter schools made impressive academic progress compared with other cities in the 15 years since mayoral control was implemented. What’s significant about Mathematica’s study is that it used new advanced statistical modeling techniques to make a causal connection between the progress of D.C’S students and the city’s policy decisions, debunking population shifts as a factor. D.C. did see an influx of more White and higherincome students; the share of Black students fell 15 percentage points and the share of White students rose by the same amount. But researchers found that improvements in learning were over and above what could be attributed to demographic changes in student enrollment. In fact, researchers found that Black and Hispanic students showed the most real progress in math and early literacy. Researchers also concluded that the positive impacts last at least through eighth grade for math, suggesting that, unlike many other types of reform, the benefits in D.C. did not fade out.
There is, of course, still much work to be done. Most students are still not proficient in reading and math, and the impacts of covid-19 have been devastating, putting students even further behind. D.C. has, as Mathematica researchers noted, a strong educational system with mayoral control, an independent charter authorizer and a unified enrollment process. It must continue to build on that foundation.