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Spring 2011 Vol. 11 Number 1

Table of Contents

Teacher Angela Mcmillian and her students at Eliot Hine Middle School, a D.C. public school, photo courtesy DCPS

Weighing the Impacts of School Reforms in D.C.

Faced with chronic low levels of achievement by students and management problems in its public schools, the District of Columbia opted in 2007 to do what some other troubled school districts have done -- give the system a "jolt" by changing how the schools are managed. In D.C.'s case, that meant transferring control of the public schools from an elected school board to the mayor's office, and creating the position of chancellor. The mayor's appointee for that position, Michelle Rhee, made controversial decisions -- such as changing teachers' pay structure -- and had both strong fans and critics.

The 2007 reform law also mandated a five-year evaluation to determine whether the reforms are working well enough to continue. The National Research Council was asked by the City Council to offer a plan for evaluating the reforms, along with a preliminary review of their implementation so far.

The D.C. government has made a good-faith effort to execute the mandated changes, says the Research Council's report, and many of the new management structures have been put in place. As for the reforms' effects, though, it's too soon to tell whether they are actually helping students learn. Although test scores have continued a modest rise under the reform law, the climb alone says nothing about its causes. The reason might be the reforms, or the sizable demographic shifts that are typical of D.C. schools, or some mix of factors.

Studies that follow the same group of students over time would be a better way to discern what's behind the rise in scores, the report says. But it also cautions against getting fixated on test scores, which are only one important indicator of whether students are faring well. Evaluators should look at a range of outcomes -- such as rates of absenteeism, and whether more students go on to college.

They also need to examine the ways the reforms are implemented, how conditions in the schools are changing, and how well the school district is meeting all of its responsibilities. This would involve regular collection and reporting of key data, as well as in-depth studies of high-priority issues. The mayor's office should produce an annual report on the schools' status, including an analysis of trends and complete underlying data.

Because the effects of any reform don't reveal themselves overnight, the report recommends that D.C. establish an ongoing evaluation program, one that is independent of school and city leaders and can generate high-quality research on what's happening in the city's schools -- regardless of who is in charge. --  Sara Frueh

A Plan for Evaluating the District of Columbia's Public Schools: From Impressions to Evidence. Committee on Independent Evaluation of D.C. Public Schools, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2011, approx. 220 pages; ISBN 0-309-20936-6; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $48.00 plus $5.00 for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Robert Hauser, executive director of the National Research Council's Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, and Christopher Edley, dean, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley. The report was sponsored by the Government of the District of Columbia, National Science Foundation, CityBridge Foundation, Philip L. Graham Fund, Kimsey Foundation, World Bank, and the Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation.

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences