The public schools of the District of Columbia began their era of radical “reform” in 2007. The City Council, desperate for a quick fix to the low test scores and bureaucratic dysfunction of the school system, believed the much-heralded claims of a “New York City miracle,” supposedly due to mayoral control. The D.C. Council adopted mayoral control, hoping for the same miracle. Hard-charging Mayor Adrian Fenty, acting on the advice of NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, hired Michelle Rhee to be the Chancellor of the D.C. school system in 2007.
Rhee became the national face of the new reform movement. She closed schools, despite community protests. She fired principals and teachers. She ridiculed anyone who spoke of poverty as making excuses. She negotiated a sweeping teacher evaluation system and made war with the teachers’ union. She appeared on the covers of both TIME and Newsweek. She even won plaudits from both Presidential candidates during one of their debates in 2008. According to TIME, Rhee had a plan to fix the D.C. schools. She even predicted she would make it the best urban district in the nation.
Rhee was a lightning rod for admirers and critics. In 2010, Mayor Fenty lost his bid for re-election; Rhee was the central issue. She resigned, and the new Mayor Vincent Gray appointed Rhee’s deputy Kaya Henderson, fearful of offending the powerful supporters of Rhee and her methods. Henderson pledged to continue Rhee’s initiatives, but with a less confrontational style.
So after eight years, how did D.C. students do on the new PARCC test? Recall that D.C. won a Race to the Top Grant and embraced the Common Core standards.
The results are in, and they are appalling.
“District of Columbia officials released results from a recent citywide elementary school exam Monday, and the scores are abysmal. Less than a quarter of students met expectations in either math or English.
“Among all eighth grade students who took the test, just 3 percent met expectations in math, while 8 percent of seventh graders met the math expectations, according to Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test results….
“Of all the D.C. public school students in grades three through eight who took the test, only 25 percent met English expectations, and just 21 percent are on the correct level in math achievement.
“Around half of individual elementary schools didn’t have a single student who exceeded expectations in math….
“In October the test results for high school students showed just one in 10 sophomores is on track to be prepared for college.
“The vast majority of city schools scored flat zeros in math preparedness, with the 10 percent average being largely propped up by two premiere magnet schools with rigorous admission standards.
“Kaya Henderson, chancellor of DC Public Schools, called the test results “sobering,” and called for more “strategic investments” in the city’s failing schools.”
G.F. Brandenburg, retired D.C. Teacher and lose observer of the District’s schools, says the combination of all-testing-all-the-time and putting half the students in unregulated charter schools was not successful.
Eight years of reform and what was accomplished? D.C. reforms cost many hundreds of millions of dollars. Many professionals were fired. There was little or no benefit to students. In Wendy Kopp’s last book, “A Chance to Make History,” she points to D.C. as an example of Teach for America’s ability to reform an entire district. That story line just dissolved.
Who will be held accountable? Who will really put students in the District of Columbia first? If any district can be considered a full-scale trial of the new punitive, competitive, business-style approach to education, it is the District of Columbia. How sad.