Lessons For All From DC’s Bold Improvement Schools

by Mira Taichman, Education Reform Now and Josh Boots, EmpowerK12

Over the last decade, the District of Columbia invested in a set of education reforms designed to accelerate school improvement. These reforms include expansion of quality public charter schools, closure of low-performing charter schools, and new teacher evaluation, curriculum, and professional development systems in traditional District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Although schools in both sectors have improved over this time, the results of the annual Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) exam show a persistent and significant gap in outcomes among students of different races and income levels.

The gap is particularly wide for students who are at-risk, meaning that they qualify for SNAP, TANF, are experiencing homelessness, or have touched the foster care system. On the 2017 PARCC exam, 16% of at-risk students across grade levels were proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) and 14% proficient in math. For non-at-risk students, 45% were proficient in ELA and 39% proficient in math. Black students across grade levels were 22.2% proficient in ELA and 19.0% in math, while white students were 84.2% proficient in ELA and 77.3% in math. 

Closing this gap remains one of the greatest challenges facing DC public education today. But progress is possible: despite this gap in outcomes, our analysis shows that some of the highest poverty schools in the city are also among the fastest improving academically. This issue brief identifies these fast-improving schools and outlines the strategies they use to close the achievement gap and meet the needs of a high-poverty student body.

Education Reform Now DC and EmpowerK12 analyzed school-level student growth data over the last two years to identify the top ten high-poverty, rapidly improving schools in the District of Columbia based on their scores against a “Growth Index.” This measure weights progress a school has made with the school’s percent of at-risk students. While PARCC scores are a point-in-time measurement, Median Growth Percentile (MGP) scores shows how students have progressed from one year to the next. Our analysis finds that 10 of the District’s public schools serve a high percentage of at-risk students and achieve some of the most significant academic growth in the city.

We call these schools — five DCPS-run schools and five public charter schools — “Bold Improvement Schools.” They share several traits.

EmpowerK12 and Education Reform Now DC examined the quantitative data and dug deeper carrying out a qualitative study of DC’s Bold Improvement Schools. We interviewed teachers, school leaders, parents, staff, and students themselves. We toured the schools, observed classrooms, and uncovered common practices capable of being scaled across the District:

  1. A pervasive culture of and commitment to high academic expectations for every single student
  2. Deep investment in teacher quality
  3. Support for the whole child and for families
  4. Drive to access additional resources and autonomy

Read more in the report here.

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