Published Online: April 30, 1997


Set Up for Failure

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Reform efforts in the nation's capital fit an all-too-familiar pattern.

The District of Columbia financial-control board's recent takeover of Washington's public schools was another example of such action against an urban school system on the verge of collapse. Since 1989, when the Jersey City, N.J., schools became the first fully state-run local district, several urban school districts have come under fire or been taken over by external authority. The reasons have been as diverse as an inability to pay the bills in Cleveland and Compton, Calif., to "educational bankruptcy" in New Jersey. What makes the situation in Washington a valuable lesson for other districts is that the new chief administrator, retired Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., may already be set up for failure. ("D.C. Schools Chief Takes Reins as Balance of Power Shifts," Dec. 4, 1996, and "School-Closing Plan Poses Test for D.C. Leaders," April 16, 1997.)

Just a month after the control board's release of a report deploring the condition of the capital's public schools and appointment of the general as the schools' new head, The Washington Post urged Mr. Becton to set goals and time lines--to publish a formal strategic plan. The idea was to direct the general's attention beyond the many budgetary and maintenance problems to the "larger and central challenge" of student achievement and, specifically, to press him for plans to improve test scores, drop-out rates, and graduation rates.

What could be wrong with setting goals and expectations? Nothing, if they are reasonable, if they guide the public for what's ahead and when reforms are on track. But neither the maintenance contracts nor the bureaucracy the previous superintendent left behind is the primary obstacle to setting the district's schools on the right path.

Rather, Mr. Becton's main problem is pressure to overstate what his administration can do, to endorse a fatuous kind of "can do" planning that pervades so much of our national and local debate about education reforms, and to promise too much. Without clear leadership, reform efforts in Washington will soon fit a pattern familiar to big-city schools across the country.

The pattern begins with a devastating report depicting a nearly unsalvageable system. Soon a proposal emerges that is long on statements about needed reforms and short on cautions about their potential to improve students' performance. Public disappointment sets in when innovations seem to change little and promised results don't amount to much--in part because no one says that sustainable results might take years, not months. But the public's disenchantment is also an opportunity. The stage is set for another critical report, and the cycle begins anew.

The problem: The control board's report concludes that the longer students stay in Washington's public school system, the less likely they are to succeed educationally, but it fails to say fully what this means. The board tells us only that local public school kids fall further behind national norms from grades 6 through 11.

We know of no successful inner-city district in the country, if success means every child performs like the typical suburban district student.

If the primary evidence of school failure is that test scores for the district's largely poor black and Hispanic student population decline over successive grades relative to their white middle-class counterparts, then virtually every school district in the country should be taken over by outside authorities. According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test scores of the largely poor black and Hispanic kids in the local public schools are similar to the test scores of poor black and Hispanic kids everywhere in the country.

It follows that the achievement problem in the city's public schools is not entirely a District of Columbia or even an inner-city problem. The problem is also not likely solely to be poor management, insufficient spending, poor teaching, or inadequate facilities, unless these are also problems in virtually all school districts in the country.

The point is not to let Washington's schools, or any other schools, off the hook. It means that the problem of low achievement of poor black and Hispanic children is a problem that the city's schools share with many schools everywhere. We know of no successful inner-city district in the country, if success means every child performs like the typical suburban district student.

How might General Becton get Washington's schools off the reform treadmill that exhausts so many urban school districts? First, set goals which don't commingle independent problems, especially when they require different remedies. Better maintenance or downsizing the bureaucracy won't improve student achievement. If only school reform were that simple.

Second, set expectations for students informed by what social scientists currently know about student performance in schools--and they know a lot. Even under optimal circumstances, the district's schools are unlikely to outperform the highest-scoring schools in the country. The question is how much difference in student performance an effective school can make.

Based on national data, we know that even as early as the end of 1st grade, children in the lowest-scoring quarter of elementary schools require a full year of additional schooling to equal the reading and mathematics achievement of children in the top-scoring quarter of elementary schools. Most of this difference in achievement between the top- and bottom-scoring schools is because the children in the lowest-scoring schools come from economically deprived backgrounds. When the test scores of children in the top- and bottom-scoring schools are adjusted for these economic differences, there is little difference in reading and mathematics achievement between students in the top- and bottom-scoring schools.

The District of Columbia control board owes it to the public to present a more complete understanding of the challenges the local schools and their students face.

One possible conclusion from the small differences between the top- and bottom-scoring schools in any one year, once economic differences in their students are equated, is that all schools are about equally good. A second possible conclusion is that educators, despite all their rhetoric about how to improve schools, do not really know much about how to raise student achievement across a whole school. If they did, we would surely find that some schools in the country know how to do it better than others, so that achievement differences of similar students in the top and bottom schools would be much greater than they are now.

Either conclusion suggests that the test scores of Washington's students would rise only slightly if they were to attend the best schools in the country for a year. But what about the impact of cumulative gains--the impact of attending effective schools for the entire span of a child's education from grades 1 to 12?

We know from nationally representative assessments of student achievement that the typical student gains about 6 to 10 percentile points in reading and mathematics over his or her previous year's scores. The figure differs somewhat depending on the grade, but for illustration we can use 8 percentile points per year. We can also make the reasonable inference, based on John Chubb and Terry Moe's widely read and debated book on the effectiveness of high schools, as well as other data from middle and elementary schools, that students in the most effective schools gain only about 2 percentiles per year more than this average.

If the public schools in the nation's capital could be brought to the level of effective schools elsewhere, we might expect to see two-eighths--a quarter of a year's gain in any year. If that gain could be sustained across each of the 12 school grades, the cumulative gain would be at least three years of achievement--roughly equivalent to the achievement gap that now separates black high school graduates from white high school graduates.

Setting a goal of a quarter of a year's gain in achievement in each grade might not win political accolades. Nonetheless, it is a first step. And if it were sustained as students progressed through the city's education system, it would be a powerful step.

School reform is pain-staking work, and only modest improvements can be expected in a short time. Under these circumstances, advocacy documents written to muster the political will for "doing something" have a downside. They do not ask the public for the long-term support needed to effect real change and observe the results. Now the District of Columbia control board owes it to the public to present a more complete understanding of the challenges the local schools and their students face--and then General Becton can set reasonable expectations for what can be done about them.

John Ralph is the program director of data development at the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. James Crouse is a professor of education studies at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del. This article was written in their private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.

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Web Resources
  • Read the executive summary of "Children in Crisis," the District of Columbia control board's report on the public schools, published in the Washington Post, Nov. 12, 1996.
  • The District of Columbia Public Schools Web page contains letters from General Julius W. Becton Jr., the newly appointed chief executive officer to school staff, students, and parents.

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