Special Report
Education

District of Columbia

January 04, 2005 3 min read
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Standards and Accountability: A strong accountability system has three main components: clear and specific standards in the core subjects at the elementary, middle, and high school levels; tests aligned with those standards; and methods of holding schools accountable for results, including help for schools rated as low-performing and rewards for high-performing or improving schools.

The District of Columbia’s accountability system is in the early stages. The English, mathematics, and science standards for the nation’s capital are clear and specific for all grade spans. Standards for social studies/history are clear and specific at the high school level.

Despite that strong base, the District does not have any assessments aligned with those standards. It is under a compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to develop standards-based tests.

The District of Columbia’s tests rely completely on multiple-choice questions: They do not include other types of test items, such as short-answer or extended-response questions, to gauge student achievement.

The District publishes report cards and assigns ratings to all its schools. But not all schools identified as low-performing receive help.

Nor do all consistently low-performing or failing schools face sanctions.

The District also does not provide cash rewards to high-performing or improving schools.

Efforts to Improve Teacher Quality: The District of Columbia’s policy efforts to improve teacher quality are somewhat sparse.

The District does not do much to foster the professional development and support of teachers once they are in the classroom. For example, it does not require and finance mentoring for new teachers, pay for professional development, or have written professional-development standards.

The school system’s teacher-accountability measures also are sorely lacking. While the District identifies low-performing teacher-preparation institutions based on its process of program approval and review, its school report cards do not include any of the teacher-qualification data that Education Week tracks, such as the percentage of teachers who are fully licensed, have emergency licenses, or are teaching outside the subjects or grade levels for which they were prepared.

Perhaps the District’s greatest strength is the solid core of written tests it requires teacher-candidates to pass to gain initial teaching licenses.

In fact, the District is one of the few states that require elementary, middle, and high school teachers to pass subject-specific-pedagogy tests that assess their methods of instruction in particular content areas.

While teachers receiving certification through a transcript-review process must complete minimum amounts of coursework and student teaching, teachers who are prepared through teacher education institutions—most of the District’s teachers—need not meet the same requirements. Instead, they complete approved programs in the subject areas for which they are seeking licensure.

School Climate: When it comes to school safety, parent involvement, and student engagement—as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress background survey—the District of Columbia ranks near the bottom. That contributes to its poor showing in school climate.

For example, just 75 percent of 4th graders and 65 percent of 8th graders in the District attend schools where school officials report that physical conflicts are not a problem, or are only a minor problem. No state performs worse on this indicator.

Slightly bolstering the grade are the presence of a charter school law rated as strong by the Center for Education Reform and the fact that a larger percentage of middle and high school students in the city attend small schools than in most states. The average elementary school class size, at 21.7 students, is only slightly above the national average, based on data from the federal 2000 Schools and Staffing Survey.

Equity: The District of Columbia does not receive a grade for equity because it does not have a state funding source.

Spending: The District of Columbia barely increased education spending from the 2000-01 school year to 2001-02. But it still ranks first, ahead of all 50 states, on education spending per student, at $11,269 in the 2001-02 school year.

That number is more than 45 percent above the national average, $7,734.

All students in the District are in schools with spending at or above the national average, and the District scores a 100 percent on the spending index.

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