Corrected: A previous version of this article includes an outdated count for the number of District of Columbia public schools and outdated racial and economic demographics.
On a recent January morning, Lewis Ferebee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, watched as wiggling kindergartners chanted numbers in Spanish and chatty 3rd graders pored over mystery novels.
The chancellor—who is a year into his tenure—was at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View, a dual-language program, for one of his weekly visits to the 117 traditional public schools in the nation’s capital. He went from classroom to classroom, sometimes sitting quietly in the back and sometimes sitting next to students, asking questions about their work.
Seeing teachers and students in action, Ferebee said in an interview afterward, is a reminder of the talent driving the district’s success. He took over a school system that, as he put it, is in “transformation.”
District schools have recently been plagued by a, including one in which struggling high schools granted hundreds of diplomas to chronically absent students who should have failed. And the system is still wrestling with the legacy of major education reforms, such as .
Even so, district leaders say public schools in the city are on an upward trajectory. The District of Columbia’s overall grade on Quality Counts’ Chance-for-Success Index has improved more than any state’s between 2008, the first year of the current iteration of the scoring system, and 2020. Then, the District received a C grade, trailing behind most of the country.
Now, D.C. ranks No. 7 in the nation with a solid B on the Index, which incorporates more than just school-based factors, including socioeconomic and other indicators that affect a person’s chances of lifelong success. Driving the improvements are strong gains in family income, parent education, kindergarten enrollment, and 4th grade reading and 8th grade math results.
“I think the overall city’s approach to education is centered around a philosophy ... of everyone having a fair shot,” Ferebee said. “In my mind, it’s a clear strategy for socioeconomic mobility—ensuring that everybody has this equal opportunity to take care of themselves and their families and understanding that a strong public school system is the foundation for that.”
There’s still a long way to get to that point: The district has a significant achievement gap between black and white students, as well as between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers, that is not reflected in the Chance-for-Success Index. (Seventy-four percent of the district’s students are considered economically disadvantaged. Nearly 60 percent of students are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, and 16 percent are white.)
Despite the district’s progress, it still ranks near the bottom of states in 4th grade reading, 8th grade math, and the high school graduation rate. D.C. also finishes in the bottom half of states in family income, parental education, parental employment, and the percentage of children whose parents are fluent English speakers.
The District’s overall standing in the Chance-for-Success Index is buoyed by strong results in the category for adult outcomes—educational attainment, annual income, and steady employment. However, public school graduates in the city might not be sharing in those opportunities, since the federal government and associated industries are a magnet for highly educated workers from across the nation.
Education in the city has undergone major shifts over the past decade-plus—the D.C. mayorin 2007, enrollment has expanded in public charter schools, and the school district adopted tougher academic standards, curricula, and assessments, as well as the rigorous, albeit controversial, teacher-evaluation system.
“I think this is much more evolutionary than revolutionary,” said Kathy Patterson, the city auditor and a former longtime City Council member who chaired the education committee. “When you see test scores rising slowly, and from a pretty low level, I think that whole reorganizing of how the District of Columbia public schools work had a huge impact.”
Focus on Early Childhood
Ferebee points to the city’s 2008 expansion of free pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds as a game changer.
“If you had asked people at that time, could a city like D.C. pull off universal early-childhood education, I would think there probably would have been a lot of question marks,” he said.
But the district aligned preschool curricula with the rest of the elementary grades’ and committed to providing instructional coaching and professional development for early-childhood teachers, who are paid similarly to other teachers in the district. The result has been a nationally recognized early-childhood-education system that is getting results.
“I think [the expansion of pre-K] got a lot of momentum for families to stay,” said Chelsea Coffin, the director of the education policy initiative at the D.C. Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank in the city. “Everybody likes free child care, [so they stay] through kindergarten and then get used to the schools.”
The District now ranks No. 1 in the nation in both preschool and kindergarten enrollment, according to the Chance-for-Success Index. And its leaders see the investment in early-childhood education as laying the groundwork for increased student achievement down the road.
“The focus on early-literacy skills has really helped us advance early-literacy acquisition in grades K-2, so students are coming more and more with skill sets that we had not seen in the past,” Ferebee said.
In 2007, NAEP results show that about 14 percent of the city’s 4th graders were proficient in reading, and 8 percent of 8th graders were proficient in math. Now, 30 percent of the city’s 4th graders are proficient in reading, and 23 percent of 8th graders are proficient in math.
Over that time period, the city’s proportion of white and Hispanic students has increased, while the proportion of black students has declined. However, afound that while the demographic change explains some of the increase in scores, the actual score increases have generally far outpaced any gains predicted by shifts in factors like race, ethnicity, and language. (The analysis did not account for family income.)
Policy analysts say they would like to better understand the effects of gentrification on the city’s schools. Last year, the D.C. Councilto collect and analyze data for the city’s schools. A research agenda, however, has yet to be made.
A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as A Long, Slow Climb to Improvement Gains Momentum