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DCPS Achievement Gap Blamed on Officials, Demographics, Lack of Funding

Dorothy Rowley | 12/29/2011, 4:23 p.m.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data shows the efforts of former D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson failed to reduce achievement gaps, or guarantee to that children would receive at least an adequate, "average" education, regardless of the school they attended.

The report also concluded that in the DCPS system which is about 80 percent African-American, the gap in achievement between black and white students was the widest in the country.

For example, 4th-grade math students in the District scored an average of 212 points out of a possible 500 while white students scored 262 points. This equates to a 50-point difference--twice the national average. (The gap in New York City and Philadelphia, on the other hand, is about 20 points.) The DCPS findings were among test score data for 21 of the nation's largest school districts.

A spokesman for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education said the widening gap has long been a topic of conversation among D.C. educators.

"It's been looked at and talked about for a while," said Marc Caposino. "I know that there are programs in the DCPS system as well as within the charters that are targeting low-income kids as well as English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) kids to improve the numbers." He added that at one facility he recently visited, staff had displayed inspirational messages on walls to encourage better student performance.

Overall, "[the gap in DCPS] is not something that's much different than any other major urban," Caposino said. "I can also say that the District has one of the highest educated white populations in the country, which is also a significant contributor."

Asked who is to blame for the gap, Caposino responded, "no one in particular."

He said that instead of looking for blame, concerned parties should consider how to improve the situation. "And that's where our efforts are focused," he said.

One area Chancellor Henderson said she feels worthy of focus is the combination of teacher performance and school closings. During a radio broadcast interview last week, she said her office is carrying out a "Herculean effort" to ensure highly qualified teachers are in city classrooms.

Henderson also said in 2008, some 23 DCPS facilities were closed and several more are slated for closing next year.

"When enrollment and achievement have been declining, it makes the school a good candidate for closure," said Henderson.

Meanwhile, Dana Goldstein, a fellow at the non-profit Nation Institute in New York City analyzed DCPS's scores and compared them with the school system in Charlotte, NC. She found that demographics play a vital, yet limited role in students' academic performance.

"Poor, black, and Hispanic students do better in Charlotte than they do in D.C.," Goldstein wrote in comments pertaining to the NAEP study. "There are many reasons why this is so, starting with "peer effects:" The Charlotte district is more diverse than DCPS, with a greater percentage of white, Asian, and middle-class students, as well as individual schools and classrooms that are more socioeconomically-integrated."