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D.C. School Leaders Say Curriculum And Choice Have Led To Test Score Gains

Why have D.C. public school students posted gains in math and reading? It depends on who you ask.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Why have D.C. public school students posted gains in math and reading? It depends on who you ask.

The District's public school system is celebrating the results of a national test that shows significant improvement in student's math and reading scores. And the heads of both systems — traditional and charter — attribute different reasons for this success.

District students showed an improvement of five to seven points in math and reading, far higher than the national average. So how did they do it? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls says it's because school leaders had the courage to do the right thing.

"Too often I think we, what I would call demean, the teaching profession by treating everyone as if they're the same. And what D.C. has done is hard, difficult tough work of trying to better identify great talent and support those teachers trying to get better. And for those for whom it simply not working after mentoring and help is having those difficult conversations," he says.

D.C.'s traditional public schools chancellor Kaya Henderson agrees. She attributes the improvement to teacher quality. Also, she says, implementing the most rigorous Common Core standards has made a difference.

"Three years ago we had no standardized curriculum across the District," she explains.

Henderson says D.C. public schools implemented the Common Core standards, along with text books, lesson plans and professional development. "And that more rigorous curriculum is what I think has delivered these outsized results," she says.

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the public charter school system, says the improved results are because of more school choice.

"The results in D.C. say choice matters, competition matters, giving parents a diversity of choice matters. All our schools are looking over their shoulders at other schools and working 24/7 to get better and that wouldn't happen without a dynamic choice system in this city," he says.

Both Henderson and Pearson say schools are trying a range of strategies to improve the results of students who are English-language learners, the only sub-group of children who did not show improvement.

D.C. has shown the most growth in the country, but it also ranks last in terms of overall scores — not even 30 percent of 4th graders and not even 20 percent of 8th graders are considered  proficient or higher.

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