In response to my Nation piece on achievement gaps in Washington, D.C. district public schools, commenter E.B. wondered how things would look different if we measured student proficiency instead of raw NAEP scores. This is a great question, since proficiency–defined as "solid academic performance"–is the standard to which we should hold most children.
As you can see from the chart I've whipped up below, things still look pretty abysmal when we measure proficiency instead of raw achievement. While D.C. public school students from every demographic group made modest gains over the past four years, just a small minority of black (12 percent), Hispanic (22 percent), and poor children (11 percent) in Washington perform at grade level in math. I've included scores from Charlotte, North Carolina as a comparison, since Charlotte typically outperforms other urban districts.
When we compare Charlotte to D.C., we see that demographics play an important, but ultimately limited, role in a child's academic performance. Poor, black, and Hispanic students do better in Charlotte than they do in D.C. 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. (To review why integrated schools are often better schools, click here and here.) There are also an almost-unlimited number of curricular, pedagogical, and human resources practices that could be responsible for one district, like Charlotte, outperforming another, like Washington, D.C.
I want to be clear–especially in response to Alexander Russo–that I'm not attempting to hold Michelle Rhee responsible for the existence of these achievement gaps, which far predate her term and are partly attributable to demographic realities out of her control. What I do want to do is call attention to the continued underperformance of disadvantaged D.C. kids compared to their peers in other cities. The Rhee agenda was multi-faceted. It included elements I support, such as bureaucratic streamlining and the recruitment of more college-educated families into the public school system, and elements about which I am skeptical, such as the tying of teacher evaluation and pay to student standardized test scores. The Rhee years also conincided, as Alexander notes, with an increase in charter school enrollment, and there is some limited evidence that D.C. charters may be outperforming the city's traditional schools.
The takeaway, I think, is that Rhee pursued a number of reforms, but there is no evidence that her most controversial, anti-union moves are responsible for the limited growth we've seen–or that teacher-evaluation reforms alone can, over time, move many more poor, black, and Hispanic D.C. chidren to academic proficiency. Indeed, the D.C. public schools are still highly segregated by race and class, with quality teachers more clustered than ever in whiter, wealthier schools. These trends are negatively correlated with high academic achievement for disadvantaged kids.