Much to her credit, Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis responds to DC achievement gaps before anyone in DCPS or in the broader DC Reform Community

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Washington Teacher’s Union President Elizabeth Davis left a response to the post here on Jayblog showing that DCPS black students would go well into their high school years before catching up to where White DCPS students stood in 4th grade. I disagree in large part (but agree partially) with her take, and will briefly explain why below. Let the record show however that the score as of now stands WTO 1, DCPS 0 on the acknowledgement scorecard. Anyone? Anyone? Kaya?


Perhaps the large community of DC K-12 reform oriented organizations would like to join the conversation that Heritage started as well. I know the allure of delving into the minutiae of federal statutes can be very powerful, but it’s okay to leave the tower now and again to examine what is going on around you. As in right around you with your own tax dollars.

But silly me I digress! Ms. Davis’ response:

The PARCC scores showed that 24% of students in grades 3-8 in public and public charter schools met or exceeded expectations in math and 25% of those same students met or exceeded expectations in English Language Arts. The bottom line is that a full 75% of our students failed to meet expectations.

The Washington Teachers’ Union acknowledges that some aggregate gains have been made, and some of those gains have been significant. However, those significant gains are found in schools that have been least effected by the so-called reform strategies. In other words, where the school district has made the greatest gains is in the schools that were already high performing and not a target of the reforms. Conversely, students in schools where the most teachers were fired, that attended schools that were closed due to low test scores, and had the most teacher turnover saw meager gains compared to their wealthy counterparts.

For years the WTU has called on the District Administration to adequately address these unacceptable and rapidly growing achievement gaps. Those calls were met with hubris and more of the same top-down failed policies.

Today we ask the community to review these data and understand that doing more of the same will only make a bad situation worse. In the coming days we will share more data that helps explain this unfortunate situation and share the plan we proposed to the district many months ago.

We can close the achievement gap. But that will only happen when the current failed policies are discontinued and the voice of those working with the students in the classroom is a meaningful part of the improvement discussion.

Maybe most importantly, we must ensure that the school district’s teacher evaluation system does not penalize those teachers who take on the challenge of educating our neediest students. Over the past eight years, DCPS has replaced over 3,000 of its teachers. So the bad teacher narrative no longer applies as a credible reason for the growing achievement gap in our school district. Many of our members have told us that the IMPACT evaluation system victimizes those who teach in low-performing schools.

-Elizabeth Davis, President of the Washington Teachers’ Union

My brief take on the substance: yes the gentrified schools will have been least affected by the reforms but when they are posting NAEP scores that make Massachusetts blush policies aimed at removing ineffective educators won’t be very much in play.  Given the plight of disadvantaged children in DCPS it would seem difficult at best to argue that the staff hired to educate these children have too little job security. I am however willing to hear the case made.

Please note further that the DCPS charter sector has made progress in closing the achievement gap with significantly fewer resources per pupil than those granted to DCPS. I’ve seen but have not explored claims that these reforms are contributing to progress in DCPS, but I will say this much to agree with Ms. Davis- it is very difficult to find evidence of that claim in DC NAEP scores to date. While there is absolutely blindingly clear evidence that DC choice policies (charters and OSP) have clear benefits to disadvantaged DC children, you are hard pressed to make the case that anything else has done much for these kids to date in terms of generating positive trends.

I am entirely open to discussion and debate on that point, but when you have schools with scores barely above Detroit receiving over $29,000 per student in revenue, I find it difficult to reach any other conclusion. DC charters get less and show higher NAEP scores and gains. OSP shows higher graduation rates for profoundly disadvantaged kids with a fraction of the spending.

I’m at the point where it only makes sense to decentralize power further into the hands of the parents and let them sort things out. The details over equity (more money for low-income kids), academic transparency (light touch please) and financial accountability (brutal is better) would be crucial, but disadvantaged children in DCPS have nothing to lose and much to gain.

(edited for typos)

4 Responses to Much to her credit, Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis responds to DC achievement gaps before anyone in DCPS or in the broader DC Reform Community

  1. George Mitchell says:

    When I read Ms. Davis’ measured post I was surprised to learn of her position. I fully acknowledge a bias, one fueled by >30 years of disingenuous bs from AFT and NEA. Ms. Davis either is the rare example of a teachers union official ready to have a discussion or she sees a tactical advantage to be gained by highlighting the serious problems that Matt’s data reveal. I have no basis for knowing which is the case. The fundamental reality is that the kind of policy direction that Matt correctly favors is at odds with the agenda of teachers unions. They see power as a zero sum game; give parents more power and it must come at the expense of teachers and their unions. Research in Milwaukee in the 1980s showed that low-income, minority students did relatively better when their teachers felt that parents were actively engaged. I thus argue that teachers’ unions are short-sighted in seeking to block meaningful programs of parent choice.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Aggregate city scores are, of course, worth precisely bupkis in evaluating the effectiveness of reforms – any reforms. That said, good research does corroborate the conclusion that reforms attempted in DC other than choice are ineffective. Even choice has not had a visible effect on public schools (though it helps its own participants) because the program protects the system.

    • matthewladner says:

      I agree that NAEP cannot tell us definitively about any particular policy- reality is far too complex for that, and I have no idea how long this policy has been in place etc. I do however have to say that there is very little evidence that much of anything positive above and beyond the national trend for low-income kids in DC. That fact goes far beyond a dispute between DCPS and WTU about firing ineffective teachers (I’m content to see how that plays out) but rather is a rather damning indictment of both DCPS and WTU in my view.

  3. roofin says:


    Much to her credit, Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis responds to DC achievement gaps before anyone in DCPS or in the broader DC Reform Community | Jay P. Greene's Blog

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