The Abyss Gazes into TFA…

March 5, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Max Eden provides a helpful summary of the various scandals plaguing the District of Columbia Public School system. After three Teach for America alumni chancellors we find the district scandal-ridden and clinging to a vastly overrated NAEP record as a life preserver. Upon close examination however that life preserver looks more like an anvil than a life-vest:

The best proxy for disadvantage is parental education. The achievement of students whose parents had high school diplomas but no postsecondary education decreased by three points in math and one point in reading. That puts DCPS two points below Detroit Public Schools in reading and one point above in math. But at least Detroit improved by two points in reading and 10 points in math.

Although there’s apparently little difference between DCPS and Detroit for disadvantaged students, there should be for “evidence-based” policy experts. Given that DCPS’s spending is about twice that of Detroit, DCPS appears to be one of the worst school districts in the country for serving disadvantaged students.

The two bright spots for DC K-12 are as follows: in the choice sector for disadvantaged students and in select pockets of excellence in the District. Momma always said that DCPS would be good at something- who knew that it would be educating highly advantaged kids?

Take a good long look at the above chart. DCPS 8th grade Black students are had nowhere even close to the level mathematics achievement that DCPS White students had as 4th graders (272 for 4th grade White students in 2011 compared to 248 for 8th grade Black students in 2015).

Perhaps some of our friends who remain committed to the DCPS teacher evaluation system could grace the comment section to explain why Black students in DCPS only progressed 36 points (very meh) on NAEP math between 2011 and 2015. DCPS Black students made 38 points of math progress between 2003 and 2007, which isn’t meaningfully different- oh brave new world!

The question isn’t whether the DCPS teacher evaluation system is a magic bullet- it isn’t. Given these numbers I’m wondering if the teacher evaluation system constitutes a bullet at all. Not only did DCPS achievement remain stalled in DCPS, it actually slowed in DC charter schools. Between 2003 and 2007 Black students in DC charter schools displayed a cohort NAEP gains of 54 points, but only 46 between 2011 and 2015. I’ll put it on my to-do list to look at these numbers again when the 2013-2017 cohort gains become available.

For now, teacher evaluation looks more like a pea that got stuck in someone’s straw than a magic bullet imo. In any case, DCPS provides a cautionary tale of those holding a torch for better living through proper management. Chubb and Moe called this almost three decades ago: the fundamental problem with American K-12 is politics and the sad conclusion to draw from the DCPS experience is that the ability of school district politics to corrupt the TFA alumni network >>> than the network’s ability to redeem school district politics. Would that it were otherwise, but this conclusion is as unavoidable as it is disappointing.

Where to go from here? Eden lays out a compelling case:

DCPS is no longer a case study for education reformers, but for teachers unions. Union leaders can look at what weakened job protections and metric-chasing mandates have wrought and say, “I told you so.”

So, what should come next? Admitting a problem is the first step toward fixing it. A movement that talks incessantly about “accountability” ought to practice it within its own ranks. To maintain basic credibility, reformers must admit failure and ostracize, rather than celebrate, those responsible.