Citywide Education Progress Report

Key Takeaways

For years, Washington, D.C., has been lauded as one of the fastest-improving, fastest-growing urban districts in the country. But in 2018, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) was beset with suspension, enrollment, and graduation scandals that shook the nation’s and city’s confidence. While bruising, these scandals brought to the fore tensions about the availability of high-quality, good-fit options for families, and the quality and culture of secondary schools in particular. D.C. remains a place that other high-choice cities can look to, especially when it comes to cross-sector collaboration and supports for families navigating the public school choice process. Education leaders citywide—district, charter, civic, and nonprofit—have the opportunity now to recommit to what has worked in the city thus far while addressing what has not.


System Reforms

Do students have access
a high-quality education?

Array of school models Good
Enrollment is working Good
Transportation is working Good
Families have information Good
Strategic school supply Developing

Is the education system
continuously improving?

Right leaders Good  
Right teachers Good  
Equitable funding Developing

Is the education strategy
rooted in the community?

Broad support Good
Variety of groups Good
City engages families Good
System is responsive Developing

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. An arrow shows increase or decrease from the 2017 score.

Looking Deeper

Challenges Ahead

Clarifying cross-sector priorities and lines of responsibility

The Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force, in place since 2016, identifies and coordinates citywide initiatives with input from system leaders, the mayor’s office, nonprofits, families, and community members. However, there is a perception among system and community leaders that while the task force has effectively surfaced challenges, it has failed to forge a consensus about how to address them. Interviewees note that it is not clear how different initiatives feed into an overall direction for improvement or who can hold system actors responsible for addressing recommendations. The task force has identified a set of common issues and a good next step will be to clarify how different agencies will address them. It makes the most sense to do this through the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education, which started the task force and has the authority to bring initiatives to fruition. Creating a clear vision and separate lines of responsibility will preserve the strategic autonomy of the district, the charter board, nonprofits, and government entities. Maintaining strategic autonomy is important in a system where two separate education systems—D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and the D.C. Public School Charter Board (DCPCSB)—have provided families with new school options and helped drive improvement systemwide.

Improving the quality and culture of D.C.’s high schools

Interviewees note that there is a lack of quality high school options beyond selective D.C. Public Schools: comprehensive high schools are of poor quality and there are few charter high schools. We propose three options: (1) DCPS should move forward aggressively with a plan to improve the city’s comprehensive high schools, which could be through an intervention like turnaround or transformation. (2) DCPS can expand its variety of non-selective models. Some cities are transforming selective options into open enrollment schools, while others are redesigning high schools with specific career or curricular foci, but keeping them open to any applicant, which could be an option for programs within comprehensive high schools. Redesign can be led by the district or by school teams when coupled with greater school-level autonomy. (3) While low enrollment in public high schools has deterred charter schools from expanding at this level, charter operators with existing high-quality elementary and middle schools should consider extending their feeder patterns into high school.

Rethinking transparency and oversight

Recent graduation and enrollment scandals have highlighted transparency and oversight challenges for DCPS. And while charter schools were not implicated, interviewees note that both systems can stand to improve the controls they have in place. There are two key challenges: (1) a lack of user-friendly, consistently available public data, and (2) insufficient data quality controls within the district and, to a lesser extent, within the charter sector. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is launching a state report card in December 2018. This will rank all schools, charter and district, using a five-star system, providing common definitions of school quality for the first time. We recommend going a couple steps further: developing a dashboard so families can easily compare schools on a single metric, like absenteeism, and improving the consistency of data available, with accompanying data definitions, so system leaders and local researchers can track quality. As for the second challenge, graduation inflation and the Duke Ellington enrollment scandal involving Chancellor Wilson’s daughter highlighted insufficient data quality controls and/or a lack of commitment within the district to enforce its own policies. There are currently several initiatives on the table to improve quality control: cultivating a research practice partnership with an external research center, separating OSSE from the executive branch and developing within it greater research capacity, or housing a research arm within the Office of the D.C. Auditor. Improving data analysis and tightening quality controls are important and necessary steps forward. But whatever path the city takes, the new agency or initiative should clearly separate research from accountability in order to improve transparency and help restore the public’s trust. Any initiative should also ensure that the agency or agencies tasked with data analysis and accountability have the resources and capacity to fulfill their missions.


Incentives Drive Schools to Share Talent Data

In Washington, D.C., schools are putting aside competition and sharing talent data so they can better understand the challenges they face. What started as a program for some D.C. local education agencies (LEAs) to streamline compliance requirements now includes DCPS and almost all charter schools in the city. Entering its third year, the DC Staffing Data Collaborative is thinking beyond compliance to help LEAs strategize to address individual and shared talent challenges.

In D.C., all LEAs are federally required to submit data, which are then sent to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Through the Collaborative, OSSE partners with TNTP, which acts as a research intermediary to collect data, develop individualized reports for participating LEAs, and submit aggregated data to OSSE.

Participation in the program is voluntary but there are benefits—like schools getting financial support to administer the school culture survey and consolidating six separate data submissions per year to one per year.

Now entering year three, the Collaborative believes it has enough data to identify trends that can drive citywide strategy. The group plans to have regular meetings to discuss shared challenges with LEA members and hopes to involve pipeline providers so they can adjust strategy in response to the data.

The program serves as an example of how a city once beset with fierce competition has found ways to leverage existing structures and use the right combination of incentives and support to get almost full participation in a voluntary program.

Families Take the Lead to Open a New School

A small group of parents in one of the city’s most impoverished wards spearheaded a process to open the kind of school they wanted for their neighborhood. Parents from the nearby Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling solicited input from the community, which they then used to set guidelines to develop a request for proposal for school applications from charter operators.

Available land on the military base provided a rare opportunity for such a deliberate process, but some groups hope that family involvement in identifying what a school should look like and in vetting operators can become commonplace.

Over the past several years, the charter application process has included much more emphasis on showing concrete evidence that families want a specific type of school in their neighborhood. To push this work forward, some groups are starting to collect better information about the kinds of schools that families want to see and where they should be sited.

Student and School Outcomes

The graduation rate in D.C. has been increasing, but enrollment in the city’s top-performing schools tilts toward white students.

► The city’s graduation rate has been increasing.

► In 2013-14, 22% of students in D.C. were enrolled in the city’s top-scoring schools. White students enrolled in top-scoring schools at much higher rates than in medium- and low-scoring schools.

Data are for all charter and district schools within the municipal boundary. Performance and enrollment data are from the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education. See Methodology & Resources for more detail.


About Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., started opening charter schools in the mid 1990s. Currently, about half of the city’s schools are operated by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) authorizes the other half. The two organizations collaborate with other city agencies on many initiatives, including a common lottery system launched in 2013. A new chancellor took the helm of DCPS in 2017, but was replaced by Dr. Amanda Alexander as Interim Chancellor one year later.

School Choice in the City

All families have a right to attend their in-boundary school. Families can also apply to charter schools, out-of-boundary DCPS schools on a space-availability basis, and selective DCPS high schools.

Governance Model

DCPS and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education are under mayoral control. The Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 also made DCPCSB an independent agency of the DC government and the sole authorizer of charter schools in the city.

2015 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 87,344
Race and ethnicity: 72% black, 17% Hispanic, 8% white, 3% other
Low-income: 79% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition

Source: Enrollment data from EDFacts, 2014-15.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email crpe@uw.edu.