Reforms Help DC Schools Outperform MPS

By Christian D’Andrea

MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece from their editorial board highlighting the improved scores of students in the Washington D.C. thanks to recent reforms. District students showed significant growth – approximately five percent in both reading and math – in early education in public school classrooms. With that growth, Washington D.C.’s schools fired a shot over MPS’s bow – the nation’s capital’s schools are now outperforming Milwaukee’s.

While Wisconsin still leads D.C. when it comes to reading and math on the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP), MPS has fallen behind the district in three of the four major categories.

WI vs. DC - NAEP Scores

Washington D.C.’s growth has pushed one of the country’s more troubled school districts into the middle of the pack when it comes to education in large urban areas. Its climb in the rankings has come at the expense of cities like Milwaukee, which have languished with stagnant test scores over the same time frame. The Post’s article showcases that these strong returns will continue into the future thanks to reports on the district’s annual assessment system. So what made the District of Columbia so successful with their recent growth?

The answer lies in a decade of large-scale reform that has offered legitimate change to an underserved district. One of the most significant of these reforms was a comprehensive grading system for teachers that rewarded high performing educators and helped usher poor performers out of the classroom. That, in concert with a modest school choice program that helped pair the students that needed the most assistance with the schools that could best serve them, helped spark this very real turn around in D.C.

This commitment to change remained even as leadership changed within the district. Other changes, such as a focus on reading in early childhood education, a shift to Common Core standards for teaching and standardized testing, and curriculum changes including a greater focus on pre-kindergarten all played significant roles in this turnaround.

For Milwaukee’s Public Schools, D.C. should serve as a valuable example. The district made waves with large-scale reform earlier in the decade, but held true to that ideal even after Mayor Adrien Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee were no longer in office. D.C. bred a culture of reform, and they will reap the benefits of that shift for years into the future.

MPS is not a lost district, but it is a struggling one. Efforts in the past two decades have been made to fix Milwaukee’s public schools, but these smaller reforms have made a limited impact when it comes to creating growth in the classroom. Other cities like D.C. have found a way to escape the clutches of low performance thanks to inciting big changes in their schools. It stands to reason that Milwaukee can as well – but it won’t be easy, and it can’t be done halfway. 

After decades of half measures, MPS has to leap firmly to raise the status of all students.