Agency Performance Oversight Hearing, Fiscal Year 2013-2014, District of Columbia Public Schools

Testimony of Bonnie O’Keefe, Senior Policy Analyst

DC Action for Children

Agency Performance Oversight Hearing

Fiscal Year 2013-2014

District of Columbia Public Schools

Before the Committee on Education

Council of the District of Columbia

February 26, 2014


Good afternoon, Councilmember Catania and members of the Committee on Education. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council as it reviews the performance of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My name is Bonnie O’Keefe, I am a senior policy analyst at DC Action for Children.

DC Action for Children (“DC Action”) provides data-based analysis and policy leadership on critical issues facing DC children and youth, to promote policies and actions that optimize child and family well-being.

DC Action is the home of DC KIDS COUNT, which tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being in the DC neighborhoods where children live, learn and grow. We work closely with city agencies, the school system and service providers to share the most accurate and timely data, along with clear and accessible analysis. Our advocacy agenda is based on these data.

My testimony today will focus primarily on issues affecting DCPS students from Pre-K to third grade, who are at a critical developmental and educational stage. Through our Birth to Eight Quality Initiative and in several recent DC KIDS COUNT publications, DC Action has advocated for a high-quality, comprehensive, aligned birth to eight policy system to start all DC children on the path to a healthy, secure future.

DCPS cannot move on from elementary schools when many continue to struggle.

DCPS is one of the most important pieces in DC’s birth to eight system, and we are pleased with the progress DCPS has made towards improved outcomes for Pre-K to third grade students. But, there is still much work left to be done. Chancellor Henderson has indicated her focus will be on middle school improvements in Fiscal Year 2015, and high schools the year after.[i] We urge the Chancellor and DCPS leaders not to discount the ongoing needs of elementary schools in the next two years. The gains DCPS has made are not sustainable if there is any sense that we as a city have “moved on” from young students. In 23 DCPS elementary schools DC-CAS growth was actually negative in the past year, and in 38 DCPS elementary schools less than half of students read and do math at grade level. This means that in 60% of all of DCPS elementary schools, and in all but one elementary school in Wards 7 and 8, the majority of students are struggling. A shaky foundation of disparate improvements among elementary schools will not support the improved middle and high school options DCPS parents demand.  

For elementary aged children, gains are incremental while achievement gaps are huge.

Late in 2012, DC Action released research showing third grade DC-CAS reading and math scores in DCPS and DC as a whole had made no significant progress since 2007.[ii] Third grade proficiency is an important benchmark that strongly predicts on-time graduation and other markers of academic success. In light of well-reported gains in the 2013 DC-CAS and 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), we have begun to update this analysis.

We found that for third grade students, while improvements should be a source of pride for DCPS, they are far from good enough. 56 percent of third grade students were not reading at grade level according to DC-CAS results, a three percentage point improvement from 2012. One in five third grade students were reading at a “below basic” level. That ratio increases to nearly one in three among black third grade students.

NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) results for DCPS tell a very similar story. Compared to other urban districts, DCPS is making impressive gains in reading and math by the end of third grade. But, scores are still below average and over half of DCPS students scored in the lowest category.[iii] The achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white peers has not changed significantly since 2002, and remains by far the widest among urban districts in the TUDA. DCPS has a 68 point score gap between black and white students in fourth grade reading.[iv]  In contrast, the average black-white achievement gap for an urban district is 32 points and the next closest city to DC is Chicago, where the average gap is 40 points.   

Interventions to improve proficiency have been unevenly applied – what are the results and plans to expand what works?

We appreciate that DCPS is improving from a very low starting point, and we applaud the changes we are finally seeing. But, what is DCPS doing to accelerate those gains for all children from Pre-K to third grade? To ensure that every child enters middle school ready to succeed, we must reduce wide disparities in elementary school performance.

Over the past few years, DCPS has invested in myriad strategies and programs in an effort to improve elementary schools and student performance. For example, in the FY14 budget, 11 assistant principals for literacy at low-performing schools and additional reading specialists were the core of DCPS’s response to the crisis in early literacy and proficiency. Previously, expanded school days were funded at several elementary schools through the Proving What’s Possible grants.

We applaud innovation and investment in our schools, and recognize the importance of piloting programs before expanding them to other schools. But we would like to know which programs have shown success and how DCPS plans to expand them.

At the follow-up hearing, we would like to hear from the Chancellor:

  • Where and how were the FY14 strategies implemented?
  • What are the results of these strategies?
  • Will DCPS replicate strategies that are proven to be effective?


Pre-K Quality and Family Engagement Should Be Priorities

DCPS must focus intensively on Pre-K quality. High quality Pre-K is one of the most effective methods to shrink achievement gaps before they start – in fact, achievement gaps barely change after age five.[v] DCPS’s use of Head Start to create “blended” classrooms with wraparound services in Title I schools is groundbreaking, but how are we measuring the impact of these unique classes? How can we increase the quality of services beyond literacy and math instruction? How are we engaging families to show them the importance of Pre-K and the resources available to them via Head Start?

Family engagement is critical to increasing Pre-K enrollment and attendance. Families need tools to assess their Pre-K options, and to understand the value of getting their child to school on time every day, even in Pre-K. We’d like to hear DCPS’s plan to prevent chronic early absenteeism, which is a proven barrier to third grade proficiency. Interventions with severely truant students are good to have in place, but preventing absenteeism through early family engagement will ultimately be more efficient and educationally effective.


Planning for the Future of DCPS by Serving Neighborhoods

Strategic planning will be key to the future success of DCPS and its students. We were glad to hear the Chancellor say late last year that a dedicated DCPS Office of Strategic Planning was in the works for early 2014[vi], and we would like to hear more about the office’s status, as it does not appear in the most recent organizational chart. Too often in DC, promising ideas are proposed, or new initiatives are announced with much fanfare, but with little coordination, follow-up or planning. We hope to see DCPS be proactive in its goal setting, long-term planning and implementation, with particular attention paid to the needs of neighborhoods. Serving particular neighborhoods is a core strength of DCPS in our current school choice environment, one upon which we hope a new Office of Strategic Planning will build, to create schools that are assets to their surrounding communities.


DC Action welcomes the opportunity to work in partnership with you, Councilmember Catania, with all of the members of this committee and your staff, as well as DCPS and school leaders, to ensure that all children enrolled in DCPS reach their full potential.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.


[i] Henderson, K. (2013). Follow up letter to school boundaries and feeder patterns hearing. December 16. Accessed at:…

[ii] O’Keefe, B. (2012). Third Grade Proficiency in DC: Little Progress (2007-2011). DC Action for Children Policy Brief.

[iii] National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). District of Columbia Public Schools NAEP TUDA report card. Accessed at:

[iv] National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). District of Columbia Public Schools NAEP TUDA 4th grade reading report card. Accessed at:

[v] Barnett, S., Carolan, M. and Johns, D. (2013). Equity and Excellence: African American Children’s Access to Quality Preschool. Center for Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) and the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans. Accessed at:

[vi] DC Council Committee on Education Roundtable on School Boundaries and Feeder Patterns, November 15, 2013.

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