Impacts of School Reforms in Washington, DC on Student Achievement
- The DC reforms were associated with larger than expected improvements in grade 4 math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
- The reforms were also associated with learning gains in grade 8 math but not in grade 8 reading.
- The results are less clear for achievement in high school, where data limitations precluded a credible impact analysis.
In 2007, the District of Columbia (DC) began a systemic reform of educational governance and processes that sought to produce dramatic improvements in student outcomes. These reforms included implementation of a more rigorous staff evaluation system, steady growth of the public charter school sector, and the introduction of a unified enrollment system. This study estimates the cumulative impacts of these reforms by analyzing how changes in achievement levels of DC schools compare to changes observed for similar students in similar geographic areas without such reforms. Our analysis improves on prior efforts to study these reforms in several ways. We use nearly a quarter century of data (from the early 1990s to 2017), which enables us to cover more cohorts of students than previous studies—including achievement in grades 4 and 8 for five cohorts of DC students before 2007 and three cohorts after. We also take advantage of recent advances in constructing counterfactual outcomes in situations where one or very few units are treated. We find that the reforms in DC were associated with larger than expected growth in grade 4 math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). We also find similar gains in grade 8 math, especially for cohorts with more exposure to the reforms, but not in grade 8 reading. These results suggest that the reforms improved math education in kindergarten through grade 4 with impacts lasting to grade 8. At one-third of a standard deviation for math, the impacts we find in DC are similar in magnitude to those observed for math in New Orleans, where major school reforms were implemented starting in 2006–2007, immediately after hurricane Katrina, and larger than for some well-known education interventions like Success for All and the class size reductions in Tennessee. The results are less clear for reading and for achievement in high school, where data limitations precluded a credible impact analysis.