October 21, 2013

THE TIMING couldn’t have been more propitious as Kaya Henderson delivered her first formal address since becoming D.C. school chancellor three years ago. A study had just been released attesting to the effectiveness of the system’s teacher evaluation program. Equally significant was the news that enrollment had apparently increased. The two developments are but the latest evidence of what Ms. Henderson called a “turning tide” that is transforming public education in the nation’s capital.

The sleekly redone Cardozo Education Campus was the backdrop for Ms. Henderson’s Oct. 17 “state of the schools“ speech. It represented the city’s strides in rebuilding once-disgraceful school facilities. But, as Ms. Henderson stressed, the changes wrought by school reform go far deeper than physical improvements. “We’re on the right track,” she said.

That was also the conclusion of researchers from Stanford University and the University of Virginia who examined how the system evaluates teachers. Their study, published as a working paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the IMPACT system put in place in 2009, with its controversial combination of big rewards and serious accountability, has resulted in low-performing teachers leaving the system. Equally significant was the finding that those who stayed — teachers with both strong and weak scores initially — improved their skills. “We’re actually radically improving the caliber of our teaching force,” Ms. Henderson told The Post’s Emma Brown.

The findings validate the reform agenda started in 2007 by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and continued by Ms. Henderson. So does the confidence that underlies the projected increase in enrollment this year. Despite the closure of 13 schools — a move that some feared might push students out — the school system saw a 2 percent uptick in its numbers, according to preliminary counts by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Both charter schools and traditional schools gained students.

The school system, as Ms. Henderson acknowledged last week, still has a long way to go: Unacceptably high numbers of students remain unable to read or do math at grade level. Change is not easy — as evidenced by the controversy that surrounded IMPACT and school closures — but the success achieved should help pave the way for the work still needed.