Fenty's political fortunes tied to success of D.C. school reforms

The Fenty campaign debuts negative ads targeting Vincent Gray's DHS record.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

For Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, the metric is the message: They pay assiduous attention to the reams of data generated by the D.C. school system in an effort to define what success looks like.

In their view, the numbers more than justify the decision to give Fenty (D) direct control of the long-troubled schools in 2007. Test scores and graduation rates are up. Enrollment is stable after years of decline, even with the continued robust growth of the city's independent public charter schools. Thousands of students will begin classes Monday on renovated campuses. Families with special-needs children get faster responses when they seek help.

But underlying the numbers are caveats and complexities usually lost in the sound-bite staccato of a political campaign. Drill deeper, and the Fenty-Rhee record of improvement is discernible but more modest -- even fragile. The data show how far the city remains from the goal the mayor set three years ago: to make the District's public schools the highest-performing urban system in the country. Even those who admire the energy Fenty and Rhee have brought to D.C. education say they have hurt their cause by overstating their success.

"It's not just that it's fragile. It comes close in my mind to selling the public a bill of goods," said Mary Lord, the Ward 2 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. She has not taken a public stance on the mayoral race.

Fenty, facing a stiff challenge from D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, is among a handful of big-city mayors whose political fortunes are tethered to improvements in public education because they control the schools. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) trumpeted gains in his city schools when he won reelection last year, but the luster of his record dimmed after New York state officials reported last month that more than half of city students failed English tests.

Fenty has staked his bid for a second term in part on progress in the schools and his steadfast support of the outspoken chancellor he hired. Here's a look at the four areas that make up the basis for his case:

Scores: They are indeed up, continuing a trend that began under Rhee's predecessor, former superintendent Clifford Janey. The three-year record shows double-digit growth in secondary school scores on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System -- an average gain of 14 percentage points in the reading pass rate and 17 points in the math rate. Experts say those gains surpass the norm for large urban school districts.

"There is no question in my mind that the schools are better," said Kati Haycock, president of the D.C.-based Education Trust, an advocate for disadvantaged students.

But this year, elementary pass rates declined about 4.5 points. That setback followed gains of 19 points in math and 11 points in reading from 2007 to 2009. Rhee said she is analyzing the results but has no answers yet.

Analysis of test scores by ward shows the persistent gulf in achievement between the city's poorest children and its most affluent. In 2007, 27 percent of Ward 8 elementary students read proficiently, compared with 78 percent of their peers in Ward 3 -- a spread of 51 percentage points. This year, the Ward 8 children were at 29 percent and those in Ward 3 at 86 percent, widening the gap to 57 points. In Ward 7, reading proficiency rates for secondary students rose from 17 percent in 2007 to 28 percent in 2010 -- 11 points. But Ward 3's rate rose almost 13 points in that time, and the disparity between the two wards remains about 50 points.

"It's maddening and it's hard," Rhee acknowledged in a recent interview. "Have our ward 7 and 8 schools progressed? Absolutely. But the gap is still ridiculous."

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test, shows a six-year run of gains that span the tenures of Janey and Rhee. Last year, math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders in the District grew more than for peers in any other urban district that took the test.

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