Standards and Instruction District Story: Washington, D.C.

New Standards and Instructional Tools Empower D.C. Public Schools

March 18, 2013

Ten years ago, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) had 65,000 students. Today it has fewer than 45,000. The severe enrollment decline was a wake-up call for the district. Starting in 2007, DCPS focused on operations and effective staffing. Then, in 2010, once the right infrastructure and people were in place, DCPS adopted rigorous, information-age standards, which were later followed by effective curricula, instructional strategies, and assessments to help students meet those standards. Early evidence shows that the district is moving in the right direction.

District Snapshot

  • Urban setting
  • 123 schools
  • 10,000 teachers
  • 45,000 K-12 students
  • Ethnically and economically diverse
  • 75% free and reduced lunches
  • 80% African-American
  • 10% Hispanic
  • 10% Caucasian
  • >50% of DC students attend charter schools


“In 2007, only 8% of 8th graders were proficient in 8th-grade math, and we had one of the highest achievement gaps in the U.S.,” explains Brian Pick, Chief of Teaching and Learning, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). Not surprisingly, more than half of urban DC students were enrolled in public charter schools, the second-highest percentage in the nation (after New Orleans), which DCPS has no jurisdiction over.

To prevent further enrollment decline, the district recognized that they had to radically reform their school district to improve the quality of its education. They adopted Common Core Standards in 2010, but the challenge was to meet them. Historically, DCPS had never had a viable curriculum. Instead, teachers were required to create their own lessons from scratch. There was little guidance on what to teach, when to teach it, or how to teach it.

The new standardsset new expectations about what students should learn and laid the foundation for student assessment, professional development, and curriculum. The goal of the standards was to prepare students to think critically, creatively, and collaboratively, as well as provide resources to teachers to teach these complex skills to their students. But DCPS wasn’t even close to meeting the new standards.

“As important as curriculum is, without effective teachers, you’re just throwing money to the wind,” says Pick. “But great teachers have to be supported with rich content and professional development assessment tools. Our goal was to help the district understand what good instruction looks like.”  


DCPS implemented an innovative academic plan to support the day-to-day instructional core. Its school reform effort was grounded in a set of instructional tools that fall into four buckets: curriculum, professional development, assessment, and interventions and extensions.

Curriculum Focused on Common Core

Today, whether it’s ELA, math, science, or social studies, the curriculum is largely built off of Common Core standards. “The idea is to provide a wealth of resources in a central location to help teachers know what to teach every day, so they don’t have to go home and Google a topic to figure out how to teach it,” explains Pick. He also recommends focusing. “If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. You need to have hard discussions about where to focus resources, and you need to measure results. Last year we focused on Common Core reading. This year it’s Common Core math. Next year we’ll be doing Common Core writing. Without focus, it’s hard to see real change.”

Job-embedded Professional Development

“As part of the school reform, DCPS moved away from professional development that takes place in an auditorium listening to a talking head, to something much more practical,” says Pick. Today, DCPS has 113 full-time in-classroom instructional coaches who spend their time working with teachers to help them improve their craft. For instance, a teacher may teach a vowel sound one day and get feedback on the lesson from his or her instructional coach that same day. The next day that teacher can adjust his or her lesson accordingly. “The instructional coaching system is all home-grown, although we partnered with Learning Forward to raise the bar for professional development standards,” adds Pick. Additionally, DCPS recently launched an online educational portal that offers teachers access to videos of high-quality instruction and curriculum documents that can be shared.

Ongoing Assessment

“While teachers need to know where their students are in terms of achievement levels, the onus should not be on them to figure this out,” says Pick. Today, the coaches lead a six-week engagement where they work individually with teachers on a topic that is tied to the curriculum, such as evidence-based writing. At the end of the six weeks, students are assessed. Then DCPS has a professional development day where teachers come together as a group to review what their students have learned, talk about results, develop action planning for re-teaching, and celebrate successes. “It’s not helpful to wait for the D.C. CAS–our annual assessment test. Our teachers need more frequent measures of learning so they can adjust and reteach accordingly,” adds Pick.

Interventions and Extensions

While the goal is toreach students through the core curriculum, Pick and his team know there are students who need more, particularly in the area of reading. “We’ve invested in proven research-based reading programs that give more support to struggling readers,” says Pick. They’ve also invested in Nooks for students who are reading at an advanced level, and they have trained teachers on how to accelerate and enrich the curriculum.

“Big goals require big changes. We’re thinking boldly about how we can make the most of all our resources: time, talent and technology.”


“If you walk into a classroom today versus three years ago, you’ll see students engaged and groups of teachers working together,” says Pick. When last assessed, 43% of DCPS students in the lowest-performing 40 schools were proficient in reading and math–a significant improvement since the single-digit proficiency in 2007. But DCPS has big goals for 2017:

  • 70% student proficiency overall
  • 40% increases in 40 lowest-performing schools
  • 75% graduation rate (53 percent today)
  • 90% of students “like” school
  • Increase in enrollment–DCPS wants to be the school system of choice in D.C.

Now with national support evolving from Common Core Standards and their new instructional tools in place, Pick is confident that they are on their way.

“We partnered with ERS to help us peel back the onion and understand how we were using our resources to make sure that all of those components were supporting teaching and learning. It’s been really illustrative to look at the numbers and discuss how our choices impact the classroom. Our conversations lead to very important decisions that we hope will make our teachers’ jobs easier, ensure that students needs are being met, and make the most of our resources.”