Our Kids Need Us to Institute Robust, Independent Oversight of Our City’s Education System

The terrible, heartbreaking story about Ballou should remind all of us that when there is inadequate oversight of our educational institutions, the losers are our kids, especially those whose educational needs are the greatest and whose families have the least political power.   

According to the WAMU report, most of the Ballou students who were awarded diplomas last summer had been absent from classes for over a month.  According to those interviewed, many students only passed their courses because of what teachers said was a grading policy that effectively prevents failure and, frankly, because teachers were pressured to give passing grades, raise lower grades, and because students were assigned to less-rigorous “credit recovery” classes.  According to the article, teachers who objected to these practices faced retaliation via negative evaluations which can lead to dismissal.  The biggest losers were the kids, who didn’t get the education they deserved and will likely struggle as a result and whose school’s reputation has now been tarred.

It’s important to note: all of this happened while city officials congratulated themselves on the city’s ever-rising graduation rates.  And, it happened only months after a Washington Post story reported that an unprecedented number of the school’s teachers (roughly a quarter) resigned mid-year.

It’s also important to note: none of these allegations should be new to anyone who pays attention.  These complaints have been in the media and have been formally presented to at least the City Council’s Education Committee, the State Board of Education (see public comments) on which I sit, and DCPS.  At the July 2017 meeting of the State Board of Education, Scott Goldstein, the leader of EmpowerEd, described the school culture he has experienced as one “where anything, including grade inflation, under-reporting suspensions, and more happens not because of bad people—but pressure to put impressive stats on a shiny brochure for next year or the next campaign.” (For his full testimony, see “public comments”, above.)

It’s also important to note: Comparable concerns have been raised about a much broader range of issues affecting a much broader range of schools–indeed, about our entire system of educational oversight. Last winter, the Washington Post reported that schools had altered their suspension data, at the same time that the school district was touting its lower suspension rates.  In June 2015, no less than the National Academy of Sciences (see below) reported to the DC City Council on our weak system of oversight. Concerns about the inadequacy of credit recovery courses and their role in lowering graduation standards have been raised in DC and around the country for some time.

The reality is that when the city switched to mayoral control of its schools a decade ago, it did not establish a viable mechanism for overseeing those schools.  Schools and teachers face strict accountability for reaching specific outcome metrics, whether for high school graduation, test score thresholds, attendance, or suspension.  But, there is no effective oversight for the institutions that oversee these schools–and no oversight of the processes that lead to the outcome data.  Were the high school graduation rates reached legitimately? the suspension data? the test score increases?  No independent entity is responsible for even looking.   In effect, we’ve outsourced educational accountability to the media.  That’s not how it should be.

But the greatest problem isn’t the wrongdoing that is not caught, it’s the unhealthy culture that results and the damaging effect that that culture has on our kids’ education.   When we richly reward schools and their system leaders for school outcomes–and the political leaders who take credit for those improvements—-while ignoring the processes that produce the outcomes, it assures that over time, the processes will be corrupted. As important, when we ignore the processes that produce genuine improvement (or for that matter far to produce great improvements), we also make it impossible to learn from what works.

We need an independent and broad (not just Ballou, not just graduation and attendance) review of what happened at Ballou.  But, more broadly, I hope that one result of this latest news is a more energetic conversation about the need for independent oversight, research and evaluation.

Let’s revisit what The National Academy of Sciences told us about these issues when it was asked to study DC’s educational governance under Mayoral Control.  In its 2015 report, the renowned Academy:

—questioned “whether the current oversight structure provides sufficient monitoring of the educational opportunities provided to students attending DCPS and charter schools trough the city.” [ p197] It reported that “Of significant concerns is ….that no one entity has  has both the responsibility and the authority for monitoring the provision of education and supports for students, particularly those at risk for school failure, across both the DCPS and charter schools. ”  It found that “Oversight of the ways all public schools are addressing the needs of these students is variable and in some cases minimal.”  [p201]

— raised specific concerns about how outcomes were reported, noting that it “did not have the data needed” [p 202] to understand student outcomes, noting in particular that “Publicly available reports [of DC CAS] often highlight only the overall proficiency rate…. [which] can mask important changes in the performance of the lowest scoring students and disparities in achievement among student groups…”[p204]

–noted that the lack of oversight and credible, adequate data existed for both sectors.   The NAS noted specifically that its “committee could find very little information about learning conditions in charter schools because many types of information are not collected systematically for this sector. We found slightly more information about DCPS schools but still saw many gaps in the information needed.” [p201]

-called for the city “to establish institutional arrangements that will support ongoing independent [itals mine] evaluation of its education system;” to assure that “the evaluation entity should have sufficient resources to collect and analyze primary data, including at the school level, rather than being entirely dependent on city-generated and administrative data”; and assure that “All products by the entity should undergo rigorous peer review. [p207]

–recommended that the city would “benefit from having access to ongoing independent evaluations of its progress….   Other cities including Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York, have programs that provide independent data collection analysis.  Each is structured differently, and their examples may e useful to DC.” [p207]

–calls for the city to “establish institutional arrangements that will support ongoing independent evaluation of its education system.” [p207]

The issues of research, evaluation, accurate data, transparency, and oversight are critical for improving our schools.   Here are articles that I’ve written on these topics since being elected to the State Board of Education three years ago, including an article for City Paper written in collaboration with my School Board colleague from Ward 8, Markus Batchelor.

What we need to know about our schools.  Washington Post 2015

What DC test scores don’t tell us. Washington Post, September 2016

Memo to the DC Chancellor: Enough with the mandates and rosy data.  Our recommendations for really raising student achievement,. with Markus Batchelor, SBOE rep from Ward 8. City Paper, August 2017

Why we should change how we report PARCC scores: An innocent error shows how city test score reports can mislead, Ruth’s Newsletter, October, 2017

My testimony before the City Council in favor of an independent research entity, spring 2016

See also, How can we close our persistent education achievement gaps in DC, by SBOE members from Wards 2 and 6, Jack Jacobson and Joe Weedon. Greater, Greater Washington, October 2017

Plus, relevant excerpts from City Paper article, with Ward 8 SBOE representative Markus Batchelor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ruth Wattenberg for Ward 3 School Board 2014