December 2017 HTML Newsletter

December 2017

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 through 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 [italics 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

A Memo to the DC Public Schools Chancellor

by Markus Batchelor and Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 8 and Ward 3 members of the DC State Board Of Education

lead article in City Paper, Aug 3, 2017, For the full article, click here

Enough with the mandates and rosy data.  Our recommendations for really raising student achievement. 

Most people don’t realize it, but the high schools in Wards 8 and 3—Anacostia, Ballou, and Wilson—and the elementary and middle schools that “feed their students to these schools enroll a near-majority of all students in DCPS neighborhood schools. In the school year that just ended, there wee 9144 students enrolled in those Ward 8 schools and 9703 in Ward 3’s. Citywide, DCPS neighborhood schools enrolled 43,389. It’s no secret that Ward 8 is the lowest-income ward and Ward 3 the highest. They are two very different communities, with divergent student and family populations. Nonetheless, and perhaps surprisingly to some, our concerns about our schools—in Wards 8 and 3, respectively, where we are the elected State Board of Education members–and for the system as a whole are quite similar.  As Board members, we have a special opportunity to meet, visit, and interact regularly with the families, teachers, principals, and staff who depend on and work in the DCPS schools across the city.     

Solutions to one perceived set of problems have a way of producing a new generation of problems. So it is with our school system. As our new chancellor prepares to release his new strategic plan in the next few weeks, he faces a different set of challenges from his predecessors. And so his agenda must be distinct. We are optimistic about the leadership and ideas that Chancellor Antwan Wilson is bringing to our schools, but we have some advice.

            “The past two chancellors inherited a school system suffering from horribly low student achievement. They were charged with taking urgent action. As they saw it, the core of the problem behind low achievement was inadequate teachers and principals—and, more broadly, a culture of low expectations where poverty was blamed for students’ failure. The reform agenda of these chancellors was clear: There was a laser-focus on identifying and removing inadequate teachers and principals and replacing them with better ones. The relatively lax system was tightened with a stream of mandates from central office. Evaluation criteria emphasized test scores and adherence to particular teaching and operating approaches. For a long time, a high-quality curriculum was an afterthought.

How successful this agenda has been is subject to debate. While average scores have risen, leading the district to be “the fastest growing urban school district in the country,” the rise is at least partly due to gentrification: The 8th grade reading and math scores of our poorest students have hardly budged. After 10 years of aggressive education reform under Mayoral control, the achievement and opportunity gaps across race and wealth have gotten wider.

      “Therefore, the DCPS reform agenda must change. There is consensus that successful schools—especially those with the lowest-income children—have, and depend on strong, supportive, trusting school cultures in which staff members hold high expectations for all students; where all staff are constantly improving and encouraged to recognize, understand and solve problems that are impeding achievement. Such schools can thrive only in districts that give them the autonomy to do what’s needed –and where data and research, good and bad, are transparent and welcome because they show whether progress is actually being made or whether improvement strategies need to be adjusted..….

     For the full article, click here

April 2018 HTML Newsletter

Newsletter,    April 25, 2018

Time for credible, honest education data/research 

     I have called for more and better research about what is going on in our schools since I was elected to DC’s State Board of Education in 2014, including in this Washington Post oped. I have worried that we didn’t have either the data or analysis we needed to know what in our school reform efforts was working—so we could expand it–and what wasn’t, so we could fix it.  Too little data was available, and much it seemed “spun.”
Needless to say, recent news about the high school graduation rate—in which rosy, official claims of rising graduation rates were quickly followed by revelations that only 1/3 of last year’s graduates had actually met minimum graduation–has made clear yet again the need for independent, honest data.  Hopefully, we’re finally on our way…

Thanks to CM Cheh for sponsoring and CMs Mendelson, Bonds, Silverman, RWhite, Nadeau, Allen, Gray, TWhite for cosponsoring legislation to assure independent education data!

     On April 10, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill to establish an office for independent education research, cosponsored by the CM’s above. The proposed legislation would create an education research office, based, at least initially, in the Office of the Auditor.  In DC, the Auditor’s office functions much like the federal government’s General Accountability Office or Congressional Research Service, providing independent data and reports on key issues.
The first tasks of the new office include identifying and rectifying any data holes, vetting the accuracy of existing data, and undertaking initial research projects.  Listen here to DC’s Auditor  and Deputy Mayor for Education discuss this issue on the Kojo show.
I hope the research work will follow the model of the Chicago Consortium on School Reform (CCSR), in which the research is undertaken in deliberate partnership with educational partners (In our case, it could be DC Public Schools, Public Charter School Board, individual or groups of charter or DCPS schools, etc.).  The research would provide partners with real-time data and analysis to understand how well and why a given initiative is faring–for example, a specific literacy initiative; approaches to credit recovery; or a new policy, such as the proposed bill limiting suspensions.
Research priorities would be determined by a broad based steering committee composed of a broad group of city education leaders and stakeholders, as well as researchers and representatives of the community.  This follows the Chicago model, where the steering committee has proven a source of great stability and institutional knowledge for Chicago schools AND a trusted vehicle for assuring that research/evaluation projects reflect the questions of the whole community.  The Chicago Consortium and other Research Practice Partnerships use the “no surprises” rule and other protocols to make sure that the research is conducted in support of mutual priorities, aimed at improvement, and not about “gotcha.”
Hearings on the bill will be held this summer/fall, amendments will presumably be made, and hopefully a bill embodying these ideas will be adopted before the end of the calendar year. Meanwhile, it’s important that the upcoming budget provide some initial start up funding so that this office can get set up and be ready to go.

This initiative will help rectify one problem with DC’s mayoral control that is unique to DC—the lack of independent data.

In the wake of our various crises, I have reviewed “mayoral control” initiatives around the country. It turns out that our particular form of mayoral control is the only one that vests this much unchecked authority and power over data in the mayor.
In every other jurisdiction where the schools are controlled and overseen by the mayor, the mayorally-controlled school district is still subject to some regulation and oversight by a state education agency that is independent of the mayor.
Only in DC, do we have a system in which the mayor appoints both the chancellor of the local school district (DCPS) and the superintendent of the state agency (OSSE). It is no disparagement of any individual to note that this is an unwholesome system that violates the principles of checks and balances.  It’s a bit of the fox guarding the chicken house.
And, at this point, the information and actions that flow from this arrangement lack credibility.  When it was discovered that so many (one-third) of last year’s graduates hadn’t met basic graduation standards while the mayor and her appointees were promoting the city’s ever-higher grad rates, many observers unsurprisingly believed that the numbers had been spun.  More recently, when an investigation of residency fraud seemed to be moving slowly at OSSE, there was speculation that it was  being “slow-walked” by the agency’s lawyers. True or not, the current arrangement can’t produce data that is regarded as credible. The failure is not personal, it’s systemic.
The proposed education office, which will be independent of mayoral control, will be a source of vetted, credible, unspun data.


Budget season underway         

            Budget season is underway. The mayor has proposed a substantial increase in the per student funding payment, thankfully much above her proposal last year which was for a preposterously low 1.5%.   (The DC council ended up raising it.)  But, this year, schools must use the new dollars to cover the salary increase that was negotiated for staff last year—the first such in 5 years.  Schools are now figuring out how far the dollars will stretch and working with the school district on how to allocate them.
One good sign: For 3 straight years, Wilson high school has been subjected to unwarranted, damaging budget cuts.  But this year, the budget provides funding based on a reasonable projection for next year’s enrollment–1885 students in comparison to last year’s ludicrously lowballed projection of just 1745.  As Wilson LSAT chair Karin Perkins notes, the new budget will result in 11 new staff positions, “which is a meaningful start in restoring the dozens of positions lost over the past three years.” But:
Exactly how the staff will be deployed remains in question. The LSAT is working to convince DCPS leadership “that a one-size-fits-all approach to budgeting and high school programming does not benefit Wilson.”

School discretion, transparency, central office bloat, at-risk dollars continue as issues needing work!

     Really: “One-size-fits-all” doesn’t help Wilson and it doesn’t help other schools, not here in Ward 3 and not anywhere else in the city. I probably hear about this issue more than any other, from parents, LSAT members, PTO leaders, and school staff at every level. There’s always a balance between what needs to be centralized and what should be left to school discretion.  But the balance here is seriously out of whack.  One result is a tremendously bloated central office, explained in this City Paper article. During the last year, under the previous chancellor, Antwan Wilson, there was a move to give schools greater discretion and autonomy.  It was a welcome development. Let’s hope the movement continues!
Steps were also being taken towards making the whole DCPS budget process more transparent; as it is, it is often not clear why particular schools are funded at vastly different levels; why particular programs get funded at a given school and not others; and what’s happening with at-risk dollars. (See this WP article on the year after year problem with schools having to use their at risk dollars to fund basic school programs.) Greater transparency would produce greater understanding and credibility—and a needed opportunity for democratic discussion about priorities.
For a wonderful look at how DCPS budget dollars get distributed to schools, take a look at this very cool budget tool, organized and assembled by volunteers from C4DC (Coalition for DC Public Schools and Communities) affiliates and Code for DC.

Adding space to Key and Stoddert! 

     Congratulations to Stoddert and Key for getting commitments in the budget to build permanent additions to their schools!  And, many thanks to DCPS for supporting these additions. These two schools have had growing populations for years, with more and more students going to class in trailers that have been increasingly overcrowded (and increasingly old!).
Last year, DCPS convened a Community Working Group including the principal and a parent from each Ward3/Wilson feeder school; in addition, I am on it, along with Brian Doyle, chair of the W3/Wilson Feeder Education Network and Michael Porcello, representing CM Cheh. The group’s purpose was to make recommendations on how to address overcrowding in the schools, which is projected to get worse in coming years.  The group was to have issued recommendations earlier this year, but the exit of Chancellor Wilson has apparently stalled the process.
Additions for these two schools are important, needed remedies.  But the problem is also much bigger—Wilson’s enrollment is up nearly 150 from last year’s projection and Deal is getting a new double decker trailer to accommodate its students! Projections show continued, substantial enrollment growth in W3 elementary schools. It’s critical that DCPS continue its very welcome effort to address these school capacity issues.  For more info, see Working Group Notes.

NAEP shows educational stagnation—in DC and the nation.

     The results of the biennial National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math and reading tests were reported earlier this month. Nationally, the results were distressing, indicating that in 4th and 8th grade math, achievement levels have not grown at all in the past two years. In reading, the 4th grade scores were down one point; in 8th grade reading, though the scores were up two since 2015, they were still a point behind where they were in 2013.
In DC, the results were likewise disheartening, with scores for 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math mainly plateauing; DC’s 8th grade math scores were up by 3pts.

Experts attribute long-term poor reading results  to inadequate attention to social studies, science

     At a special panel convened by the National Assessment Governing Board, NAEP’s sponsor, reading experts discussed what they believed caused the decline.  Panelists believed that a major cause is the decline in students’ background knowledge, which is vital to reading comprehension.  They cited at least two trends in reading instruction—both influenced by the heavy weight on reading test scores in federal accountability formulas–including
1. Less elementary school time devoted to social studies and science, where so much of this background knowledge is learned, and
2. Greater reliance on “leveled books,” which seek to grow student achievement by matching students with books on “their level.” But these less advanced books limit the subject matter and vocabulary weaker readers get exposed to; and this in turn limits the growth in students’ background knowledge and puts a cap on their later reading comprehension ability.
For more on this topic, which is a great passion of mine, see this backgrounder. from Knowledge Matters Campaign (Note: I am a supporter and sometimes contributor to this group!), this excellent article from the Atlantic, and the full video of the reading experts on NAEP day.
I appreciate that DCPS (more than many other districts) has tried to counter the trend to deemphasize social studies and science; it has supported the development of Cornerstone units and other curricular materials to encourage and support teaching in these subjects.  But, as long as ratings (of both schools and teachers) are based so heavily on reading and math test scores, actual practice is unlikely to change. I hope that the findings of these reading experts will help lead education leaders nationally and in DC to better understand the unintended consequences of accountability policies that are so narrowly focused on reading and math test scores–and take steps to mitigate them.

Take this survey on the School Report Card!

            Regular readers know that DC has been working to create a new school report card that will let parents and policymakers to make apples to apples comparisons among schools across the city. By DC law, OSSE must make the proposal, the public has an opportunity to weigh in, and the State Board of Education (SBOE) votes the proposal up or down. In addition, an SBOE Task Force has been reviewing the issue.
At this point, the decisions the report card’s content have been made. All that’s left is decisions about the presentation—what will it look like, what content will be emphasized, etc. One concern raised many times, including by members of the SBOE task force: Every single page highlights the number of stars the school has earned under the report card’s 5-star rating system.
As several folks have noted: The 5-star rating is almost entirely based on reading and math test scores  (sound familiar as a source of declining scores?!)  But the report card itself includes information on a variety of other issues. Why should the star rating appear on a page that is about school programs?  Doing so conveys the idea that the star rating reflects a judgment about those programs when it doesn’t. I urge you to take a look and weigh in with this online surveyThe survey won’t specifically ask about this issue, but it includes space for comments. Due by May 4.

Congratulations to Principal Neal, new, permanent principal of Deal

     As Deal parents already know, acting-Principal Diedre Neal is now just plain Principal Neal.  Neal took over when Principal James Albright left Deal after last school year, for health reasons.  Initially she was named acting principal.  The parents I spoke with hoped she would become permanent, and DCPS just made it official. My personal note: Then-Assistant Principal Neal was the AP for Deal’s first 6th grade, in which my child was a student.  She provided us with enormous, needed support, and we will both be forever grateful.

Congratulations to Wilson Beacon—and you can subscribe here

    The Beacon, Wilson’s student paper has been hitting new highs with its reporting on conditions at Wilson, schools around the city, and much else. It was highlighted in the Forest Hills Connection and its article on metal detectors ran in the Northwest Current.  Recent articles addressed security concerns, the predicament of Wilson’s out-of-bounds students, and changes to the teacher evaluation system in the wake of the graduation crisis.  It’s some of the best reporting on DCPS in the city!  Subscribe here.

Students: Join State Board of Education Advisory Committee/Serve as a member of SBOE.  

    The DC State Board of Education (SBOE) seeks motivated students in the District to serve as Student Representatives on the State Board and as members of our Student Advisory Committee (SAC) next year. Applications are now being accepted from students who are passionate about serving their local community. Students will have the opportunity to represent their peers in the decision-making process for education policy in the District. Interested students can apply online at The application is due by Thursday, May 31, 2018.

Teachers/Students/School Staff: Send a letter to City Paper about your experiences.

     From City Paper: Do you have something to say about D.C.’s public schools or charter schools? Consider submitting a public letter to the interim chancellor or to the DC Public Charter School Board. Email your letter to City Paper will publish select letters and verify the identity of their writers. We are most interested in hearing from people who spend their days inside school buildings, either as staff or students. We will offer anonymity upon request.
Note from me: While City Paper is most interested in first person comments from inside the building—thus the focus on teachers and students—they are open to interesting accounts from parents as well.

Enjoy spring, while it lasts!

Please Circulate...  

…… And, as always, if you have thoughts on the above suggestions or anything else, please email me,

June 2015 HTML Newsletter @ruth4schools

The City Council adopted its final budget yesterday, and the full $900,000 requested by Wilson leaders is included! Not only that, but the Council made clear that these funds were allocated to DCPS in order to assure (along with another priority), that Wilson got this full amount.

Congratulations to all—and especially to CM Mary Cheh!
Thanks to all of you who phoned and emailed Chairman Grosso. Thanks to all the parent leaders across all the schools that feed into Wilson High School who mobilized their own school’s parents, wrote, and testified. Thanks to the ANC’s that passed resolutions, testified, and visited Council members. Thanks to Wilson PTSO president Kim Bayliss and LSAT chairman and Jeffrey Kovar–and to Wendy Jacobson who helped lead a parent mobilization effort at Wilson. Also kudos to the folks at Wilson who made the decision early on to make the “ask” only for one-half of the lost per student funding.

A special, special thanks goes to Council member Mary Cheh, who has been totally and effectively on this without a break since the cut was first announced. Thanks to her efforts, Chairman Mendelson totally understood the importance of the issue and really took it on himself to make sure the money was found to restore the funds. Thanks, Chairman Mendelson! Thanks as well to Education Committee Chair David Grosso, who was able to put some extra money into the Education Committee budget two weeks ago, without which it would have been much harder to reach full restoration. And we are all indebted to Matt Frumin, who launched the very successful petition campaign that many of you signed and circulated and, through all of this, has provided information and analysis that everyone has used so effectively.

A special note to current and future Wilson parents: We have every reason to feel fully confident about the future of our high school. It is unfortunate that we have had to deal with the challenges of the last few months. But I think it’s clear that between our very strong community and our committed city leaders, Wilson’s future as an increasingly excellent school is secure!
Congratulations and thanks again!

Ruth Wattenberg,
Ward 3 Member, DC State Board of Education

How mayoral control could work better…

Testimony of Ruth Wattenberg to

The DC Council Education Committee Roundtable on School Reform, March 19

Thank you for having this important discussion.

The argument for mayoral control is that greater, focused accountability leads to greater results.

Well, if that was true, it wouldn’t have been a young reporter from WAMU who told us the truth about our graduation rate.  The mayor would be in a competitive election defending–or revising–her educational plan.

It has not worked as hoped. I am not for “going back.” But I am not for staying a course that is not working for our kids.

Minimally, this particular form of mayor control and this particular form of education reform are not working as we hoped.  It need not be all or nothing. There are things that can be fixed in the short term; others in the longer term.

I have 4 points around governance:

  1. Mayoral control of school districts is NOT the norm. Of the thousand largest school districts, only 15 are under mayoral control. Almost nowhere is this regarded as desirable.
  2. We are unique even among mayor-controlled districts for the unchecked power we give our mayor, over policy and information.

Every other such district is part of a state. These districts are supported and overseen by politically independent state education agencies run by politically independent state superintendents, overseen by State Boards of Education.  The state superintendent is named by and responsible to the Board, governor or some combination of the two—not to the same mayor who appoints the district chancellor.

Under our structure—and only ours–there is no independent entity that vets data or conducts independent evaluation. Data can be spun, go uncollected or unreported; investigations can be partial or slow walked.  Information lives in a silo.

It is no slight on the integrity of any individual to acknowledge the conflicts this creates in reality and perception. We have no checks and balances.

At the very least, data, evaluation, investigations should be spun out of the mayor’s orbit. I hope the Council will insist on establishing an independent research entity, perhaps like the Chicago Consortium on School Reform, that will help us understand what works and what doesn’t.

  1. We are unique in the lack of voice for DCPS parents and residents. In virtually every other mayoral control district, there is still a school board. It may have limited or broad powers.  Members may be wholly or partly appointed by the mayor, county exec, or governor. But there is a board.  It meets regularly, publicly.  In some places, it has the same powers as any other local school board. The chancellor reports on key issues. Data gets reviewed. Board members ask questions. Parents, teachers, and students testify. The media covers it. Skepticism gets a voice. Issues get vetted. Policy discussions break out of the silo.

DCPS families have no such local school board forum. Despite great efforts and intent, a small number of education committee hearings a year on general issues are no replacement for a chancellor regularly, publicly facing stakeholders and board members on a full range of issues.

It is inconceivable to me that, with even that regular scrutiny, the mass promotions and graduations of unready kids–and the pressure on teachers and principals that led to it–would have happened as they did. Nor would the high levels of turnover and unfunded, cookie-cutter mandates be tolerated.

  1. Finally, we are unique in that the rules governing the coordination and competition of our charters and traditional schools were largely imposed on us by a Congress that we did not elect. And our elected officials, apart from the mayor, have virtually no say in how this two sector system functions. Most people in this city appreciate that we have charter schools—which can provide innovative options and alternatives. But most people also, maybe more fervently, want a system of strong, neighborhood, by-right schools.  In other mayoral control cities, the council, voters, parents have a way to influence rules of competition between charters and neighborhood schools that can assure the viability of both. We don’t and the neighborhood system and neighborhoods are suffering.

We have made progress. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But let’s recognize: some of that bathwater is very dirty. Absolute power is not healthy.  Siloed information leads people to believe their own good PR—and not undertake the evaluation, discussion, and modification that is necessary in any school reform. We need checks and balances. We don’t need to go back to the past. But it is irresponsible to stay put when so much is not working as we want.

Finally, I hope that in addition to any legislative work you do, you will insist in the short term on a citywide discussion about the direction of DCPS in connection with the selection of a new chancellor.

Why we should change how we report PARCC scores: Innocent error shows how city test score reports can mislead… 

Oct 17, 2017

Sometimes an unintentional and innocent error helps us see a bigger problem.  This year, due to a coding error, all of the students at Deal Middle School were classified as “economically disadvantaged.”  Test scores are notoriously correlated with family income, with students from lower income homes scoring below those from more affluent homes.  (The goal, of course, of education is to change that—but, at their best, schools bring about such changes over time, not in a year.)
So, when DC officials reported the test scores of the city’s disadvantaged students this summer and included all of Deal’s students in that category, the scores were, not surprisingly, higher than they would otherwise have been.  Likewise, when the coding error was discovered and the scores corrected, the overall portion of disadvantaged DC students who had reached proficiency dropped. The Washington Postreported this on October 5th and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE—DC’s state education agency) and DCPS have made corrections on their websites.
But here’s what’s most interesting to me.  In a very large number of DC schools, all students, regardless of their income, are regularly and routinely classified as “economically disadvantaged”for the purposes of reporting test scores.  In other words: What is a coding error at one school is the accepted, standard practice for other schools. That’s because if 30/40% or more of a school’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch based on their family’s income, the entire school can opt to provide a free lunch to all students. This option, known as “community eligibility,” makes total sense; it allows schools to lower the administrative costs/bureaucracy/stigma of identifying and overseeing a system in which some kids in a school get a free or reduced lunch and others don’t. The problem is with the test score reporting; when these students are categorized as “economically disadvantaged,” it means reports about the scores are misleading. My SBOE colleagues, Joe Weedon and Jack Jacobson, explained this in this Greater Greater Washington post.
As I said to City Paper when asked about the coding error, the way we report scores “are misleading in multiple ways. When students who are not disadvantaged get coded as disadvantaged, as appears to be the case in many schools, the scores of disadvantaged students will seem higher than they genuinely are.”
This is one important way in which the reporting of test score data ends up being misleading. For other ways, see this Washington Post op-e d. that I wrote last year about the test score problems at Wilson High School.

Wilson HS budget cut update (7/17)

Despite DC council vote to increase school funding and relieve staff cuts…

Wilson HS still faces large staff cuts, with no apparent plan to restore them

Email Mayor, Deputy Mayor for education, about unrelenting staff cuts at Wilson.  Details below; scroll down for City Council addresses.

Also, scroll down for information on: new ESSA Task force; Chancellor Wilson on Social-emotional learning; survey for Wilson feeder school families on space/overcrowding; DC’s extremely high teacher turn-over rates are much higher than in other urban districts.

Last spring, the Mayor proposed a city budget that dramatically underfunded the city’s schools  As a result of the underfunding, DC Public Schools (DCPS) cut the 2017-18 budgets of schools across the city.
The cuts sparked huge opposition, with many people on this list emailing, calling, and visiting their City Council members. The DC Council scraped funds from other parts of the budget and voted to increase per-student funding by 3%–compared to the Mayor’s inadequate, below-inflation increase of 2%.
Moreover, the Council explicitly stated in its budget report (p5) that “the Council expects the additional funds at DCPS to be used for restoring instructional staff and programs at schools.”

Despite these efforts, it appears DCPS will not restore staff at Wilson HS 

The chancellor has emailed Bethany Nickerson, the chair of Wilson’s Local School Advisory Team (LSAT), writing that he believes “Wilson is positioned well for School Year 2017-18” and that the additional funds will be targeted instead to a variety of DCPS initiatives.

Wilson has lost 30+ positions in 3 years, despite stable enrollment

In fact, Wilson is not well positioned.  It has lost over 30 positions in 3 years, with no significant decline in enrollment (see below).  And, the council was clear: The extra funding was intended to allow schools to restore staff and programs that had been cut.

Councilwoman Cheh calls for explanation

Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh has written the Chancellor and Deputy Mayor for Education, noting that “Wilson has been regularly subjected to drastic budget cuts…. and has had “to cut nearly 30 staff members over 3 years…. Today, with an additional $11.5 million available and an obvious need at Wilson for additional financial support, it would be unacceptable for Wilson to yet again be denied the funding it needs to succeed.”

Please add your voice; email the Mayor

Unlike in most of the country, DC schools are under mayoral control. It’s important for her to understand the issues.

Please write the Mayor and tell her the relentless cutting of Wilson staff–30+ over 3 years–is not fair.  It will hurt a school that so many have worked so hard to improve over the years–a school that serves students from every ward.  It serves over 400 students classified as “at-risk,” roughly the same or more at risk students than all but 4 DCPS schools.  See enrollment and staffing details below

Please email:

1.  Mayor Bowser,;
Dep. Mayor for Education Niles,
2. Would love if you copied me:
3. Consider copying your city council person as well, so that they are fully aware of how their wishes are being ignored. Here is a list of council members:, At-large At-large At-large At large Ward 1 Ward 2 Ward 4 Ward 5, Ward 6, Ward 8, Chairman


Enrollment and staffing details

Wilson has lost over 30 staff in 3 years, despite stable enrollment

It is unclear what is driving these cuts.  Sometimes officials with DC Public Schools or the Mayor’s office have argued that the staff cuts are due to enrollment cuts. But over these same three years, Wilson’s enrollment has remained essentially stable Enrollment in 2014-15 was 1788.  Enrollment on “audit” day this past October, 2016, was 1749.  Actual enrollment this past April 20 was 1806.  DCPS’s official projected enrollment for next year (almost surely underestimated) is 1745. Many parents believe, based on the large class coming in from Deal, that Wilson’s actual enrollment next year is likely to exceed 1800.
Regardless of which numbers you use, enrollment has declined by 43 at most, or has increased, using this spring’s actual enrollment, by 18.  The fact is: Wilson has lost nearly a full staff person or more for each 1-student decline in enrollment. 

Proj 17/18
Lost staff
-12 staff fr 14/15 to 15/16
– 9 staff fr 15/16-16/17
– 10 staff fr 16/17-17/18
  Enrollment #s from OSSE

Thanks for lending your voice!


Apply for new Task Force on ESSA
Apply here.  Deadline Monday, July 24, at noon. As readers of this newsletter know, this spring the DC State Board of Education adopted a new plan for judging the quality of DC’s public schools.  But the new plan is intended to be a first strong step towards a better accountability system, not the final word.  The SBOE is convening a public task force to advise it on further improvement and changes.
Chancellor discusses the need for Social/Emotional Learning
DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson is developing his first strategic plan for DC Public Schools.  He is a strong advocate of social/emotional learning.  He explains his ideas on this important educational approach and how he hopes to bring it to DC in this story for the Hechinger Report.  I look forward to supporting this initiative (but, yes, implementation requires adequate staffing!)

Wilson Feeder School Families: complete the survey on school space/overcrowding

If you haven’t yet filled out a survey on the space/overcrowding challenges faced by your school, please click here and get your survey in to DCPS.  These surveys are helping DCPS and a community Task Force (made up of parents and principals from each Wilson feeder school, the chair of the W3/Wilson Feeder Education Network, a representative from CM Mary Cheh’s office, and me) develop recommendations for alleviating the current and future overcrowding that our schools face.

DC’s extremely high teacher turn-over rate is much higher than in other urban areas. Find out more: 

Hear teachers/researchers discuss the causes, implications for student achievement and solutions for this crisis-level issue.  From testimony  at the DC State Board of Education meeting, July 19. Click here:

Decoding Dyslexia DC–Feb 2 hearing

Chairman Mendelson & The DC City Council
Want to Know:

Are DCPS & Charter Schools
Doing Right by Struggling Readers?

DC Council Special Education Hearing
, February 2, 2022, 11AM 
Chairman Mendelson & The DC City Council
Want to Know:

Is your child falling further & further behind?
Was your child denied special education services because they were not 2 years behind?
Have you been trying to get your child evaluated for special education with no success?
Did you have to pay for your child’s evaluation?
Did the school refuse to put the word dyslexia in your child’s IEP?Did you have to pay for intensive reading instruction, because the school did not provide it?
What do struggling readers in elementary, middle & high need now?
Are your child’s reading struggles impacting their mental health?
Is your child struggling to write?
Is your child struggling in math? 
Did you learn to read as an adult? 
Were you an adult when you finally learned you were dyslexic?

Numbers Matter!
The More of Us That Speak Up,
The More They Will Listen.

Register Here: Testify Online @ the Hearing
Registration Deadline: Monday, January 31, 2022 @ 5:00 PM
 Submit Written Testimony by Email to
Must be submitted by Wednesday, February 16, 2022, @ 5:00 PM
 Testify by Voicemail to phone no: (202) 430-6948Must be submitted by Wednesday, February 16, 2022, @ 5:00 PM

Old Hardy Update: April 7, 2019

Old Hardy Update, April 7, 2019

New estimate projects enrollment in Wilson Feeder schools will rise even more than previously predicted: by 2000 in 5 years, over 3000 in 10 years.

         In my last newsletter, I wrote about the new report prepared by DCPS, in cooperation with the Ward 3/Wilson Feeder Education Network, showing that most schools in the feeder pattern were already at capacity and most were projected to grow much more over the next 5 and 10 years.  Overall, the student population in the feeder school population was expected to grow by some 2000 students by 2027-28, a number that can’t be met without additional school buildings AND creative planning and programming.

        But now the growth estimate is even higher!  According to a revised report from the Deputy Mayor’s office, called the Master Facilities Plan, there are now 1587 additional students projected to be enrolled in feeder pattern schools by 2022-23 and 3185 by 2027-28.  

        Not to sound alarmist or anything, but with an average size of 600 kids per school, that’s 5 schoolsfull of kids! And, keep in mind, most of the existing schools have already maxed out their physical footprint with trailers and/or additions. There is physically no room for them to expand, not to mention, many already have enrollments higher than many would regard as desirable (e.g. elementary schools with over 700students) . (See charts beginning on Appendix page A-24 in the Master Facilities Plan for school by school enrollment projections.) 

But Mayor continues support for giving up the area’s only unused public school building via a 50-year lease 

         Under the best of circumstances, this enrollment surge, which has been underway for over a decade, is going to require creativity—for example, maybe DCPS needs to be in the business, as charter schools are, of leasing space, possibly in one of the many new developments or a private school that’s selling; maybe we can set up early childhood centers, possibly in partnership with existing nursery schools; maybe some students would choose to leave the ward for desired programs not too far away. 
        We need to be creative.  But, even with all our creativity, we need every available building.  In Ward 3, there is just one unused DCPS school building: The Old Hardy building.  It was leased away a number of years ago on a series of short-term leases, when area schools didn’t need the space.  Its current lease, for 5 years ending in 2023, is with the Lab School, a very well-regarded school, offering needed services (for students with learning disabilities) to a number of DC, Maryland, and Virginia families.  
Giving away the Old Hardy School for 50 years is monstrously irresponsible

        Lab has two campuses; the Old Hardy campus is its lower school, and currently houses roughly 65 students, with most residents of Maryland and Virginia. Lab is a well regarded school providing important services. It should be able, easily, with nearly five years of advance notice, to find an alternative space for its 65 students.  It doesn’t face restrictions, as DC schools do, about where it can locate; in fact, it could locate in DC, Maryland or Virginia.
       As I wrote in my last newsletter, the Mayor has proposed to give up any DCPS right to the Old Hardy School for 50 years, via a long-term lease to the Lab School. As I also inferred in the last newsletter, this is madness.  Only with the new enrollment projection, it’s even crazier. We really, really need that school to be a DCPS elementary school!  
         Take a look at the attached map (courtesy of Nick Keenan, former president of the Palisades Community Association), which shows each elementary school in the Wilson feeder pattern as a circle along with the increased number of students projected to enroll at that school by school year 2027/28. Based on the revised Master Facilities Plan, keep in mind that about half of that growth will happen within 5 years! It would be monstrously irresponsible to give the Old Hardy School away for 50 years! 

        As of my last newsletter, the Mayor was asking the Council to accept the lease on an emergency basis, without even a public hearing.  Thanks to the hard work of the Keep Old Hardy Public Coalition (see their website, and the strong advocacy of Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh (who wrote a strong letter to her council colleagues), it appears that there are not enough votes on the Council to pass this as an emergency, without a hearing.  That means it will come up at some point for a vote, preceded by a Council hearing, when the public can make its case. We don’t yet know when that hearing or vote will be. (And, in fact, any single Councilmember could force an emergency vote on it at any time, though that seems unlikely.) 

       For a reminder of some key facts from last newsletter, see bullets at the bottom of this newsletter taken from the DCPS/W3-Wilson Feeder EdNet report:   

  • As of last school year, 10 out of 15 Wilson feeder schools were already at or above 100% utilization (p4)–even though full utilization is defined as 95% capacity, since, by that point, all kinds of scheduling options are precluded. (p13)
  • All but two schools in the feeder pattern have grown over the last five years—with “double digit growth across the elementary schools and 18% growth at Deal Middle School.” The only schools that didn’t grow were two schools that were in swing space (which typically lowers enrollment) (p5)
  • “Many buildings are already built to their maximum footprint and do not have space to expand on-site.” (p5)
  • By 2025, the high end forecast has Deal’s enrollment increasing some 50% to 2253 (from last year’s 1507), many elementary schools increasing by 20-25% or more, and Hardy up by nearly 20%. 

Additionally, a study by the DC Auditor projects that Wilson’s enrollment will rise to over 2300 students by the mid-2020’s. That’s 700 students over the school’s capacity—a number larger than the size of most DC high schools. 

No One Solution Solves the Problem

  • New schools in the feeder pattern. There are short-term and smaller scale solutions that can help. But any viable solution to thousands of new students entering an already overcrowded system must include new buildings, whether purchased, leased, or constructed. 
  • Reopening the Old Hardy School, now leased by a private school.  
         “The Old Hardy School—the only DCPS building in the boundaries of the feeder pattern not currently in use by DCPS—could be reopened and modernized.  The location is ideal as it sits adjacent to the Hardy Recreation Center, providing ample space for play and outdoor recreation.  It is also close to Stoddert and Key, two very overcrowded elementary schools.
  • “Increased capacity in the Wilson feeder pattern must be coupled with strengthening and improving schools across the city.”
  • Improved DC options outside the ward, including language immersion and magnet programs could reduce the demand.
        The size of the challenge suggests that it won’t be solved by a single solution: The DCPS report offers general solutions options, including additional capacity to be gained through leasing, purchasing, or constructing buildings; policy changes; and co-location of new school space, perhaps at a college.  The report is also clear that “investing in the long-term strategy to improve DCPS school options outside of the Wilson High School feeder patter would help alleviate the growing demand.” 
            The Ward 3/Wilson Feeder School Education Network letter makes several concrete proposals, including: 

In the words of the letter,

“Not using the Old Hardy School, when the city already owns the space, would be fiscally irresponsible in the extreme.  And it would also be an insult to the rest of the city if precious resources that otherwise would not have been needed had to be used to acquire private space and construct additional buildings when many schools in other wards desperately need to be modernized or renovated.)

Additionally, a study by the DC Auditor projects that Wilson’s enrollment will rise to over 2300 students by the mid-2020’s. That’s 700 students over the school’s capacity—a number larger than the size of most DC high schools. 

Ruth’s testimony on school budget and at-risk transparency, 6-26-19

Testimony of Ruth Wattenberg, June 26, 2016

Bills 23-0046 and 23-0239, on at-risk and school budget transparency

Thank you Councilmembers for holding this important hearing. My name is Ruth Wattenberg, I am the Ward 3 member of the DC State Board of Education.

  1. Proper use and reporting of At Risk funds

First and foremost, I want to add my voice to others who are calling on the Council to assure that at-risk funds are used to supplement, not supplant, other funding and to create reporting categories and requirements to assure that.  The reality of misuse of these funds is most recently and precisely shown in the new report from the DC Auditor. The misuse must stop and enforcement must begin.

It is also critical that the transparency we require of our DCPS schools, including the ability to FOIA, be required of our charters as well.

I also want to support the comments of Danica Petrocious in calling for immediate answers and long-term transparency about sexual assault in our schools.

The DCPS budgeting system is strewn with problems. I greatly appreciate that Chancellor Ferebee is committed to revising it, and I appreciate that the Council is looking at it as well. I will make a few additional points on budgeting–and on transparency.

First, on school discretion

Schools—meaning, principals along with their Local School Advisory Teams–need greater discretion. There was a good reason for the Comprehensive Staffing Model—it helped to assure many years ago that curricular offerings at more and less affluent schools were comparable. The goal is still right. But, the approach has proven too rigid, denying schools the ability to move dollars around in ways that make sense for student learning.

–The lack of discretion is exacerbated by what seems to be a lack of coordination of priorities at the DCPS level.  For example, a school might be told to staff a CTE program in a certain way, professional development in a certain way, sped in a certain way, and ELL in a certain way.  It all makes sense, except that when all these mandates along with scarce funds hit the school, it requires the school to shortchange—meaning, overcrowd!—its core classes.  That’s not helpful for students.

–Plus, really great ideas—both about what a given school’s kids really need and how to make the scarce dollars do double-duty–flow best from dynamic conversations at the school level.  Right now, these ideas can’t get funded. Some greater discretion must be allowed.

–This isn’t black and white.  I don’t think school discretion should be unlimited.  But, neither should Central Office decision-making.  Plus, the over-centralization of programming helps drive the unhealthy, excessive Central Office spending. I hope the Chancellor will shift this balance—and that the Council will insist on it and follow up.

Second, on Central Office spending:

That’s my next quick point: It’s now well known that our Central Office is excessively staffed relative to comparable districts. The budget reporting rules need to help us understand where these dollars are going.  A new report from the State Board of Education’s Task Force on ESSA has made recommendations about line items that should be included. We will pass on that report.

Third, Program Evaluation:  Whether it’s the LEAP professional development program, Impact, DCPS’s curriculum units, our pre-k program, how we teach early reading, or any of the dozens of initiatives that have been introduced over the years:  There is no public evaluation of these efforts.  They go on forever, absorbing millions and millions of dollars.  They are all well-intentioned–and may be effective–but we don’t know.  Moreover, programs aren’t born excellent.   They growto excellence, as they learn from their experience—and benefit from feedback, from those who use the programs and from independent research. Are their ways to strengthen these programs? The Council should insist that key programs undergo periodic public evaluation.  I hope such evaluations will be a focus of the new Research Practice Partnership.   That also is a recommendation of our ESSA Task Force.

The use of “additional targeted research,” “to ensure equitable Outcomes” conducted by the new RPP as well as by smaller networks of schools, is another recommendation of the State Board of Education’s Task Force on ESSA, which has just released its report, and which I will pass on.

Fourth, differentiated funding for–and disaggregated reporting of–different At-Risk categories.  We should consider increasedat-risk funding for those at-risk students with the most at-risk factors. What I mean: Roughly 45% of our DC public school students are at-risk—some 40,000 students. In any category this large, there’s a lot of diversity.  It includes students whose families are on SNAP, meaning an income of no more than roughly $48,000 for a family of 4.  But about half of our at-risk students are from homes where the income is significantly less; these students are homeless, in foster homes, or in families on TANF, meaning an annual income for a family of 4 of less than roughly $8,000.  The students in the latter categories are likely to need much greater support.  And, especially, if a given school has a high concentration of students in these latter categories, its need for greater resources will likely be much larger than schools whose at-risk population has fewer students in these categories.

Speaking about transparency: We should also report our test score data and school progress according to these categories. Specifically, the State Board of Education has asked OSSE to disaggregate its at-risk data in its reporting.  That is, we shouldn’t just report how the whole diverse at-risk group is faring. We should report how different subgroups are doing—or, at least—and likely more realistically– separate out a category of those who are most at risk so that we know whether certain policies are potentially working with part of the AR group but not the other.  In particular, it will help us better understand the effects of the most devastating poverty and the greatest concentrations of such poverty—and help us adapt our programming appropriately.

Thank you.