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 bit.ly/SBOEStudentRep. 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 editor@washingtoncitypaper.com. 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, ruth4schools@yahoo.com.

Thanks for revised Wilson Budget; School report cards! Nov 5, 2017

November 5, Newsletter from Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 3 Member, DC State Board of Education. Click to subscribe. 

Please Circulate...



Wilson budget: Thanks to Chancellor Wilson and DCPS for restoring the staff positions cut this spring!

     Anybody who reads this newsletter knows that I have been extremely critical of DC Public Schools (DCPS) for its budgeting practices–and especially for the repeated, 3-years-in-a-row staff cuts at Wilson High School, totaling some 30 staff cuts over three years.
But now there’s good news! To their great credit, Chancellor Antwan Wilson and his staff worked with Wilson Principal Kim Martin and the Wilson LSAT (local school advisory team) to restore the positions that were lost last spring.  Many, many thanks! (For details on the staffing restoration, see the letter below to Wilson parents from the school’s PTSO presidents.)
Kudos and thanks as well to the community that cares so much about Wilson. Many, many parents, students, and community members wrote, emailed, and called the Chancellor, the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor and members of the City Council.  Wilson’s PTSO and LSAT leaders testified before the Council and wrote letters and called throughout the summer. Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh was tireless in pressing the issue.

A very welcome beginning… but, just a beginning!

      This is an important, very welcome start! That said, Wilson was understaffed when it opened in the fall–hiring to make up for the cuts is still underway–all the positions aren’t permanent, and Wilson is still down about 20 staff over three years, despite higher enrollment (1793 in spring 2015;1835 today.). But fingers crossed, I am hopeful that in this next budget cycle, Wilson’s overall staff situation will be addressed–and that the broader broken budget process, in which inaccurate budget projections lead to reduced budgets that never get remedied (for all schools, not just Wilson!), will be fixed. I’ll keep you posted.

DCPS Budget Hearing, November 14, 6-8PM, at Stuart Hobson Middle School

Speaking of the budget…. DCPS will hold its first Budget Hearing for the new fiscal year on Tuesday.  If you are interested in testifying, register online no later than 3 pm, Friday, November 10. For questions/concerns, contact the DCPS School Funding Team: (202) 442-5112 or dcps.schoolfunding@dc.gov.  I encourage you to attend!


Chancellor’s Community Forums.           

DCPS has announced a series of Forums at which the Chancellor and his top leadership will discuss priorities with the community.  For a full list of dates/times, click here.  For Ward 3/Wilson Feeder schools, the forums are:

       ***Monday, January 9, 6-7:30PM, Lafayette ES, 5701 Broad Branch Rd.
       ***Monday, February 6, 8:45AM-10 am, Oyster-Adams, 2801 Calvert St.
       ***Monday, February 6, 6-7:30PM, Hardy MS, 1819 35th St. NW

DC Council Ed Committee Roundtable on Special Education 
Monday, November 20, 2017 – 10:00AM – Room 412

The topic: The state of special education services in DC’s traditional and public charter schools and OSSE’s implementation report on the “Enhanced Special Education Services Act of 2014. To testify, sign-up online or call the Committee at (202) 724-8061 by 5:00pm Thursday, November 16. 2017.


Apply: Student/Parent Advisory Committee, Office of the Student Advocate. 

The Office of the Student Advocate, housed at the State Board of Education, is charged with supporting families in their efforts to navigate the complexities of the DC public education system, including developing resources and boosting parent engagement.  To aid its efforts, the office is launching the Parent and Student Advisory Committee. For more information on the Advisory committee, click here.  To apply, click here.


School Report Cards:
What do you want to know about your school?


         DC is developing a new “school report card,” as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This new report card will, for the first time, be common across traditional DC Public Schools (DCPS) and charter schools.  It will allow parents to compare schools “apples to apples.” As importantly, it will give parents the info they need to have useful conversations about the strengths and needs of their children’s schools.
The process:  The content of the report card will be proposed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and must get approved by the SBOE.  To aid its work, the SBOE has convened a Task Force on ESSA that will offer recommendations on the Report Card as well as other issues. To solicit public views, the SBOE and OSSE are running focus groups, SBOE members are meeting with school communities, and residents are encouraged to complete an online survey. (For participation information, go to bottom.)

What must the Report Card include?

As many of you know, starting next fall, every DC public school will be evaluated based on a new rating system that will grade each school with 1-5 stars.  The number of stars a school gets will be based mainly on whether students reach specific test score thresholds. The remainder is based mainly on attendance, re-enrollment rates, and English-learning progress among limited-English speakers. In high school, the rating will also be based on the percent of students who graduate and take advanced courses [Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB)]. In k-8 schools, a small amount will reflect how much students’ test scores increased relative to similar students.
The report card must also include such required information as per-student funding (provided by government sources); # of suspensions/expulsions; and the number of teachers who are inexperienced, on emergency credentials, uncertified in the subject they’re teaching.

What should the Report include?

What else would provide parents, educators, and policymakers the most useful, accurate view of our schools? What do you want to see on the report card?  See below to take the survey and for information on focus groups that you can attend.  Here are a few of my favorite ideas.  They mainly reflect some of the most common requests that were expressed to the State Board of Education during the city’s debate about ESSA last spring.

1.  Let’s highlight the “growth” made by a school’s students, so that a school’s progress isn’t masked by the heavily income-correlated STAR ratings. Almost every aspect of the STAR rating tells us more about the affluence of students’ families than what students have learned or school quality. In terms of test scores, consider this: Low-income students typically begin the school year multiple grades behind their more advantaged peers. Even if a school full of students with very low initial scores improve their average achievement by well over a full grade—let’s say a grade-and-a-half or even a huge two full years!—that school’s students are still unlikely to reach the test score thresholds that would earn the school a high STAR rating.  This means that the STAR rating will almost certainly award the largest number of stars to the schools with the highest-income students and the smallest number to schools with the lowest-income students.
A poor rating for these schools, even though they may be effective, could and likely will lead families to avoid them, possibly leading to enrollment and budget drop-offs, causing great harm to effective schools and the students who attend them.  But, if we highlight the growth students make, not just whether they meet a certain score threshold, we would reduce this unfortunate problem.

2. Let’s highlight the attention elementary schools give to social studies, science, and the arts.
The STAR rating holds schools accountable for an important, but very narrow, band of outcomes: mainly math and reading scores—sometimes to the disadvantage of other subjects and school goals.  I have heard many, many complaints about this, especially at the elementary level, where protected time for social studies, science, and the arts isn’t typically provided.  Research literature also speaks to the damage done by curriculum-narrowing.  The report card is our chance to encourage our schools to focus on a broad rich curriculum.  One idea: elementary schools should report how much time per week students spend on these subjects.

3. Report on the quality of a school’s culture or “feel.”  Known in education jargon as “school climate,” it refers to such intangibles as whether students in a school feel safe, challenged, and nurtured; whether staff feel that they have the tools and support to be successful in educating their students; and whether parents feel welcome and respected.  This important aspect of school quality goes largely unmeasured in the STAR rating.  So let’s highlight it on the Report Card.  Some states are using sophisticated, nationally- normed student/teacher/parent surveys to report on this aspect of school quality. OSSE is currently piloting such surveys.  Also, especially high teacher turnover is often an indicator of an unhealthy school culture; the Report Card can report on that as well. (I called exceedingly high teacher turnover the “canary in the classroom” in this City Paper article.)

4. Health information: I hear a lot of interest from parents in having access to health information: For example, does the school have a full-time nurse? How much time is devoted to recess and physical education? Are the lunches nutritious?

5. Beyond school quality and effectiveness, schools have strengths, weaknesses, and offerings that may be of great interest to parents.  Does it have a special curricular focus?  What clubs/teams are available? Does it offer an after-school program? How much emphasis is put on test preparation Do students go on field trips?

What’s your view? Please take this survey.  Plus, the State Board’s ESSA Task Force, State Board members, and OSSE are scheduling community feedback meetings around the city.
I’ll be leading a session hosted at Hardy Middle School on November 16 at 7pm.  To register, click here. In addition, I’m meeting (or met with) with PTSO’s and/or LSAT’s at Janney, Wilson, and Eaton and would be very happy to schedule meetings at other schools as well.  Let me know if you’d like to be part of such a discussion.
See here and here for a list of additional focus groups around the city.
And, as always, if you have thoughts on the above suggestions or anything else, please email me, ruth4schools@yahoo.com.

I’m off to visit the leaves in West Virginia! Happy Fall!!!!

Ruth Wattenberg,
ruth4schools@yahoo.com, @ruth4schools, ruth4schools.com