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Topics include: special education policy, reopening policies
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Topics include: special education policy, reopening policies
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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
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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!
Ward 3 Member, DC State Board of Education
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chairman Mendelson & The DC City Council
Want to Know:
Are DCPS & Charter Schools
Doing Right by Struggling Readers?
April 2017 Update: New accountability plan is adopted by the State Board of Education
I’ve reported a number of times that the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, gave every state a chance to change how it evaluates its schools. The law replaces the old No Child Left Behind Act, which required states (including DC) to evaluate schools almost exclusively based on reading and math test scores and on the proportion of students who reached the score threshold deemed “proficient.”
After many months of discussion, testimony, and two drafts, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) brought its final accountability proposal to the State Board of Education (SBOE) for a vote at the end of March.
I voted against the proposal, along with my colleagues from wards 6 and 8, because I didn’t believe the plan moved far enough towards judging schools based on more than just reading and math scores. I also was disappointed that it didn’t move further towards crediting schools for their students’ progress, especially at the high school level, where schools will continue to get no credit for their students’ test score growth. This Washington Post article explains the issues surrounding the new proposal, and this Post op-ed explains the additional changes my colleagues and I had hoped for.
Without question though, the new policy is an improvement over the previous system. Moreover, I credit my colleagues on the State Board for encouraging OSSE to improve on its original January proposal and OSSE for incorporating some of these improvements. All involved are committed to further improving the process over time.
The State Board will be establishing a task force and a process for following up on some of the commitments made in the final proposal, including a way to measure high school “growth” and an indicator for “access and opportunities,” aimed at encouraging schools to provide students with a well-rounded education.
I look forward to working with my SBOE colleagues, OSSE, and the community to bring about the improvements we all still hope to see.
Jan. 23, 2016 Newsletter
Should DC rate its schools mainly on reading and math test scores? What the new fed’l law allows
Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network Meetings: State Superintendent Hanseul Kang and W3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh to speak at next two Ed Network meetings/ Updates on Fillmore, Old Hardy School/ New network for teachers across private/public/charter sectors
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at @ruth4schools. Visit ruth4schools.com.
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Happy Holidays and Happy Winter to all!
Over the next two months, the State Board of Education (SBOE) will be working with the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) to hammer out an agreement about a new accountability system for DC schools. The main portion of this newsletter is aimed at providing readers with some background, especially on current problems and our options under the new law.
How should we rate our schools?
School rating systems don’t teach kids or provide schools with needed resources. But they matter, a lot.
The way in which schools are rated can encourage–or impede–good school programs and practices. For many years, DC’s school rating system, with its virtually complete emphasis on reading and math test scores, has been largely dictated by the old No Child Left Behind law. Fortunately, the replacement law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives all states (including DC) the chance to revise this system.
The current system rates schools narrowly on reading/math test scores
The parents, educators and residents that I speak to around the city believe that academic achievement is the top priority and that reading and math are fundamental. But, they also believe schools must be much more: The emphasis on reading and math test scores is causing other parts of the curriculum (social studies, science, arts) to be squeezed out. Testing is taking too much time, and the hyper-focus on it is damaging school culture. School environment and culture matter too—very much. They want their schools to have lively and engaging classes, more writing, a concern with building citizenship and a taste for skeptical, critical thinking, as well as a school culture that is welcoming, nurturing, safe, orderly, and challenging.
New law gives states/DC more flexibility in judging school quality
Since No Child Left Behind went into effect in the early 2000’s, every state, including DC, was required to adopt a school evaluation system in which schools were rated and held accountable based on the proportion of students who reached the “Proficient” level on math and reading tests.
Bipartisan dissatisfaction with NCLB, including increasing dismay with over-testing, led Congress to replace NCLB with the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at the end of 2015. The law gives states more latitude to determine how they will hold their schools accountable. Here are a few examples of the new law’s flexibility:
1. The new law allows states to rate schools on more than just reading and math test scores.
In the words of John King, Obama’s Secretary of Education,
“Done well and thoughtfully, assessments provide vital information… and identify the gaps that must be addressed to ensure equity. But in some places, an exclusive emphasis on the tested subjects drove a narrowing of what was taught and learned; worse, test prep and narrowly defined “time on task” sometimes came to replace a diversity of classes.”
“The good news here is that, with the passage of Every Student Succeeds Act… the opportunity to widen how we understand educational excellence is suddenly ripe.”
2. The new law requires states to include a non-test measure of school quality, for example of “school climate”
Test scores provide extremely important information about how much students know. But, whether they’re learning–and at what rate–depends on other factors, including what’s known as school “culture” or climate. A recent research review of many school climate studies indicates that schools with a positive climate “have the potential to narrow achievement gaps among students of different SES backgrounds and between students with stronger and weaker academic abilities.”
In cities like DC, struggling with terrible achievement gaps, putting some focus on school climate makes huge sense–and the law supports that direction. Plus, a climate measurement can signal schools that while achievement is paramount, a positive school culture promotes achievement–and is well worth investing in for its own sake.
3. The new law allows emphasis on student “growth” over “proficiency.”
Yup. It’s wonky. But, as former comedian Sen. Al Franken told Ed. Sec Designate Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing, it’s super important! The upside of DeVos’s befuddlement is the outpouring from researchers and writers on the meaning and importance of emphasizing growth when ranking schools.
Urban Institute researcher Matt Chingos wrote that whether a student reaches a proficiency threshold or not reflects not just what students learn a school “but also the knowledge they brought when they enrolled,” and that growth measures are helpful in “correcting for that by examining the progress students make while enrolled at a given school.”
Writing for The Root, educator Kelly Wickham Hurst explained that when a school suddenly enrolls many new students with extremely low reading levels (in Hurst’s example, previously home-schooled students), scores fall. “Schools get punished in the proficiency model, and that’s no accident,” she says, arguing that charters/private schools are helped when proficiency-based scores depict regular schools as failures.
Interestingly, though, the most scathing indictment of overusing proficiency scores comes from Matt Baum, on the website of T74, a strong advocate of school choice:
“The school could be doing a great job helping kids improve, but if they start out at a very low level, that might not show up on proficiency measures. Put simply, proficiency rewards schools for the students they take in, but not necessarily for how they teach students once they’re there.”
“[J]udging schools based on a measure that is largely outside of their control, as proficiency would do, can lead to a host of negative consequences.”
” Most simply, the wrong schools may receive accolades or sanctions. If a school with low proficiency but high growth gets closed down for allegedly poor performance, students are unlikely to benefit.”
“Since proficiency scores are highly correlated with poverty, using them to rate schools inevitably means that low-income schools will, by and large, get the worst scores. This may make such schools less desirable places to work, since they face stigma and accountability pressure, potentially driving away good teachers from the schools that need them most.
That’s what the law allows. Now it’s up to us.
Each state (including DC) must come up with its own system of evaluating schools. Under DC law, the initial proposal for how schools should be rated is developed and issued by OSSE. That proposal then stands for approval or rejection by the State Board of Education. OSSE issued an initial draft in October, which the SBOE strongly critiqued. It presented a more detailed proposal to the SBOE in January.
In both drafts, 80% of the rating is based on reading and math test scores, proficiency gets as much weight as growth (in high school, growth doesn’t count at all), and the only measurements of school environment included are attendance and re-enrollment.
Ward meetings, public comments: Coming in February.
OSSE will produce a new draft on January 31. The public will have 33 days to comment on it. In addition, OSSE and SBOE will host community meetings in every ward to give the public an opportunity to react and make suggestions. OSSE will then prepare a final draft, which is scheduled for an up or down vote by the State Board of Education.
Please come to these meetings and make your views known to the Superintendent and the State Board of Education. The dates for these meetings are being finalized. I will send out the dates when I learn them.
Ward3-Wilson Feeder School Education Network meetings
***Tues, Jan. 31
with State Education Superintendent Hanseul Kang
Bring your questions about PARCC testing, how DC will assess schools under the new federal accountability law, DC-TAG, and other issues handled by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).
**Wed, Feb 23,
with Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh.
The focus of the meeting will be to talk about the overcrowding and lack of space in the W3/Wilson Feeder schools and possible solutions.
Old Hardy School– As many of you know, there was a City Council vote to “surplus” the old Hardy school building on Foxhall Rd. Many of us have argued that it’s premature to surplus the building before making sure that there is a viable plan to provide needed space for the area’s overcrowded schools, now and into the future.
As it turns out, the Mayor won’t sign any legislation to move it forward until there is time for public input. Meanwhile, Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh will be meeting soon with the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network to discuss the area’s school capacity needs so they can be addressed as the Old Hardy issue moves forward.
Fillmore Arts Center– Once again, it was announced that the Fillmore Arts Center would be closed down. This action would have ended forever an innovative, first-class arts education program that DCPS has invested in and built up over the years. It would also have subjected students at a number of schools, including Key and Stoddert, to a much diminished arts program, given that their schools don’t have space for a dedicated art room.
Thanks to the mayor and DCPS for keeping it open. And, please, please, figure out how it can continue to serve the nearby schools that need it AND students around the city whose arts education would be greatly enhanced through its excellent programming. We know you’re working hard on it. Let’s not face this same threat next year.
Educators: Network with colleagues from other sectors. Teacher Jared Winston from Sheridan School, fresh from an invigorating professional discussion with other independent school teachers, is interested in creating a broader network, connecting teachers across the private, DCPS, and charter sectors. For more info and contact info, link here.
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