July Update (2015)

Wilson Update…  PARCC Testing Reduced…  Curriculum Narrowing… DC Auditor on DC Schools…  SBOE wants to fix broken oversight …  DC Diploma for GED recipients?

Wilson Update…Again. DCPS fails (so far) to pass on to Wilson the funds allocated to it by the City Council.
This should not be so hard! After DCPS cut Wilson’s per student budget by the equivalent of $1.8 million, the city council adopted a budget on June 30 that allotted an additional $1.2 million to DCPS. The $1.2 million was based on Councilmember Mary Cheh’s request of $900,000 for Wilson High School, as well as another request of $300,000 for Ballou High School.
But as of two weeks ago, only about $300,000 worth of funding had been released to Wilson, and staff lay-offs were imminent. When I asked about the delay, I was told that DCPS was “clarifying” whether or not it intended to direct the full $900,000 to Wilson as intended by the Council! At the Ward 3 Education Town Hall, Councilmember Mary Cheh raised the problem, and the Deputy Mayor of Education (Jennifer Niles) promised to look into it.
Since then, Wilson has been offered the equivalent of another (roughly) $100,000. The Deputy Mayor of Education has told me that DCPS intends to direct a total of just $500,000 to Wilson and not the full amount voted by the Council. Wilson has now conducted lay-offs. (Wilson leaders have managed to spare teaching staff, but various support staff for the large school have been let go.) Wilson parent leaders (PTO President Kim Bayliss and LSAT Chair Jeffrey Kovar) are working closely with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s office to resolve this. As I say, this shouldn’t be so hard. DCPS can’t claim to not have the funds: It was given extra money by the City Council specifically for this purpose.
I keep thinking—If this is so hard for Wilson, with its very active parent community, how do other schools get treated in the budget process? There definitely needs to be more transparency, more communication, more input, and more predictability in how DCPS makes its budgets.
I hope I can report more positive news in the future.

PARCC Testing—Smoother than expected and changes for next year
First, kudos to DCPS, the city’s charter schools, and PARCC (the consortium that developed DC’s standardized reading and math test)! With very few exceptions, the testing went very smoothly, with few reports of technological failure. This was a huge first-time effort with much opportunity for problems. But, thanks to everyone, they were largely avoided. (The most serious complaint I’ve heard is that Wilson students uninvolved in testing were shut out of parts of the building during testing time, causing lots of problems.)
Second, kudos to PARCC for deciding to reduce the hours spent on testing next year. Clearly they heard the complaints and made it their business to respond quickly and substantively. PARCC will reduce its total testing time next year by 90 minutes (60 less in math and 30 less in English Language Arts)—and the tests will all be given in one “window,” not two, as was the case this past year.

… But we still have a testing problem.
Notwithstanding the deserved kudos, we still have a testing problem in DC, both in terms of time and the effect on the curriculum. Keep in mind that PARCC isn’t the source of most testing time. Much more time is likely taken up by standardized tests required by DCPS and individual charter schools. This was recently reported on in Greater Greater Washington/Eduphile
Narrowing of the Curriculum. More destructive is the extent to which class time (especially at the elementary level) has become narrowly focused on the heavily tested subjects (reading and math) and neglects less-and untested subjects. See this terrific article (How standardized tests are impeding learning in DC) from EduPhile, in which award-winning teachers worry that DC teachers have been led “to concentrate on reading and math at the expense of subjects like social studies and science.” I have now visited nearly 30 elementary classrooms across the city since being elected (DCPS and charters) and can report that with very few exceptions, the lessons I saw were almost exclusively focused on reading skills and math.
Cognitive scientists have made it abundantly clear: Reading comprehension depends on background knowledge. If we don’t teach these subjects well in elementary school, our kids won’t comprehend texts on this these subjects when they enter middle school.
DCPS named a committee to examine these issues some time ago. Neither the results nor the remedies were ever made public.

DCPS Cornerstone Curriculum Units Aim to Help.
But DCPS is taking a potentially important step. Teachers from around the city have been involved in creating lesson units across different subject areas. Teachers across the city will be required to address the material in one or more “cornerstone units” in several different subject areas in each grade. DCPS hopes this will help to bring about greater curricular equity and counter any skew towards curricular narrowing. I hope the lessons are terrific and that DCPS’s optimism proves merited. But with staff evaluations and school rewards based so heavily on reading and math scores, I’ll call myself hopeful but skeptical…

State Board of Education: Let’s look at the Evidence on Curriculum Narrowing.
I’d be more hopeful and less skeptical if I knew that the effects of the units–and the general state of curriculum-narrowing and testing–would be subject to independent examination.
The State Board of Education has called on the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to conduct a study on Testing and Curriculum Narrowing. How much narrowing is taking place? And how is it distributed across the city? As with so many other things, the students who are hurt the most by curriculum-narrowing are those from poorer families, who typically have fewer resources to expend on supplementing the school’s education.
I hope DCPS, OSSE, and our charter sector can cooperate on such a research study. That way, if there is a big problem, as my observations and the complaints of numerous teachers and parents suggest, the problem can be solved before it further jeopardizes kids’ education. That’s the point of doing the research. Nothing more, nothing less. Saying it’s not a problem, against all the circumstantial evidence that it is, doesn’t help our kids.

How goes mayoral control? New report from DC Auditor and National Research Council shows student achievement is generally up, but less so for poorest students.
Seven years ago, the City Council established mayoral control of DC Public Schools and eliminated the local school board that oversaw DCPS. Advocates argued that the dramatic change in governance was necessary to accelerate the pace of education reform, which in turn would drive up the achievement of DC students whose achievement had long been among the lowest in the country.
A 5-year evaluation of the law, commissioned by the DC Auditor and prepared by the prestigious National Research Council, has just been published. One set of conclusions is about student achievement. By various measures (the old DC-CAS tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), overall student achievement has risen between 2009 and 2014. But the gains “are much larger for economically advantaged students.” (p 6-8)
The report doesn’t note that according to the last four years of available NAEP data (from 2009-2013), on the all-important 4th-grade reading indicator, the lowest-achieving 25% of students made effectively no progress (down by one point among the lowest-achieving 10%; up one point among the lowest 25%).

DC Auditor’s Report: So much information is uncollected, unanalyzed or un-public! “No coordinated system of ongoing monitoring and evaluation.”
To me, the overwhelming finding of the report, on topic after topic, is how hard it is to figure out what’s going on in our schools, what’s working and what’s not. According to the report, information about many important topics is incomplete, much of the available information is not systematically reviewed or analyzed, and much of it is not made publicly available. Fundamentally, to quote the report:
“There is no coordinated system of ongoing monitoring and evaluation for learning conditions that covers all public school students.” And, “Education budgeting, resource allocation, and financial reporting are not clear and easily traceable processes in DCPS or charter schools.”
The report decries the lack of data, among other things, on learning conditions, school climate, facilities, academic supports for learning, outcomes for different groups of students, course-taking and completion, and “how well strategies for improving teacher quality are meeting their goals,” etc. The report notes that while charter schools generally report the least information, inadequate data, evaluation, and monitoring are a problem that greatly afflicts both DCPS and the charter sectors.
In addition to its call for a “data warehouse,” the report also calls for DC to consider “a program of ongoing evaluation that includes long-term monitoring and public reporting of key indicators, as well as a portfolio of in-depth studies of high-priority issues.” (p 7-13). I totally agree.

Fixing broken oversight system is an important goal of the State Board of Education.
In most states, the State Board of Education, working with the state’s education agency, is responsible for the oversight and monitoring of education. In DC, the state board has much less authority than similar boards have elsewhere. But we’re trying! In a March memo to OSSE (Office of the State Superintendent of Education), the Board called on OSSE to enhance what’s reported publicly about DC’s schools. Among the specifics that we called for:
**Reporting disaggregated achievement data (test scores) so that it’s possible to see how the city’s poorest and lowest-achieving students are faring.
**Studying the side effects of our state’s accountability system, especially reports of a narrowed curriculum and the loss of too much instructional time.
**Learning conditions, including school-by-school information on school climate, academic supports, teacher experience, and staff turnover.
**Budget transparency—especially about how funds targeted to at-risk students are used to support effective educational programs.

Next up on State Board Agenda: Should students who earn a high school equivalency certificate be awarded a DC high school diploma?
The State Board of Education is now considering this question. Currently, students who pass the GED exam or earn other equivalency certificates do not get a high school diploma. In our first set of hearings on this topic, (July15), we heard from leaders of the Academy of Hope and Next Step Public Charter School, two adult education charter schools that prepare students to take the GED or NEDP (National External Diploma Program) exams. These school leaders argue that the GED in particular has greatly raised its standards and that students who pass the exam possess skills and knowledge equivalent to their high school graduate peers. But, they say, these students, many of whom have overcome extraordinary obstacles to return to school, study, and pass the exam, are often discriminated against when they apply for jobs or 4-year college admission. (Community colleges typically welcome students with GED certificates.) According to these educators, fairness, as well as the ability of certificate earners to successfully move forward, requires that they should be awarded high school diplomas.
It’s a very compelling argument. On the other side, there is evidence from the National Bureau of Economic Research (though from before the GED raised its standards) that the ability to get a diploma via an equivalency certificate may encourage students to drop out, especially if schools have instituted higher standards, which DC has done in recent years. If you’re interested, you can view the Board’s hearing here. (The first portion is on proposed new health standards, followed by testimony on the new diploma.)
In the fall, the SBOE will conduct additional discussions at which we will hear from a wide variety of community voices and policy experts. If you have some knowledge or experience with this question, I’m very interested in hearing from you.

Happy Summer!!! If you want to keep up on DC/Ward 3 educational issues, follow me @ruth4schools. And, always feel free to email me at ruth4schools@yahoo.com.

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