As a new school year begins, I want to draw your attention to Ruth Wattenberg’s May 26th article for the Washington City Paper, “You Can’t Fix What You Can’t Face. How Our Education System Is Failing Us.”
Wattenberg, who served as Ward 3’s representative on the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) from 2015-2022, believes mayoral control has encouraged the misuse and fabrication of data used to evaluate how well a school system is – or isn’t – doing. These include suspension rates, graduation rates and teacher turnover rates.
“I’ve come to believe that incentives built into the system prevent the release of dispiriting data, silence candid feedback from principals and teachers, and suppress public discussions that generate nuanced, effective responses to complicated problems,” Wattenberg writes.
DC’s particular brand of mayoral control, “the most extreme in the country,” Wattenberg writes, gives the mayor authority over DC schools leadership, regulation, and oversight agencies. The elected SBOE, on the other hand, can make policy recommendations but has little authority.
As Wattenberg sees it, a way to a better functioning school system is to beef up the authority of the SBOE. She reasons that this would create a better set of checks on mayoral control, make it more difficult to distort or suppress less-flattering data, and push the DC Council to do better oversight. How? She offers a variety of ideas, but her best one is to give the State Board of Education authority to collect data on how well students – including those at public charter schools – are performing. The SBOE would also have the authority to issue reports and policy recommendations for the Council to enact.
The Council could certainly use more data in its budget oversight role. Public schools are DC’s second highest spending category, next to human support services at $5.1 billion. Public education accounted for 18.9% of DC’s FY 2021 operating budget – $3.2 billion out of $16.9 billion.
Wattenberg did not come up with these ideas in a vacuum. For years, she worked on education issues for organizations including the American Federation of Teachers. She was an active DC Public Schools parent and activist, a role to which I can relate as my daughters were in DC public schools (Murch, Deal and Wilson) from 1990 to 2005. I served as co-chair of the Wilson Local School Restructuring Team (similar to the School Improvement Teams today) from 2002 to 2007, and the Deal Local School Restructuring Team prior to that. DCPS parent leaders have always had to fight for accurate data collection, just so we could know where resources were needed, and what policies needed to be improved.
Wattenberg also draws from the SBOE’s March 2023 “DC Education Governance Recommendations and Considerations” report, issued three months after her second and final term ended. One recommendation would “Expand the State Board’s authority to obtain data upon request from D.C.’s education agencies (e.g., DME, OSSE, DCPS, and DC PCSB) in a timely way.”
The Office of the DC Auditor (ODCA) also believes more and better data is key, and in March 2021 recommended that the DC Council enact legislation requiring the District to collect a range of data on students and teachers, including enrollment, attendance, discipline, courses and supports. In February 2023, the ODCA noted that “an education data bill consistent with ODCA recommendations was introduced in the last Council period by Councilmember Mary Cheh, but no hearing was held, and the bill did not move forward.”
And in an email to Forest Hills Connection, DC Auditor Kathy Patterson wrote: “There has been some movement to improve education data collection, but we still have a very long way to go to be able to identify the children at risk who need greater academic support, as one example.”
Wattenberg, in her City Paper article, makes it clear that the system as it stands today is not working for our students. And an independent State Board of Education would be in the best position to take the current fractured data collection system, make it whole, and make the data count in improving real education outcomes.