It wasn’t just Ballou High School. A WAMU and NPR investigation revealed in November that many of Ballou’s Class of 2017 graduates failed to meet attendance requirements, with half missing 60 days of school, one-fifth missing at least 90 days. Yet, says the report, teachers were pressured to give those students passing grades and let them collect their diplomas.
On January 16th, the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) released a report on attendance and graduation – and revealed that one-third of last year’s Wilson High seniors did not meet DCPS attendance standards either, and absenteeism increased system-wide.
The report prompted a statement from Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, who said, “This is proof, yet again, that the problem in DCPS is not limited to one or two high schools; rather there is systemic pressure to push students through the system. By protecting DCPS officials, we are cheating our students, and that is appalling.”
The DC State Board of Education is calling for an independent investigation. The Ward 3 representative on the board,
Ruth Wattenberg, keeps us up-to-date with periodic newsletters (subscribe here). This is adapted from her latest:
DC State Board of Education calls for independent investigation of high school graduation criteria, standards and implementation
Last week, the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) adopted a resolution calling for an independent, outside review of “the criteria and standards that underlie high school graduation and examine school-level execution of these policies” across all DC public schools. The resolution also calls on the board itself to review the city’s “80/20” attendance rules; on the City Auditor to review “the effectiveness of the current oversight structure of DCPS and charter schools”; and on the City Council to require relevant agencies to provide requested, relevant data to the SBOE (not currently required), so that the Board can exercise its authority with adequate information.
The resolution is in response to the reality, made public by WAMU, that students “were granted diplomas despite having missed weeks and sometimes months of school, that grading policies prevented teachers from issuing deserved grades; that teachers faced pressure to inflate grades and pass students despite absences and/or failure to complete assignments; that students were placed against policy into less rigorous “credit recovery” classes; and that teachers who resisted these practices faced retaliation.”
The resolution was introduced by Markus Batchelor, SBOE representative from Ward 8 and seconded by Jack Jacobson, SBOE representative from Ward 2 and vice-president of the Board. The vote was 8-1. The Board’s two student members – Tatiana Robinson from Ballou and Tallya Rhodes from Woodson – voted for it as well, noting passionately that taking an unbiased, independent look at the problem in order to solve it is not something that should be delayed yet again.
The vote followed the release of an interim report ordered by the mayor on the scandal. The report was overseen by OSSE, an agency that reports to the Mayor. The report includes very useful, but incomplete, information. As the resolution noted, an internal investigation is inadequate to the task, because “those responsible for the investigation report to the same structure they are investigating.” In my experience, internal investigations rarely get to the bottom of entrenched practices, and they lack needed credibility.
I am hopeful that by adding our voice to the calls for an independent investigation, we can speed the way towards understanding what has gone wrong and doing the hard work of fixing them. I also hope it leads us all to understand the importance of an adequate oversight/monitoring system for our children’s schools. As the resolution notes, the highly regarded National Academy of Sciences, in its report to the City Council in 2017, questioned whether the city’s “current oversight structure provides sufficient monitoring of the educational opportunities provided” to DC students. (For more from the NAS, see the final set of bullets in my December post)
As I wrote in December, “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….
“When the city switched to mayoral control of its schools a decade ago, it did not establish a viable mechanism for overseeing those schools… In effect, we’ve outsourced educational accountability to the media. That’s not how it should be.”
I also want to be clear: I continue to have great hope and regard for our still-new DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson. As my SBOE colleague Markus Batchelor and I wrote in the City Paper last summer, he didn’t create the problem. “But it is his responsibility to recognize and fix it.” I appreciate that his response to this interim report includes acknowledgement of problems and a commitment to shift course. But I believe there is more that must be acknowledged and changed.
For further background, see my Washington Post op-eds on the need for better independent research and monitoring, what DC test scores don’t tell us, and, with my Ward 6 and 8 colleagues, the need for a better accountability system.
Don’t Forget: Chancellor’s Forums on DCPS Budget
DCPS has announced a series of forums at which the DCPS chancellor and his top leadership will discuss priorities with the community. In and around Ward 3/Wilson Feeder schools, the next forums are being held on February 6th at Oyster-Adams (8:45 to 10 a.m., 2801 Calvert Street NW) and Hardy Middle School (6 to 7:30 p.m., 1819 35th Street NW). For a full list of dates/times, click here.
And, as always, if you have thoughts on the above suggestions or anything else, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.