by Ruth Wattenberg
DC education news is moving as quickly as national news. Only two weeks ago our DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson resigned and Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander was named. Just a few days before that, the Deputy Mayor of Education resigned for her role in facilitating the transfer of the Chancellor’s child, which is what led to his resignation. Then, last week, The Washington Post reported that an investigation into residency fraud at Ellington was being “slow-walked” in order to protect the Mayor’s re-election chances.
For several months before all this, the city’s school system was roiled by revelations that nearly one-third of last year’s diplomas were issued to students who should not have received them, due to either excessive absences or failing grades. (And, last spring, the Post reported that the claimed decline in suspension rates was based on doctored records.)
This would be shocking in any circumstance, but in the context of DC, where previous chancellors and mayors have constantly told the public that everything was getting better – including that graduation rates were up by 11 points since 2014 – the revelations were particularly stunning.
In addition, teacher turnover has reached unacceptable levels. It’s roughly twice what it is in comparable districts and 33% in the city’s highest poverty schools! Plus, we’ve been losing about one-third of our principals each year. Last summer, I wrote in the Washington City Paper, together with Ward 8 State Board member Markus Batchelor, that DC’s incredibly high turnover rate is our “canary in the classroom,” alerting us to the unhealthy culture in many schools that has been produced by a constant blizzard of new initiatives implemented by top-down mandates, pressures to pass, graduate-unready students, and more.
Cheh: Reassess before jumping into hunt for a new chancellor
Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh struck the right note, declaring that we need to take care to assure stability through the end of the school year, but we must also begin to assess where we are – before jumping right into a hunt for a new Chancellor.
She described the current system as one that has failed in a number of ways, including graduating the unprepared, a “widening achievement gap, demoralized teachers and one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the nation, social promotions, a loss of confidence in honest and truthful reporting, top-down administration with little room for creativity and flexibility, and a fixation on numbers rather than real educational achievement.”
We need to take time to clarify what we need to do and then look for the leadership team that will move us forward. It won’t do to just find another person… who will carry on the same failed and flawed policies.
On a journey it is not always clear when or where you’ve made a wrong turn. But then the evidence piles up that you are going in the wrong direction. That’s the case with our school system now. We need a new direction and a new set of leaders to move us in that direction.
Questions that need to be asked/answered
It’s time to take stock. Here’s my list of questions that need to be addressed:
- How can we assure that diplomas are appropriately awarded? Why did so many teachers pass students despite high absences and falling grades? Was there pressure to do so?
- What’s behind teacher turnover and how can we stem it?
- How can we strengthen elementary education so that so many students don’t show up for high school so unprepared? This, to be clear, is not a unique issue to DC. But, it deserves our full attention. See here for an excellent column by Natalie Wexler on how the stakes tied to DCPS reading tests has helped drive science and social studies out of the elementary curriculum, to the detriment of kids’ ability to read well and succeed in middle and high school courses.
- What programs/initiatives introduced are working/not working?
- How can we bolster the health of the DCPS neighborhood school system? Ward 3 schools are in great demand and over-capacity. But elsewhere in the city, the health and viability of neighborhood schools are in jeopardy.
- How can we assure appropriate oversight of our school system? We need a full, honest picture of achievement and progress. DC Public Schools came under mayoral control 11 years ago, in the belief that such centralized control would bring better education. But, among the results is a widespread sense that the school system is unresponsive to public and community concerns and to the needs of specific school communities and that data on progress and achievement is often spun. The lack of checks and balances is a huge problem. We need a better system.
What questions/concerns do you have? In your mind, what is working/not working? What do you think is most important to reassess? What are your thoughts on these questions.
Please pass them on here. Let’s start a list.
Meanwhile, the school budget process begins
Chancellor Wilson inherited a very difficult situation. To his credit, he had put in place a few needed, welcome efforts that I hope will continue. Key among them: He was working to create a more transparent budget process and to get proposed school budgets out early so that Local School Advisory Teams would have time to engage their school communities. Unfortunately, the new budgets were delayed and just went out, leaving school communities less time to provide their input. Hopefully the timelines will be revised to provide that engagement time – and the efforts to improve transparency will continue apace.
So far, I don’t have details on the budgets that most schools were given. Overall, my understanding is that the budgets don’t keep up with increased costs. More on this later, as I get more information.
The City Council has scheduled its budget hearings. Unfortunately, the hearing on the DCPS budget, where DCPS stakeholders can bring their budget concerns to the Council’s Education Committee, is scheduled during spring break. Many requests to change the date did not lead to a new date. But, Education Committee Chair David Grosso has indicated that concerns about the DCPS budget can be raised at any of the Education Committee budget hearings. Here’s the calendar of these hearings:
Public Education Budget Schedule and Hearings for the FY 2018 Budget
|Education||Tues., Apr 25||10 a.m.||Room 123||Deputy Mayor for Education|
|Education||Weds., Apr 26||11 a.m.||Room 120||Office of the State Superintendent of Education|
|Education||Thurs., Apr 27||10 a.m.
|Room 500||DCPS – Public witnesses only|
|Education||Mon., May 1||11 a.m.||Room 412||DC Public Library|
|Education||Weds., May 3||10 a.m.||Room 412||DCPS/government witnesses only|
|Education||Thurs., May 4||10 a.m.||Room 412|| DC Public Charter School Board
State Board of Education
Save TAG! (Tuition Assistance Grants)
Other states have substantial public university systems where resident students can get a high-quality, affordable higher education. In DC, we have the still-small UDC and the Tuition Assistance Grants. TAG grants provide DC students with up to $10,000 a year to attend out-of-state public universities at a tuition level that approaches that of in-state tuition. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has proposed to zero it out. See this Wilson Beacon article about how it would hurt our students.
Rep. Eleanor Norton and the Mayor are working hard to preserve it. Please sign the petition to save it.
Next meeting Ward3/Wilson Feeder Education Network
March 12, 7 p.m., at Georgetown Library. Discussion with Sara Goldband, Chief Business Officer at DCPS. She will discuss the DCPS budget and possible changes to the funding formula. The next meeting of the Network will be April 9, 7 p.m., at Hearst Elementary, with Dewayne McClary, director of DCPS technology, on the future technology plans of DCPS. Other meetings will be May 14 and June 11, with locations and topics still to be determined.
State Board of Education news
State Board of Ed adopts statewide school report card
The State Board of Ed at its February meeting voted to accept the report card proposal developed by the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) with input from a State Board Task Force.
The purpose of the report card is to provide families with additional “apples-to-apples” information about the city’s schools, both to aid parents who are choosing among different schools and to provide all parents with baseline information about their children’s school to aid them in efforts to better understand and improve these schools.
The report card information supplements the 1- to 5-star rating that all schools will receive next fall. The STAR rating is based almost exclusively on test scores, attendance, whether students return to the same school the following year and for high schools, high school graduation rates.
The report card will include information on the health professionals employed by the school, the experience level of the school’s teachers, specific programs offered by the school, the availability of before- and after-care, suspension rates, and more.
No data on teacher turnover
Unfortunately, despite clear public support for doing so, OSSE chose not to include teacher turnover data on the Report Card. Given the extremely high rates of turnover in city schools, this data should be transparent; and for families that are especially eager that their school offer their children stability, providing this data would be very helpful.
SBOE calls for clear, accurate reporting of PARCC scores of “at risk” and “most disadvantaged” students
At its final 2017 meeting, the State Board of Education adopted a resolution asking the Office of the State Superintendent of Schools (OSSE) to modify how it reports PARCC scores in order to make it easier to understand how much progress low-income students are making.
Currently, OSSE uses two seemingly similar categories when it reports scores of low-income students: “economically disadvantaged” (ED) and “at risk” (AR). The ED category is based on free/reduced lunch eligibility and, due to federal rules related to eligibility for free lunches, includes a good number of non-poor students. AR students are strictly those whose family income makes them eligible for SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (temporary assistance) and/or who are themselves homeless, in foster care, or overage high school students who are far behind.
This past year, for example, OSSE reported that 19% of “economically disadvantaged” students had reached a proficient score (4 or 5) on PARCC’s math test, but only 14.2% of the city’s “at risk” students had reached this level.
To make it easier to identify schools that are doing particularly well (or poorly) with low-income students, to thus learn from them, and to prevent overstating their progress, the SBOE has asked OSSE to stop reporting scores based on the misleading free/reduced lunch eligibility- and to report the scores for low-income students only using the AR definition.
We also asked OSSE to separately report a new category called “most disadvantaged,” which would include only the scores of those students who are on TANF or are homeless or in foster care. This is critical because it may well be – indeed it is almost certainly true- that these two different groups of students are having very different experiences educationally, and that there may be schools that do particularly well for one group and not the other.
We have asked for these new scoring categories to be used in the 2018 score report and included in other citywide education reports.