Mark Simon Testimony – Public Oversight Roundtable on the Future of School Reform – March 19, 2018

This hearing asks exactly the right question. Deep reflection is in order about the past and future of DC education reform. That has not occurred for 11 years. Even when the PERAA report came out in 2015 it didn’t really happen. Those who now say we’ve just had bad actors or big bumps in the road need to open their eyes a bit wider. As an Education Next article last week pointed out, the DC “high school graduation fraud is a feature, not a flaw, of a system that incentivizes doing what looks good, not what is good,” for students. From 2007 to today, the focus has been on producing metrics on a narrow set of indicators, by any means. Arbitrary goals were set. Teachers and principals were rewarded or punished. And now we can see that strategy – aim high, crack the whip, no excuses – has not improved outcomes for low income students of color in DCPS or charter schools. The achievement gap has widened. School staff have become cynical. Why? I would submit that we should have been listening to teachers, to principals, to parents and students, especially when students vote with their feet. The warning signs were there all along.

· We have seen since 2007 a system that promised and enforced unreasonable numerical score gains without coherent underlying educational strategies for getting there, just pressure to produce the results.

· IMPACT has never had the confidence of teachers, and sure enough, it looks like the pressures principals were able to exert through powerful rewards and punishments got teachers to pass and graduate students who shouldn’t have been. IMPACT, a system of ranking and rating teachers rather than a way to nurture and support good teaching, needs a thorough external review. Many feel it is the source of other problems. Who’s listening to the teachers?

· Teacher and principal turnover is a clear indicator that something is amiss in the professional culture of our schools in both DCPS and charters. In Chicago, the nation’s fastest improving school district[1], principal retention is 85%. In DC it is around 75%. Teacher turnover in our highest poverty schools is around 33% each year. It’s even higher in charters. Who’s paying attention before teachers and principals vote with their feet?

· Instability is one of the most disturbing features of high poverty students’ lives, and we have managed in the era of DC education reform to make the public education experience for students to find a decent school more unstable than ever. And the Cross-Sector Taskforce not only failed to grapple with the problem but came up with a plan for greater instability and more mid-year transfers. Why did the DME seem to listen more to the business concerns of privately run charters than the pain of families who want a system of good neighborhood schools?

· Michelle Rhee, Kaya Henderson, and Antwan Wilson never actually produced overall step-by-step education plans for how to improve the quality of teaching and learning, a strategy based on research for organizing schools for improvement[2], how to engage parents, or improve the learning culture in each school. What they produced were checklists for teachers, and brochures that announced initiatives or proclaimed numerical goals. Those are very different things.

· OSSE is in charge of data, but their school and system data is designed assiduously to be impenetrable. Data is almost never broken out by race and income. It doesn’t evaluate programs or track results except to be able to proclaim success. We need independent research, funded by the council, but not accountable to the same mayor who is motivated to be able to always declare success. Why is Mary Levy’s volunteer work still the main source of independent research that tracks what’s really going on in schools so that problems can be identified? At least put her on the payroll.The DC Council has funded ($506 Million) and relied on OSSE for information. And yet you keep getting blind-sided with data scandals uncovered by the press. Past scandals like the 2009 test cheating, uncovered by USA Today, were never investigated.

· Parents and teachers attended hearing after hearing in the fall of 2016 on new ESSA evaluation criteria, and clamored for schools to be evaluated more broadly, not just based on standardized test scores that mainly track students’ socio-economic background. But based on OSSE’s plan, next year my great neighborhood school (according to parents), Bancroft ES, will still get rated as just above failing because of low test scores. Next year, if OSSE has its way, my neighborhood will be embarrassed by a new star rating system giving Bancroft just one or two-stars. Who’s listening to parents?

· It is not time to “stay the course” as some have suggested. Quite the opposite. Its time for serious introspection and mid-course corrections. The new DME must be someone open to honest, bottom-up analysis and engagement of parents and teachers in developing operational plans for each school and systems overall, as must the new chancellor. Many good things are going on in the margins. There are some good early childhood programs. Many schools are well run. Curriculum coaches do good work with many teachers. Exciting initiatives are taking place to engage parents and teachers, but these are one-off efforts and cannot be said to be part of an overall reform strategy. They are filling huge gaps.

· Teachers in both DCPS and charter schools have recently energized a new organization called EmpowerEd to elevate the voice of teachers in each school and system-wide. This is a direct response to 11 years of attempts to “teacher proof” and marginalize the good ideas, creativity and initiative of teachers. It is a response to the failed strategy that seems to view teachers as the problem, not the solution. It is being well received among teachers in both sectors.

· Principals continue to live in fear, with one-year contracts, high turnover, and in many cases unreasonable expectations to meet, on penalty of getting fired.

· Mayoral Control creates a single hierarchy and not enough opportunities for the public to have a say. The 2015 PERAA report said that theoretically it could work, but as implemented in DC it has not produced a coherent strategy for improvement and is not working. They’re right. We either need a new elected school board for the city, or the State Board needs real authority, or the DC Council needs its own research arm and ability to hold the mayor and agencies accountable. The past 11 years have witnessed the politicizing of reform, shutting out of parents and teachers, not better accountability.

I would suggest the following broad approaches to a re-thought Education Reform era.

1. Invite a conversation in each school about how best to implement a Community School approach. To work, Community Schooling must be owned by parents, teachers and the community at large. It has four components.

· Wraparound services

· Extended day and extended year offerings

· Parent and family engagement

· Teacher empowerment to stimulate innovation, teamwork and creativity

Education results cannot improve if we don’t begin with the real and pressing needs students face that are getting in the way of focusing on learning. We need to begin with an honest conversation in each school with the people who know best – teachers, principals, parents, and the students themselves.

2. Broaden the evaluation criteria for what makes a good school. Engage parents, teachers, and principals in developing the criteria. Do not double down on the same narrow test-based criteria that OSSE has chosen. And do not implement the five-star report card envisioned for next fall. Each school might be invited to engage in a stakeholder assessment of school strengths and weaknesses and to develop a plan for school improvement to be displayed on the school website. A school isn’t a set of numbers. It’s a community of people.

3. Undertake qualitative investigation of the evaluation systems of both teachers and principals. Develop a newly designed system aimed at nurturing good teaching and empowering the profession to innovate with the particular students in each school in ways that will work.

4. Continue to invest in curriculum development and teacher and principal training. For much of the Rhee and Henderson era the standardized test, over-emphasis on reading and math, and tricks to get students to score higher was the emphasis. It is only more recently that an investment has been made in the breadth of subjects like social studies. There is much still be to be done to provide teachers with the appropriate content and support in the full breadth of subject matter that shows respect for subject matter expertise. Learning a love of reading, how to do research, how to work in groups, and learning to love the subject matter being studied should be the goal, not the content to be covered on the PARCC test.

5. Acknowledge the mistakes of the past. Most of all, I think we have a credibility gap. If the agencies in charge of public education continue to say we’re doing great but just have a few bumps in the road – stay the course – you will lose the strong base in the public who believe in public education and want to make our schools work for all our students. DC has created a powerful spin machine that has to be reoriented to look for honest analysis and solutions. As a start, authorize and fund an independent research arm that can begin to look into some of the questions above.

6. Consider reorganizing systems and budgets. Funds are being spent inefficiently with duplicative bureaucracies so that they are not getting to the students who need them. Agencies, like OSSE, have become huge with little accountability to anyone. Parents, teachers, and community allies and advocates have been marginalized. While rearranging governance may not be a solution, we should consider reinstating a real Board of Education, or a State Board with authority, to institutionalize greater responsiveness to the public. The DC Council cannot continue to be the only recourse for school based and other concerns to which the system should have been more responsive. The Council, try as you may, is not staffed to play that role. It needs access to independent research and data analysis. It is time for a mid-course correction to Mayoral Control of everything. We need a better plan for improving the quality of education in the District of Columbia. The process of hiring a new DME and chancellor will certainly provide an opportunity to begin a fresh approach leading to better reform strategies as long as the mayor can be convinced to treat it as an opportunity to turn a corner rather than continue to demand fealty to discredited strategies and reform orthodoxy.

[1] Badger and Quealy, Dec.5, 2017 New York Times, “How Effective Is Your School District?” A New Measure Shows Where Students Learn the Most. — Based on new research by Sean Reardon at Stanford University rating district efforts to narrow achievement gaps.

[2] Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu and Easton, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, Organizing Schools for Improvement

Published by Suzanne Wells

I work at EPA, and have a son and a daughter. I commute just about everywhere by bike. I like to volunteer in my community, and to knit.


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