The problem(s) with D.C. school reform bills

David Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, has introduced seven school reform bills that, according to this Post story,  could reshape the city’s public education system. Among other things, it calls for increasing funding for poor students, giving principals more power, altering the school lottery system, and ending social promotion.

Undoubtedly well-intentioned, the proposed legislation raises some important concerns. Before we get to the substance of his proposals, let’s look at the way they were drawn up.

Catania hired a team of lawyers — paid for with private donations — to help him. Instead of engaging the public before the legislation was written, he plans to hold hearings now, which is not the same thing. Being given permission to comment on a structure after the structure has been erected means that the public had no involvement in the original blueprints. The public did not help frame the questions that the new policies are intended to answer, or articulate the values — equity, quality, diversity, etc. –  that should be projected in those policies.

The people who live and work and send their children to school in the District are not customers of the public school system. They own it. But they were cut out of a crucial part of the policy-making process. This issue has special resonance in the District, where residents have always had limited rights to govern themselves. Incidentally, other cities have found ways to engage the public in revising education policy in recent years, including Boston and Seattle.

It should also be noted that the lawyer who led the research on this legislative project was Maree Sneed, a partner at the Hogan Lovells law firm. Sneed is a former Montgomery County teacher and principal, but has other affiliations, according to her biography, that suggest an ideological bias regarding school reform: She lists being on the faculty of the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy, on the Board of Advisors of the Broad Foundation and on the Board of Directors of Teach for America D.C.

Now to the specifics of the Catania legislation. Here is a commentary on his proposals, by Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education,  a national campaign to improve public schools by addressing poverty-related impediments to student educational success.

By Elaine Weiss

The proposed seven-part education reform package put forward by David Catania, D.C. City Council Education Committee chair, is a very mixed bag. Some elements are indeed innovative; others, however, are anything but. In fact, much of the plan mimics prior reforms that, as he himself describes, “aimed to spur student achievement but instead have left the city’s traditional public schools stagnating in recent years.”

A comprehensive report that our campaign, the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, released in April reveals that the reforms introduced in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) under Michelle Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, have produced no real progress.

Our report compared National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores in three cities that instated market-oriented reforms — the District of Columbia, New York City, and Chicago — with scores in high-poverty, heavily minority urban districts that did not. It found that relying heavily on student test scores put those three cities at a relative disadvantage. Test scores grew less and achievement gaps narrowed less in reform cities, while systemic disruptions increased. Moreover, stagnation and losses under Rhee reversed years of real progress under her predecessor. Thus, it is perplexing that Catania proposes more aggressive versions of key components of that “reform” agenda.

First, Catania’s proposal ratchets up the pressure on student test scores. After Rhee linked test scores to teacher and school effectiveness, achievement gaps widened, some from existing record highs, as nearly all gains accrued to white, higher-income students. Between 2005 and 2011, when black eighth graders in large, urban districts gained an average 5 points and Hispanic students gained 6 points in reading, DCPS black eighth graders lost 2 points, and their Hispanic counterparts lost 15 points. From 2007 to 2011, DCPS fourth graders lost much of what they had gained in reading prior to Rhee’s tenure, with similar trends prevailing across other subject areas and grades.

Another result was increases in already high teacher turnover rates. Under Rhee, more than half of DCPS teachers left before their fifth year, sharply increasing the number of novice teachers in the poorest schools. Charter schools, which Catania proposes more of as “innovation schools,” had even higher turnover. Research is clear that experience greatly improves teacher effectiveness—as is true in all professions. Experienced teachers particularly benefit the low-income and minority students whose schools, under high-stakes pressure, provide disincentives for such teachers to serve in them.

Increasing incentives for students to score higher on standardized tests—as Catania’s plan attempts to do—will not raise scores. It will, however, replace engaging, hands-on experiences that inculcate a love of learning with scripted lessons that lack creativity or context. Schools serving low-income students with below-average test scores—those Catania wants to help—are at greatest risk of this impoverishment of education. Raising test-score stakes also increases teacher and student stress, particularly in schools under threat of closure or other sanction; when stakes are sufficiently high, as in DCPS, widespread cheating can result.

Second, Catania would turn over more “underperforming” schools to private managers or close them altogether. The track record of this policy is abysmal in DCPS. The three schools Rhee turned over to outside managers got worse, not better. Students who left the two dozen schools she closed landed, on average, in schools with even lower mean test scores. And the closures ended up costing DCPS $40 million—even though Rhee promised they would save $23 million. There is no reason to believe that more closures would deliver better outcomes on either front.

As Emma Brown recently reported, DCPS’ track record with respect to “reconstitution,” radical school overhaul, is hardly better: “Rhee and Henderson have reconstituted more than two dozen schools in the past five years — including Cardozo, which was last remade in 2008. Of the 18 D.C. schools reconstituted between 2008 and 2010, 10 have seen their standardized test scores decline further. Two of the schools have closed. Six have improved.” If replacing staff and leadership doesn’t work, perhaps they were not the main problem.

Catania’s proposal also would invest more money in the district’s poorest students. That makes a lot of sense—school funding formulas tend to perpetuate inequity—but will only help if it is evidence-based.

Catania is honest enough to admit that “everything we’re doing here, I might have it completely wrong. But at least I’m trying.” Conducting experiments on tens of thousands of vulnerable children who have already been subjected to six years of untested, failed reforms is simply unacceptable, especially given extensive evidence of what works well.

Applying the enriching, holistic approach of DCPS’s prekindergarten program to elementary school would enhance children’s capacity to learn, rather than narrow their experiences. Multifaceted teacher recruitment, support, and retention policies, like those U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan enacted as CEO of Chicago’s public schools, help build a high-quality teacher corps, rather than driving churn among novices. Ensuring access to enriching afterschool and summer programs improves student attendance, grades, and graduation rates, and fosters the parent engagement Catania seeks. It also averts the summer learning loss that thwarts other reform efforts. Embedding health clinics in D.C. schools would reduce absenteeism and alleviate behavior problems linked to living in poor, violent communities.

We hope the D.C. Council will look closely at the evidence and deliver what DCPS students have been denied for far too long: real reform that works.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 17, 2013