By Ruth Wattenberg
The National Research Council, at the request of the D.C. Council, and under the District auditor, recently released its five-year study on how D.C. education has fared since its governance structure changed eight years ago. The overwhelming finding of the report, on topic after topic, is how hard it is to figure out what’s going on in our schools, what’s working and what’s not.
According to the report, information about many important topics is incomplete, much of the available information is not systematically reviewed or analyzed and much of it is not made publicly available. Fundamentally, to quote the report: “There is no coordinated system of ongoing monitoring and evaluation for learning conditions that covers all public school students.” And, further, “Education budgeting, resource allocation, and financial reporting are not clear and easily traceable processes in DCPS or charter schools.”
I am a member of the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE), and I couldn’t agree more. The state board is charged with approving the District’s school accountability and reporting plans as developed by the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE — the District’s state education agency). It also advises OSSE and others on educational program and policies. Yet, often we can’t get the information we need. Pity the parents without even a bully pulpit to speak from! It’s time for the District to create a serious plan for collecting and using education data to understand and improve our schools.
Here are a few examples of research and data the city needs but doesn’t have:
• OSSE was required earlier this year to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Education about how the District would ensure that its most talented teachers are equitably distributed across the city. Given the reputedly high rates of teacher turnover at high-poverty schools and the effect such turnover might have on equity, I asked OSSE to present us with school-by-school data on teacher retention. But, alas, OSSE does not keep that data — for reasons that seem to include both its limited authority and limited capacity. Thus, the first year of the project is not aimed at fixing what is likely a serious problem but at collecting the basic data.
• One of the most frequent complaints at OSSE-sponsored community meetings last winter was excessive testing. I’ve been told that required standardized tests have been given on 10 percent or more of all school days and are driving out the non- and less-tested subjects — science, art and history-social studies. If true — and widespread complaints suggest that it is — this is a serious threat to quality education. But no publicly available data on either testing time or curriculum narrowing exist. The SBOE has called for such a study.
• And the most basic data of all — how much our kids are learning — in different schools, across years and across demographic groups. With all the testing we know very little about the progress being made by our most vulnerable students. For years, the District has reported test results simply as the percent of students at each school scoring at advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. Most of a school’s all-important Index Score (which largely determines its “reward” status) is driven by its number of proficient students. As the report says, “Proficiency rates [such as these] can mask important changes in the performance of the lowest scoring students and disparities in achievement among students groups.” Reported this way, it is not possible to see the growth within a category. The report recommends, as one way to make these changes more transparent is to report and track achievement by achievement, percentile, thus allowing us to see over time the change in score among, say, the lowest 25 percent of District students.
The SBOE has asked OSSE to make more information like this available on the state and school report cards. We also want data made available that will let us — and the researchers we hope will use the data — understand learning conditions in the schools. For example, we want a “school climate” score for each school and information on how schools are supporting struggling students.
But as the report says, it’s not just data we need; we also need serious research and evaluation of a whole range of our school programs and policies — the kind of research that tells us what’s happening in our schools in a way and at a time that allows us to so something about it. That, of course, is the real point of the data-gathering and research that we should be doing.
The best example of the kind of research operation we should be looking to mount is probably the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the long-standing research partnership that exists between the University of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools. In one landmark report, the Chicago researchers were able to tell the Chicago Public Schools whether its third-grade-guarantee law (which prohibited any student from entering the fourth grade if he or she wasn’t reading adequately) was having the desired effect — in a way that allowed the city and school staff to make useful changes. A more recent report helped Chicago high school principals realize that many of the high school seniors they thought were headed to college success never earned college degrees. The information led to changes in their high school counseling programs. We need a comparable research partnership in the District.
The findings of the D.C. auditor are correct: Those of us who are responsible for the quality of education in the District, as well as parents and researchers, don’t have the information or quality analyses that we need. In the right hands, used well, that information becomes critical ammunition for improving our educational policies and practices. It’s time to do what’s necessary to get a serious research and evaluation agenda underway.
Ruth Wattenberg is the Ward 3 member of the State Board of Education and the chair of the SBOE’s Committee on the Waiver, convened to consider the renewal of the District’s official waiver of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.