For those wanting to write checks to DCPS, Cate Swinburn has been the woman to see.
As president and executive director of the D.C. Public Education Fund, she has spent the last couple of years raising and managing philanthropic dollars to underwrite changes in the school system. It’s meant working closely with large foundations such as Gates, Broad and Walton, as well as smaller donors. She’s been a central player in securing $80 million in contributions and commitments that have launched IMPACT, teacher performance bonuses and badly needed upgrades to data systems, among other measures. Before coming to the District, she did much the same thing for New York City’s Fund for Public Schools.
But last month, Chancellor Kaya Henderson named Swinburn the new chief of DCPS’ Office of Data and Accountability. It’s a critical post, overseeing aspects of the DC CAS, analyzing test score results and other school performance metrics, and conducting a range of research and evaluation projects.
Swinburn comes to the job with what appears to be significantly less experience in the field than her predecessor, Erin McGoldrick, a Michelle Rhee appointee dubbed “Data Lady” by some principals. Prior to coming to DCPS, McGoldrick was director of data management and analysis for the California Charter Schools Association. She also crunched data for the L.A. Unified School District and did survey research for a private firm, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates.
Swinburn’s unconventional background is not an issue for Henderson. “You look at my resume, and I shouldn’t be a superintendent,” she said.
Henderson said the data job requires a different skill set than it did when McGoldrick arrived a few years ago. She explained that McGoldrick left a clear and specific long-range plan to execute, one that involves setting up school scorecards and internal school-level data dashboards. What’s needed, Henderson said, is someone with superior management skills.
Of the more than 100 candidates interviewed for the job, Henderson said, Swinburn was clearly the best available person.
“Her people management skills are superb,” she said, adding there is a whole staff data people “Erin wasn’t a one-woman data shop.”
In an e-mail, Swinburn said the terrain will be familiar. “In my current role and my previous role, I worked very closely with the Office of Data and Accountability and have a strong grasp of the work, the strategies, the priorities, etc.”
It’s no news flash that the torrents of private money flowing into public education have raised concerns about agendas and accountability. Some of the donor agreements that Swinburn brokered contain specific performance targets DCPS must meet, including test score growth.
So, the question: Is it a healthy thing to have someone move directly from that world into management of the school system’s most critical performance benchmarks?
In her e-mail, Swinburn suggested that I was questioning her integrity, which is not the case. If there is a question, it’s one of appearances. But Henderson said it’s a question that never occurred to her.
“There’s nothing nefarious about it,” she said. “I trust her to provide us with data that’s true no matter what it says.”
It’s worth noting that McGoldrick’s track record in qualitative and quantitative analysis didn’t exempt her from controversy. E-mails show that she was slow to pursue multiple requests by then-State Superintendent of Education Deborah Gist for investigations of classrooms that showed alarming rates of questionable answer sheet erasures on the 2008 DC CAS.
Gist’s successor, Kerri Briggs, ultimately decided that further investigation wasn’t necessary. Testing irregularities in 2008-10 are now under investigation by the D.C. Inspector General.