A majority of D.C. Council members are calling for the creation of an independent watchdog empowered to make sure the city’s schools rely on sound data as they emerge from a torrent of scandals.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation that would establish a research arm of the government focused on education data and rebuilding trust in the District’s public schools.
“We have been getting bad information — some of it just false, some of it misleading, some of it incomplete, and we can’t get a handle on what to do if we don’t know what’s happening,” Cheh said.
A research advisory board would analyze data from the District’s traditional public and charter schools, including an audit of education data from the past 20 years.
Cheh’s proposal follows a city-commissioned report released this year that found one in three D.C. high school graduates in 2017 did not meet city requirements to earn their diplomas.
Cheh said that if the board she is proposing had existed, it would have flagged inconsistencies between poor student attendance rates and rising graduation numbers.
Nine of 13 D.C. Council members — enough votes to pass the legislation and override a potential mayoral veto — have endorsed the legislation. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, said he does not have a stance on the legislation, and will solicit feedback from his colleagues and the public.
The research board would reside within the Office of the D.C. Auditor, which operates independently from the mayor. That would be a stark difference from other education figures in the city: The chancellor of the traditional public school system and the executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board report to the mayor’s office. The city’s superintendent of schools — a position intended to help hold the traditional and charter school sectors accountable — also reports to the mayor.
“Creating an independent education research entity will distance education from politics and ensure that the council has the tools it needs to perform oversight over our schools,” Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who-co-introduced the bill, wrote in a statement.
In recent months, the District’s schools have been mired in scandal.
In addition to the graduation controversy, the chancellor was removed when he skirted the city’s competitive lottery system so his daughter could transfer to a high-performing school. And a recently released audit showed that officials failed to collect most of the tuition they were owed from families outside the city whose children attend D.C. public schools.
The review board that council members are proposing would have subpoena power, according to the legislation. Cheh said there would be a paid executive director and staff members conducting research.
The mayor would appoint four representatives to the board. The D.C. Council would appoint 10 members, and the State Board of Education would have two representatives.
Josh Boots, executive director of EmpowerK12 — a D.C. nonprofit organization that specializes in education data analytics — said the creation of a research watchdog is promising, but he thinks it needs to focus on smaller tasks. An audit of 20 years of data, he said, could be a colossal and unproductive task.
Boots said researchers could examine what interventions are most effective for low-performing students, including after-school programs and one-on-one tutoring.
“It should be more forward-thinking,” he said. “The first thing to do should be an easy lift.”
In 2013, the D.C. Auditor released a report saying the city’s education sectors need more “information and statistical analysis” before they can make claims about student progress.
Models similar to what Cheh is proposing exist elsewhere. The University of Chicago teams with that city’s public school system to conduct research and analyze data.
Cheh said she hopes the proposed D.C. research board receives funding by October.
“Whatever funding that will be needed to make this work,” Cheh said, “we will make sure it’s there.”